Birmingham City Council has produced a series of service reviews covering all aspects of the operation of the council. The Inclusive Communities Green Paper was published in October covers the Library service, here is a summary and our formal response is below:
Our principles for the library service – keep it public and universal
Birmingham’s library campaign rejects the principles and priorities proposed for cutting public libraries set out in the Inclusive Communities Green Paper. They are of no merit and should be rejected by the Labour Group.
We believe that the original principles upon which public libraries have been provided in this city should be retained; we understand these to be:
Public libraries are a universal service
Public libraries must remain a universal public service provided to all of the residents of Birmingham. Public libraries have developed as an institution available to the whole population, similar to the NHS and BBC.
Birmingham is the home of the public library and the opening of public libraries in the city in the 19th century was an embodiment of the Council’s commitment to the ‘civic gospel’. This vision of services for the benefit and enlightenment of all citizen’s should be retained, not dispensed with.
There should be a political and civic commitment to universal provision, otherwise libraries will come to be seen as a residual service to minority groups in the population.
‘Targeted’ interventions are best located within a universal range of services. This prevents the stigmatisation of particular groups.
Keeping the Public in Public Library
Birmingham’s public libraries are unique public spaces open to all communities for individual or collective learning and cultural enrichment.
Birmingham’s public libraries must continue to promote public value for all its residents.
We understand the promotion of public value as being “to achieve such public goods as creating trust, mutual respect among citizens, enhancing the public realm and providing context for sociability and the enjoyment of shared experience”. (Holden, quoted in The Guardian 25th August 2013)
Public libraries are not black boxes receiving inputs and producing outputs as envisaged in the Green Paper. Public libraries are democratic and civic institutions and must remain so.
Accountability of public libraries as publicly run institutions
Council services are democratically accountable to the people they serve and have historically set standards for, and monitored, service content, delivery, and staff conditions, training and development – precisely because they are publicly owned, and run for the public they serve, and not owned and run by some unaccountable body.
As publicly run bodies the Council’s library service must operate within the framework of Equality legislation and must actively promote social inclusion and access to all groups in the community.
Council run libraries already work closely and involve local communities in the development of services.
We have seen that where public services are handed over to faith groups an element of exclusivity is introduced and this is not compatible with serving multi-faith and multi-cultural populations.
Public libraries – a professionally led service
The knowledge and skills of qualified librarians are critical to ensuring the quality of library services and the experience of library users, and effective public engagement.
The library campaign believes that Birmingham’s library services should be sufficiently resourced and professionally staffed.
Professional librarians should be properly represented in the management structures of local services.
Volunteers have a role to play, but they should not be used as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library service.
The Green Paper: a flawed model that promotes social inequality
The Green Paper proposals do not provide a viable alternative basis for providing library services in the city. Our key objection is that they will promote inequality and social exclusion contrary to the title of the Green Paper.
Social inclusion and the problems of volunteer led provision
Volunteer run libraries will tend to entrench social inequality and lead to different levels of access to library provision in different communities – a two tier library service. Levels of volunteering varies according to the income, wealth and available free time of individuals within communities.
Many individuals and families in Birmingham have been hit hard by the effects of austerity and this has adversely affected their capability to participate in the life of their community.
Research carried out by the New Economics Foundation found ‘as people have become less economically secure, they have tended to turn inwards, focusing on just getting by from day to day, with no time or energy to connect with others or take local action.’ (NEF Surviving austerity – Local voices and local action in England’s poorest neighbourhoods)
The cross party Commission on the Big Society found that “the government has failed to recognise the correlation between volunteering rates and deprivation, which means wealthy areas are better placed to flourish under the ‘big society’ because they already have higher levels of social engagement. This divide between rich and poor areas could be exacerbated by local authority spending cuts”. (The Guardian 16th May 2011)
The same point applies locally in regard to these Green Paper proposals. Rather than promoting social inclusion, relying on volunteer provided services will reinforce social inequality in access and participation across the city.
The sustainability of volunteer led provision
Transferring libraries out of the local authority by Community Asset Transfer will fragment provision across the city and lose the many strategic and economic benefits of a citywide library service. There are practical issues of how databases are shared across Council and community provision.
The track record of volunteer run libraries in other parts of the country points to the development of a two tier library service leading to increasingly patchy provision.
Over time there will be a growing disparity of library provision between Council run libraries and those handed over to community organisations.
This is not compatible with the legal requirement for the local authority to provide a comprehensive service.
Each new community library provider will incur significant overhead and infrastructural costs in employing workers, deploying volunteers and running a service.
Maintaining an effective pool of volunteers to run a service in the long term is costly and requires an ongoing investment in co-ordination, training and support. There is significant attrition due to the fall out rates of volunteers.
The Green Paper does not address the major data protection issues if the Council database is to be shared with outsourced library providers staffed by volunteers.
A false economy
Libraries produce more value to the local community than is taken up by their cost. All recent studies have shown a payment return ratio of between 1.4 to 4 times. If libraries are closed this added value will be lost to the economy and local communities.
Proposed decision making process
The library service is a city wide service and should be treated as such. By devolving decisions on future provision, the District Committees must realise that the city has a statutory obligation to provide a comprehensive and extensive service for all those who want to use it and should make decisions on that basis.
This is the FOLOB response to the specific service review questions the council has asked for by the 15th November 2013.
Service Reviews – Developing Successful and Inclusive Communities
1. What is your name? Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham
2. What is your email address firstname.lastname@example.org
What is your organisation? A campaign group to promote public libraries in Birmingham
Where services are currently universally delivered across the city irrespective of the circumstances of individuals, should the council target services to the most vulnerable people in Birmingham?
