This Monday evening will see the election of a new leader of the Labour Group to replace Sir Albert Bore. Two hustings meetings have taken place in the last week where the leadership hopefuls answered questions from the public. What did we learn from the candidates about what their election might mean for Birmingham’s public libraries?
The financial legacy of the Library of Birmingham was attacked by backbencher and outsider Cllr Barry Henley describing the new Library as a boondoggle, built as an act of political hubris on the part of both Lord Whitby and Sir Albert Bore. He gave the example of Manchester’s modernisation of the city’s existing Central Library at the cost of £20m as an alternative approach. At Tuesday’s hustings Cllr Henley gave the commitment that libraries should be considered as a priority for the Council and that we must do everything to keep them open. This commitment was however light on detail.
Cllr Penny Holbrook the Cabinet member responsible for the LoB and now Community Libraries defended her record in office. She claimed credit for stabilising the financial situation of the LoB through entering into a range of partnerships. Claiming there was no option to refinance the borrowing for the LoB. She had suspended the Library mutual plans while the Council works on its Future Council review including its financial plans for the next five years. She stated that we will need to make difficult choices about Birmingham’s libraries.
Cllr Ian Ward, the present Deputy Leader of Council said he forsaw a future for public libraries but they need to evolve to meet current needs. New ways of delivering libraries including parish council’s will need to be considered. Commenting on the LoB he said he would seek to release the potential of the LoB Development Trust and allow the Trust more of a say in the running of the LoB but with the Council providing the vision.
For Cllr John Clancy the cost of the LoB was not money well spent and the annual cost of £20m was not sustainable. He stated that as an alternative we need to consider the LoB as an asset as a way to reduce the costs. By being creative, possibly using a real estate investment trust or through issuing a LoB Bond, it would be possible to re-securitise the debt and use the saving to fund the community libraries.
There was an absolute consensus between Ward, Clancy, Holbrook and Henley that they would set a balanced budget for 2016-17 based on the financial settlement being imposed on the city by the Conservative Government.
Cllr Holbrook is clearly indicating that library closures are in the package of proposals for the 2020 Council. If Clancy is successful on Monday evening he will soon be tested on his pledge of ensuring Every Child and Every Place in Birmingham matters!