The Community Library service (CLS) in the city has been the subject of a long slow process of attrition as funding, resources and staffing have been gradually withdrawn from the libraries over the last five years. While the Council has largely avoided direct closures, particularly in the face of strong local opposition, the community library service as a whole has been ‘hollowed out’ and significantly diminished. It is against this background that the current Budget proposals for 2016+ should be measured and considered.
A. The staffing of the Community Libraries
The number of full time equivalent staff working in the Community Libraries has reduced from 231 in 2009/10 fte to 131 in 2015/16, a 43% reduction in staffing. The number of qualified librarians working in the libraries halved in the same period with a reduction from 33 to 17 fte. (1)
The recently issued Section 188 notice identifies a further 60 library posts to be at risk of redundancy. If these posts are lost in the coming year this would represent a total reduction in staffing from 2009/10 of 69%.
B. Book fund
Spending on books and resources has reduced from £787,700 in 2009/10 to £311,851 in 2013/14 a 60% reduction in funding. (2)
In association with the decline in staffing, reductions in hours and spend on resources there has been a 33% reduction in annual visits to Community Libraries in the period
Community Libraries Total Annual Visits (3):
2009/10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15
360516 313400 296650 329400 186350 252700
It is the view of FoLoB that there is a strong relationship between the decline in attendance and reduced quality of the service which is the result of the impact of the continuing cuts to spending on the CLS.
D. Capital for refurbishment of Community Libraries
While capital money has been found to invest in local flagship projects such as The Shard and Sutton Coldfield Library this is the exception to the rule. The level of investment in maintaining and refurbishing Community library buildings has not kept pace with their state of physical decline and the Council has allowed its overall estate to deteriorate. (4)
E. Relationship between the Library of Birmingham and Community Library Service
The previous move of the LoB into a separate Council department and separation of the line management arrangements of the LoB and CLS has been detrimental to the strategic management of the Community Library service.
2. Budget proposals as they affect the Community Library service
The Community Library services is included within the ‘Open for Learning’ strategy to move toward the 2020 Council. This programme it is claimed will ‘redesign and rationalise local assets to deliver service focus not asset-focused approach.’ This involves closing ‘unfit for purpose’ buildings and selling council-owned buildings. The premise is that ‘libraries, adult education and early years services in the future will need fewer separate buildings.’
The supposed synergies of ‘local partnerships promoting learning’ and the council’s ‘cultural offer’ mean co-locating learning services in ‘community hubs’. These community hubs will be increasingly focused on promoting learning and skills. Public libraries will also be working with local businesses to ensure free internet access for everyone.
The cuts and savings to be made from this rationalisation of local assets rises from £1.7m in 2016/17 to £12.2m by 2019/20.
In previous years budget proposals relating to the Community Library Service have been separately detailed and costed. For the 2016+ consultation the Library service is merged into a general approach and an overall savings target.
The view of FoLoB is that these proposals mark a move to the wholesale closure of Community Libraries in the city. Taken with the number of posts identified to be at risk from the recently issued Section 188 notice, a nearly 50% of the current library workforce, this proposal represents an unprecedented level of cut and reduction to the CLS in the city.
3. Budget consultation process
A. Budget consultation 2016+
FoLoB is deeply concerned at the presentation of the Budget proposals relating to the CLS. The public is unable to identify which Libraries will be affected by this rationalisation process, what level of service they can expect in future, and their ability to access this offer. The cuts and savings from the CLS are not identified. Without even this basic level of information how can the public meaningfully comment upon these proposals?
The Council was criticised in the Kerslake Review of the city’s Governance arrangements of adopting a salami slicing approach to annual budget setting. These ‘Open for Learning’ proposals represent a form of political salami slicing and the management of the public, where difficult and unpopular proposals are presented in opaque ways and deferred to some future point of time.
