Proposed Library Cuts – Open Letter to Wolverhampton Council Chief Executive

Dear Mr Warren,

On Jan 8th Cabinet will meet to agree the latest budget proposals. These proposals will see Wolverhampton’s library service decimated. We are sending this letter to you in order to put on record for a second time our grave concerns in this matter. It is unsurprising, given the lack of scrutiny within Wolverhampton Council’s decision-making process, that there has been a failure to apply rigorous scrutiny to the potential impact of the proposed cuts on library services.

The proposed cuts constitute closure by stealth of one of our city’s most precious assets. We are especially concerned about the removal of services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio; we refer you to the many roles carried out by our city’s librarians of which the following is not an exhaustive list:

  • Support with CV writing
  • Support with job searching
  • Support with form filling
  • Support regarding benefits
  • Support or assistance with IT and associated training
  • School holiday and Saturday activities
  • Outreach with schools
  • Outreach with community groups

Education

This is an area of gravest concern. Mr Warren, you recently made a personal pledge to turn around our city’s appalling primary schools results. What you fail to appreciate time and again, is the contribution made to education by our city’s libraries and librarians. Our previous report to Council cited numerous examples of libraries and access to books making a positive difference to children’s achievement.

Those of us who work with children know the difference books make to children’s lives. During the 2012 campaign to save our city’s library services, Wolverhampton Council repeatedly refused to meet with us to discuss our concerns; at the time our group contained many education professionals including:

  • Two retired primary school head teachers
  • Two chairs of governors
  • Learning mentor
  • Retired librarians
  • Retired secondary school English teacher
  • Retired primary school teacher
  • Current secondary school teacher
  • Private Tutor
  • Retired further education lecturer

It is no co-incidence that our campaign group attracted so many education professionals. Those of us who work with our city’s children know the educational value of access to libraries and librarians. Despite what library management will tell you, the proposed cuts mean that it cannot be possible to continue the summer reading challenge at its current level (the order for the 2014 summer reading challenge materials bears this out as it is significantly depleted). These and so many other services carried out by our librarians will be significantly reduced or stop altogether.

If you wish to make good your pledge to improve standards of education for Wolverhampton’s children, then you need to acknowledge that education does not just happen in schools during school hours. Libraries and librarians are a distinct and trusted brand; they play a vital role in educating our city’s children – Wolverhampton Council has a clear role to play here. The proposed cuts to librarians and library opening times will remove learning opportunities, resources and aspiration. Children from lowest income families will be worst affected.

Education Library Service

School library provision varies in quality. Wolverhampton’s Education Library Service currently provides an excellent service which provides children in some of this country’s most disadvantaged areas with a wide range of up to date resources and books. The plans to make the ELS self-financing will mean increased costs to schools. There is a very real risk that some schools will withdraw from the service forcing it to collapse. Public libraries are then of special importance in supporting the development of children’s literacy and information skills , yet you propose to close them and cut librarians and book stock. The inter-school book quiz engages hundreds of children with an intensive reading programme – this ‘extra’ will stop under your plans.

Statutory duty to provide a full and comprehensive library service

Wolverhampton Council’s latest proposals take cuts to a new level and the council has rightly identified the legal risk it faces. We remind you of the Charteris Report and its statement that to provide library services on the basis of a cuts agenda is unacceptable. This government initiated inquiry (2009) found that Wirral Council, in proposing to cut its library service, took insufficient account of local needs including that of schools, the disabled, the unemployed and those who were unable to travel. Wirral Council was found to be in breach of its statutory duties under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

Safeguarding

Wolverhampton’s scrutiny process has failed to flag up our group’s very real concerns regarding safeguarding. It is to be assumed that Wolverhampton Council will thoroughly vet, interview, take up references and CRB check all volunteers in libraries – we would like you to confirm this. Children and vulnerable adults are regular visitors to libraries and will come into contact with volunteers. What policies are in place with regard to this matter? Our city’s librarians currently carry out activities with all ages of young people from babies to teenagers. Unless volunteers are recruited to replace librarians, these activities will either be significantly reduced or stop. How will vulnerable people be protected whilst visiting libraries?  Children’s names and addresses can be accessed via the library computer system. Is it proposed that volunteers will have access to this system or not? If not, volunteers will be unable to issue and return books. Can you imagine any other organisation in Wolverhampton (for example, a school) allowing such dangerous practice?  These concerns regarding safeguarding need to be addressed before plans to cut librarians go ahead. If you do not respond in any other way to this letter, we urge you to investigate the safeguarding issue as a matter of urgency.

Opening Hours and Access

The Council has a legal obligation under the 1964 Libraries and museums Act to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’. This implies that the Council should not only provide sufficient libraries for Wolverhampton but provide them open and properly staffed. A library is more than a building with books in it.

The proposed cuts to library opening hours will make access for many people very difficult, if not impossible in some cases. This kind of service cannot be described as ‘efficient’ because it is not sufficient.

