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The Tories' zombie libraries

The move to close 25 libraries and remove support for others will come back to haunt the Essex Tories, writes LUCY WOOD

ESSEX County Council continues to ignore the voices of residents and experts as they persist in pushing forward with their Future Libraries Services Strategy. Despite an energetic campaign putting pressure on the council and a meeting on August 8 raising 16 points which call in their strategy for scrutiny, these points raised concerns about the future of library buildings, minimum acceptable opening hours and safeguarding issues.

Essex council ran a consultation between November 29 and February 21, which cost approximately £400,000, almost a quarter of what they hoped to save by closing 25 libraries, offering 19 to community groups to run and a further 15 to be run via partnership schemes. However, the council massively underestimated the response.

Not only did 22,000 people respond to the consultation, 1,000 letters and emails were received, 57 petitions were completed with approximately 60,000 signatures in total. High-profile authors joined the campaign including Michael Rosen, David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson.

Protests took place across the county, book raids, children hugging their libraries, even the smallest town in Britain, Manningtree, was overrun with over 500 boots on the ground as adults and children marched through the tiny town making lots of noise to save their local library. The first ever protest march took place in an 800-year-old village — Galleywood’s library was fought for by more than 500 supporters.

The cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, Susan Barker, sneered at the above campaigns and chose to ignore the advice of an internationally renowned survey methodologist, Dr Tarek Al Baghal, who examined the council’s consultation and found it to be flawed. He advised that the report contained “leading” and “complex questions” which “could lead to possible confusion.” Even reminders to the Council of its Statutory duty to provide a library service as per the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is falling on deaf ears.

The current Future Libraries strategy was approved at a cabinet meeting on the July 23. A hundred residents marched on the meeting to protest against the revised strategy on an early Tuesday morning aware that the new strategy has the potential to be more damaging than the original. Whilst only weeks before it seemed that the campaign had saved 25 libraries from closure, the new plan could see many more of the 74 libraries in Essex become voluntary, run by community groups. Campaigners fear this would see libraries become victims to stealth closures.

The declaration that no libraries in Essex would be closed appears to be an attempt to diffuse the very passionate and vibrant campaign that has been taking place across the whole county.
Library campaigners have been left confused as to what a community-run library will look like when the council only offers £18,000 to groups over three years and one example of running costs for an Essex library over three years equated to £75,000. Campaigners also wonder who would come forward to take over a library, knowing that all the staff will be sacked, book stocks decimated and buildings possibly lost.

Library campaigners feel that this enforced volunteerism is a “closure plan by stealth” and are asking that any community groups that have initiated an Expression of Interest withdraw it. If no community groups come forward the promise is that libraries will remain in the same buildings with the same staff and stock for the next five years.

When asked about successful community-run libraries, Cllr Barker referred often to Ramsey and Springfield libraries.

Ramsey is a small village in North Essex, they have never had an council-supported village library but have a strong community. They started a small library from their village hall — it consists of one trolley of council books and several boxes filled with donated books. They have no computer facilities and they open once a week for two hours between 10-12. They have one volunteer.

Springfield Library has been plagued with closure because of a lack of volunteers. For the year 2017-18 the library closed for 97 days, proving that volunteer-run libraries are not a sustainable option.

The reason cited for the Future Libraries Strategy is due to a reduction in usage but only book borrowing was analysed to come up with this decline in usage. Interestingly usage dropped as book stocks fell dramatically, advertising budgets were cut and opening hours reduced.

Library usage isn’t necessarily all about borrowing books, the computer and internet availability is important to many of those that do not have this access at home.

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) study released in March 2019 regarding digital exclusion in the UK found that 5.3 million — 10 per cent of the total population — of adults were non-internet users, 58 per cent of those non-internet users are women.

Seven hundred thousand 11-18-year-olds, 12 per cent of the total population in this age group, do not have access to the internet. Adding to this information, children under nine represent 24 per cent of all library users and under 18s represent 50 per cent. These figures expose how damaging the cuts to libraries will be to the most vulnerable and children in particular.

Jene Quinn, a member of the National Education Union, spoke as a witness at the meeting on August 3 and attempted to appeal to the cabinet members saying: “Margaret Thatcher was tasked with taking school milk away from the children. Afterwards apparently, she said that had she got her time again she wouldn’t have done it. She said, ‘some battles are just not worth fighting.’ Some of you here haven’t got large majorities and I’m going to suggest to you that some battles are not worth fighting.”

Ultimately the scrutiny committee did not deter the council in its strategy as Cllr Barker’s officers Suzanna Shaw and Juliet Pirez rebutted all 16-points of the call-in. Suzanna Shaw said in one breath that “the strategy was not about selling the buildings” and with another she said, “The condition of the building will inform the price it is offered at.” As it stands the council is still going ahead with “closure by stealth” tactics.

The words of Jene Quinn should haunt the Conservative cabinet members pushing forward with this strategy to turn Essex libraries into zombie libraries. When a community library only opens for two hours a week it may be living but it may as well be dead. The people of Essex will remember this cultural vandalism and they will protest with their votes when the time comes.

Essex County Council cabinet members underestimate the disapproval of their strategy. They are outnumbered and outmatched by the tens of thousands of residents who are not willing to give up the fight for their libraries.

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