Libraries have developed as a universal service open to all individuals in all communities across the city. Universal provision provides the most effective means to help library users with a variety of needs.
5. Where elements of services are not statutorily required should the council stop delivering these services?
The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act states that it is the duty of the local authority to provide a library service, not the community which has already paid for it.The Library service is a statutory service.
There is no clear statement as to what Birmingham City Council’s statutory responsibilities are in the provision of a library service in the city. It is important that people understand the legal basis and framework for the provision of library services and other services as the basis of any informed consultation.
In regard to non-statutory functions, many local services have been developed as a result of recognising and responding to local community needs. These local services should continue to adapt to remain appropriate to the recognised needs whether statutory or not.
6. Where a service or element of a service is being replicated in parts of the city and/or delivered by others, should the council stop delivering it?
7. Where a service has robust evidence to support early intervention and prevention, should the council direct more of its resources to stop costly interventions later?
This is a false dichotomy and should not be applied as a justification to cut universal services such as the public library. The people of Birmingham need both child protection social workers and we need thriving community libraries.
Instead we would refer you to this quote from the author, Neil Gaiman “The consequences of shutting down health services is messy—people die and there is blood. The closure of libraries is insidious. We are inflicting it on our children . . . It’s like stopping vaccinations.”
8. Where a local asset is being under used or is costly in terms of maintenance/renovation costs, should the council close the building and move the service to a different one so it is more cost effective? This could include co-located services where a number of services are delivered from the same building or Community Asset Transfer where it is appropriate.
The Review of the Future Operating model which showed that cuts to Community Library services had led to an 8% reduction in visits. Cutting the books fund and depleting the books and resources in our libraries will make them a less attractive place to visit.
To be clear the Council is creating a downward vicious cycle upon which it is making a decision to make further cuts.
Counter to this is the footfall at the new Library of Birmingham where there has been significant investment and new resources.
Costs of maintenance and renovation:
The total repair bill for the City’s community libraries is £4m. The City Council is spending £10m per anum for 2014-15 on capital charges towards the cost of the new Library of Birmingham and will do so for the period of the loan. In this context no Community Library should close due to the lack of funds for repair.
The development of a super library in the city centre must not simultaneously see the financial strangulation of a whole service and the closure of community libraries serving local people and communities.
The new Library of Birmingham should not be seen as a replacement for the closure of Community Libraries. Many people are unable to travel into the city centre and have established relationships with their local librarians and other users in their local library.
The importance of community buildings as the nexus of local communities is recognised within the City Council’s cultural strategy. The City arguably needs more rather than less buildings accessible to the community given the size of the city. Ease of access is the vital component for successful community use and engagement with the service.
Services sharing buildings can lead to the compromising of service standards of all of the intended co-located services. In particular this refers to clash of ethos and to the matter of ensuring confidentiality.
A library is a community space, a place of safety for exploring information, reading, studying, using a computer, giving every resident equal access to information, learning and knowledge. This ethos has to be maintained so that the level of service is maintained.
Library users do not expect to be able to overhear the matters of other co-located services (as in the case of some co-located neighbourhood offices); and members of the public visiting for other services should expect privacy and not to have to engage with the library.
9. Would you support a service in changing the way it works with citizens so it was co-produced, or expected you to self-serve?
Co-production: requires partners, including citizens and professionals, to co-operate as equals and engage in co-production to produce assets and services of added value. In the context of libraries this requires there being adequate paid staff, including qualified librarians, who are able to share general skills and knowledge but also have specialized skills and knowledge to contribute to the process alongside the efforts of members of the public. This is not compatible with volunteer led provision.
Self service: The services under review here are professionally based services that require vast underpinning knowledge to carry out well. Sufficient staff with this knowledge and understanding should guide and help service users at a service point. The savings from such technology may be exaggerated, as may its detrimental impact on those sectors of the community most dependent on human interaction for whatever reason.
10. Would you support a service in changing the way it works so that volunteers were enabled to provide services?
If a volunteer has the knowledge, skills and competences to do the public service job thoroughly (which is how the job should be done), they are unpaid workers and this is unacceptable. The job is needed and the person doing the job should be paid, have a contract of employment with the council, with employment rights honoured, and be accountable to the council as one of its employees.
Volunteers cannot be expected to work to the same high standards as paid staff. In addition, there are severe doubts about the long-term resilience of such services after the first wave of volunteers.
11. During tough economic times, are these the correct priorities for the Birmingham library services? Do you agree that the options set out for all areas of the service will result in a more targeted, integrated and sustainable service?
Libraries are meant to provide a comprehensive service for all.
All libraries contribute to developing literacy and knowledge
Literacy develops from love of learning, development of imagination, of creativity, asking questions, testing hypotheses – not the other way round.
How do you propose to measure literacy and knowledge outcomes?
Not clear what is meant here by ‘integration’ of services. If this means co-location or ‘co-production’ – see 8 and 9 above
The housebound library service represents a service to – using your term – the most vulnerable. The notion of this group having to pay for the service is unfair; so too is for this service to be delivered by third sector agencies. Housebound people, the most vulnerable, are equally entitled to a service delivered by qualified staff, with professional standards and accountability for what is a statutory public service.
12. Do you agree with the proposals for specific services? Comments are welcome on any of the proposals: a)Birmingham Library Services b)Community Support & Advice Services c)Community Development Services d) Housing Services e)Health and Wellbeing f)Parks and Nature If not, how would you change the service to continue to deliver the council’s Vision whilst reducing the costs?