Job seeking

Wolverhampton contains a significant number of people who can afford neither a computer nor to pay for broadband to access the internet. Your proposals will increase our city’s digital divide. The council scrutiny process wonders vaguely whether an hour of free internet use will be enough to fill in the form for universal credit. What about job seeking? Jobseeking nowadays requires hours of searching for vacancies plus online applications. One free hour is insufficient. Actually, with libraries proposed to be open only a few hours each day, there will be much competition for computers. People will be lucky to get any time at all, let alone an hour. For many, there will be serious consequences.

IT support

Our city’s librarians offer support across the community with regard to access to the internet. Countless people (we believe the figure runs into hundreds if not thousands) have been introduced to IT via their local library and librarian. Retaining experienced librarians to provide this excellent service will be particularly beneficial to the least well off in our city and will support the council’s agenda of reablement and independent living amongst our city’s older population.

Stress and Health and Safety

The removal of staff has already seen Wolverhampton’s library staff and service put under pressure.

Lone working is a concern. The council’s claim that ‘community hubs’ will mean there will be no lone working does not take into account the physical layout of some of the buildings involved. There is a very real potential that staff will be working alone in an isolated part of the building on a dark night in a building freely open to the public.

Use of volunteers and loss of professional expertise

You propose to use volunteers in libraries and are indeed already doing so to help people ‘overcome’ their desire not to use a self-service machine. Volunteering is an excellent form of service to our city that many take up with admirable results. However, you are devaluing our librarians if you believe you will be able to use volunteers to replace their professionalism, commitment and expertise. Perhaps, Mr Warren, you will be sharing the pain of the cuts by recruiting yourself a volunteer PA. Maybe planning applications will in future be overseen by volunteers or perhaps our bins will be emptied by volunteers? If not, why devalue our city’s librarians by expecting them to be replaced by volunteers? Professional expertise will be lost. Volunteers from the job centre will not have a librarian’s extensive knowledge of books and local library preferences.

It is desperately sad that when, in 2012,  you had the opportunity to meet with a group of fully committed, experienced and passionate residents you repeatedly refused a meeting in the most counterproductive way. Reassurances given in respect of some branch libraries have proved worthless. You now wish to recruit volunteers to work in our city’s libraries. In 2012, there was much talk of ‘visions’ emanating from Wolverhampton Council. As a campaign group, we too have ‘vision’. Our vision is of a constituted group which can attract significant external funding for library services. Such a group could potentially mitigate some of the damage brought about by your proposals to cut library services. It is nothing short of tragic that in 2012 you refused repeatedly to meet with us. Without the support of Wolverhampton Council we cannot move forwards and are disempowered by your actions. That you can show such repeated and determined contempt for residents of Wolverhampton is despicable. It may be that the damage done to community empowerment and engagement regarding this issue by Wolverhampton Council is now irreversible; however, it may still be possible to salvage some of the goodwill that library users feel towards the service. The massive outpouring of support in 2012 for Wolverhampton’s library service is unprecedented in our city’s long history. The campaign to protect our city’s libraries was motivated not by political ends but by collective passion for a vital service.

We urge you to take positive action to work with service users with regard to creating a trail blazing ‘Friends of the Library’ and not a token group of volunteers.

Management

Our concerns regarding management of the city’s library service have been removed from the public domain. Previous posts under this heading were not intended to carry any slur on any individual but were an expression of concern over the functioning of the library service as a whole.

Despite all the rhetoric of ‘visions’ Wolverhampton still has no library manifesto or clear plan for service delivery – this is not acceptable.

Corporate Plan

Wolverhampton Council’s rhetoric continues to be ambitious nowhere less so than in the city’s corporate plan, the slogan of which is Serving Wolverhampton, Securing Prosperity, Delivering Value.

Your proposals to cut our city’s library services will disempower communities, drive down educational attainment, increase the gap between the ‘haves and have nots’ and increase social exclusion and isolation in some of our city’s most vulnerable residents. Your plans are indefensible and are based on a purely cuts agenda. The bold ambition of the corporate plan will not be fulfilled by the devastation your plans will bring about within Wolverhampton’s library service. Any claim that the residents of this city agreed to the proposed cuts via the budget consultation is preposterous and cannot be substantiated. You are neither serving Wolverhampton, securing prosperity nor delivering value.

To conclude

Wolverhampton’s librarians and library service has been singled out for disproportionate cuts that will have collateral damage across many sectors of our communities. The poorest and most vulnerable residents will be worst affected. The people of Wolverhampton and the remaining library staff will not be deceived into thinking that this will be the end of the cuts.

Mr Warren, you may think that this letter is harsh and critical. Unfortunately, we have learned that to approach Wolverhampton Council in a reasonable manner will not yield results. We have learned that an unprecedented campaign to protect one of our city’s most treasured assets will be ignored with those leading the campaign being subject to ridicule and vilification by senior council officers and councillors. You have failed to take up the opportunity to engage with us as residents of this city. You are the chief executive of Wolverhampton Council – the buck stops with you. Even at this late stage, you have the opportunity to rein back the worst of your proposed cuts to the city’s librarians and library service.  We urge you to address our concerns and respond in a positive manner.

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2 Responses to Proposed Library Cuts – Open Letter to Wolverhampton Council Chief Executive

  1. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  2. Pingback: Libraries News Round-up: 6th January 2014 | The Library Campaign

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