As Birmingham City Council develops its plans for the ‘Future Council of 2020′, what might this mean for Birmingham’s Public Libraries?
Birmingham City Council is rapidly developing proposals on what services it will provide in five years time, who will provide those services and which services it will ‘decommission’. An additional £250m must be cut from the Council’s budget over the next five years, on top of the £567m cut in the Council’s spending under the last Coalition Government.
The ‘Future Council’ exercise is a response to a criticism by the Kerslake Review: that reductions in services were being made on a year by year basis, so-called salami slicing, and lacked strategic vision. This long term financial plan is explicitly intended to set the course for shrinking public services in the city over the next five years.
While members of the Labour Group fight over the mantle of leader from Sir Albert Bore, they will inherit, if they choose, an agenda of inflicting yet deeper cuts from the Tory Government. The Leadership of the Council is reporting to the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, set up upon recommendation of Kerslake, which in turn reports directly to the Secretary of State on Birmingham’s ‘path to improvement’.
This week’s Cabinet meeting is to discuss its vision for this future diminished council. As with all vision statements they are aspirational, fuzzy and lack detail.
Here is our interpretation of their vision for the 2020 Council and what it may mean for public libraries in the city:
“Where appropriate we will still directly deliver quality services, but commissioning services from others will be an increasingly important part of our ability to help people meet their needs.”
The Council sees itself as moving to become a commissioning authority (commissioning from the private sector?) rather than the direct provider of services. If it remains the provider of a smaller range of targeted services this brings into question who will provide our Strategic and Community Library services in future?
The Council is an efficient provider of public libraries and it ensures a consistent city-wide service. We have already seen in Birmingham that community asset transfers can threaten the long term security of public services when handed over to local organisations as well as bringing about the wider fragmentation of services.
“We will prioritise direct spend and delivery in areas of need, low skill levels and high deprivation.”
This suggests that services will focus on geographical areas of higher deprivation. But many people experiencing deprivation live in affluent areas. Public libraries remain a universal service used by people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Universal services are both the basis of shared citizenship and the most effective way of providing for the most deprived in the community.
“The focus will be on services not buildings. There is no assumption that activities will be based in current buildings. The location and ownership of buildings will be bespoke to each neighbourhood. We will rationalise office space further and co-locate with others, with all strategic functions being delivered in just one or two locations.”
The rationalisation of buildings represents a direct threat to the current network of Community Libraries and potentially brings with it the threat of major library closures to the city. While spending hundreds of millions of the Library of Birmingham there has been a longstanding failure of the Council to invest in the up-keep of the Community Libraries making them vulnerable to closure.
Further this co-location of services into community hubs is used to dilute staffing and reduces the quality of services. Even though the Vision statement identifies the future role of strong neighbourhoods, these proposals will weaken community infrastructure at a neighbourhood level.
“The cuts will necessitate a significantly reduced workforce. This workforce will need to be agile and use technology to enable and facilitate mobile working.”
Rationalising and reducing the number of Community Libraries would allow a further reduction of the number of Library staff. Ninety library workers were lost to the Community Libraries in the five years up to 2013-14 . Self-service technology cannot replace the knowledge and interaction with professional library staff.
The Council will publish its draft budget for 2016-17 in early December for a period of consultation through to January. We need to challenge the Council leadership on the detail of what this forthcoming budget and the 2020 Future Council proposals mean for our the future of our Public Libraries. Now more than ever, austerity and yet further cuts must be rejected in their entirety!