B. A recipe for fragmentation
Following from the last point it is unclear as to what the framework for any local consultation might under the ‘Open for Learning’ strategy. If consideration of the future of the libraries is scattered across ten separate district reviews, competing with larger and more effectively led services then this poses real threats to the CLS. Only after the consultation process has ended, and the outcome of the ten separate reviews has been put together, will it become clear what is left of the CLS, by which time it may well be too late to rescue it. For this reason FoLoB believes that local consultations should be preceded by a clear statement of a citywide offer to all Birmingham citizens and the resources to support that offer.
C. Previous years’ consultations
FoLoB would also note the feedback from the public to previous years’ Budget consultations. Here is the summary of what the public told the Council in 2014:
The new, broad message that emerged in this year’s budget consultation appears to be that people do see a central and important role for the Council in ‘place making’ (that is, shaping the ‘look’, environment and facilities of the city) and in building and maintaining the city’s social fabric…
Libraries are seen by many as an essential part of the community’ social fabric providing, for e.g., literacy support, digital access and advice. (5)
The Council report summarising the public responses to the Budget consultation in 2015+ states there were a large number of submissions opposing the cuts in staffing and the hours of the LoB ‘but there was also a great number expressing concerns about …community libraries.’(6)
FoLoB is deeply concerned that a Labour Council has disregarded the public support expressed for Library services in this city, year in year out. The Council consults the public and then proceeds to cut these services.
4. Our response
The lack of detail makes it difficult for FoLoB make a considered and detailed response. FoLoB have identified significant risks involved in the ‘Open for Learning’ proposals as they currently stand:
- These proposals will degrade the identity and purpose of public libraries, as well as diminish their size and scope to a point which will be beyond repair.
- The Open learning proposals suggest the ‘need to think differently about our workforce’. This will involve the further downgrading of a professionally led and provided library service as workers multi-task in these reduced community hubs with an increased use of self-service technology.
- CLS is likely to become a scattered and disparate service, subordinate to the changing demands of business at the expense of other sections of the community.
- Several bookshelves and a self-service machine in a community location do not constitute a library.
- The suggestion of moving toward a service rather than asset focus is a false dichotomy. Community Libraries are established and important places within local communities. This sense of place and community are integral local libraries and the services they provide. We have been told by Cllr Clancy that every place matters!
Alternatively we propose:
- Birmingham City Council needs to state what its ‘cultural offer’ to the people of Birmingham and how the CLS is to contribute to this offer. This should be the starting point and basis for public consultation.
- Birmingham City Council needs to demonstrate how it intends to ensure a strategically led and integral city-wide library service available to all citizens.
- Apart from the ‘rationalisation of local assets’ there is no strategic vision as to what role the CLS is to play in the life of Birmingham’s citizens. The aim of rationalising, cutting and closing, local assets clearly leads the ‘Open for Learning’ approach.
- We demand that the Council states its future strategy for the CLS in the 2020 Council.
- The Council should be open with the public of Birmingham and state which community libraries are under consideration for closure. If Section 188 notice has been issued and identifies 60 posts to be at risk then the Council must state how it intends to wield the axe!
FoLoB believes that there is widespread and continuing public support for the CLS among the people of Birmingham. The Council through its previous annual Budget consultations has evidence of the level of that support and of the popularity of Public libraries. There is no need to ‘re-imagine’ our library service. The challenge to the Council is how it intends to protect and promote the CLS as a citywide service and ensure it is fully funded.
(1) FOI 12180 dated 12 February 2015 https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/community_library_service_cls#incoming-617596
(3) CIPFA visit figures to the Community Libraries 2008/09 to 2014/15
(4) FOI 9367 15 November 2013
FOI 9200 8 October 2013
(5) BCC Final report on Budget consultation 2014+ 29th January 2014 CSK Strategies Ltd
(6) pp. 54-58 BCC Final report on Budget consultation 2015+ CSK Strategies Ltd
Download document as pdf : Response of FoLoB 07012016