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Not balancing the books

Public libraries are facing massive cutbacks by councils looking to make ‘easy’ savings – with Birmingham and Nottingham in the front line. But these are community services that should not be for sale, argues JOHN PATEMAN

PUBLIC libraries have existed in Britain since the mid-19th century and have survived many existential threats, including Thatcherism. Today their future has never been so uncertain. Since the financial crisis in 2008 hundreds of libraries have closed and thousands of library workers have been made redundant. 

Public libraries are low-hanging fruit for cash-strapped local councils. In recent weeks there have been announcements of large-scale library closures by a number of councils, most notably Birmingham City Council and Nottingham City Council, which face huge budget deficits. 

Birmingham

The city’s network of 36 community libraries is at risk after Birmingham City Council unveiled proposals to cut the library budget as part of an overall £200 million budget reduction this year and £100m next year to balance the council books.

The council plans to turn 11 of these libraries into joint “library and neighbourhood advice service hubs.” That leaves libraries in 25 neighbourhoods at risk. It is likely that those libraries will only be retained if local groups and volunteers step in and the service can be moved into other neighbourhood venues. 

Even if this happens it does not solve the problem — it just means that paid, skilled workers, with expertise, knowledge and experience will be replaced by unpaid volunteers. Both the quality and the quantity of the library service will be reduced.  

Some 47 jobs out of the existing 221 among librarians and support staff are set to go. Just one council-run combined library and neighbourhood advice service is likely to operate in each of the city’s 10 parliamentary constituencies, along with the flagship Library of Birmingham. They will be rebranded as “Community Living Rooms.”

Birmingham is being forced to make huge cuts after the government intervened to oversee affairs because of a financial crisis that was of the Tories’ own making. Local council budgets have been reduced by up to a third over the last 14 years.

Nottingham

Government commissioners have also been put in charge of Nottingham City Council which faces an overall budget gap of more than £170m in the coming years. Plans have been drawn up to generate savings worth £1.5m from a review of library services. The council’s leader says people are “not living in the real world” if they think enough savings will be made without closing libraries.

Nottingham City Council operates a network of 15 library sites, including the recently opened Central Library. The concern is that the city will focus most of its resources on the central library and close many of the neighbourhood libraries.

Nottingham City councillors were very reluctant to pass a budget that would lead to mass library closures. They sought legal advice as to the positions of themselves, and that of the council, if they decided not to set a balanced budget.

The councillor in charge of libraries, Pavlos Kotsonis, directly addressed the government: “How will you provide our young people with a future worthy of their full potential? Will you provide for that by robbing them of their services, by threatening to take away their community facilities, their libraries?”

National campaign

The Library Campaign is a national organisation that can help local groups to organise campaigns against library closures. Any campaign about public libraries has to start with the local council, which is legally responsible for their quality under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act — even if it has outsourced delivery to an outside body such as a trust or charity. 

The Library Campaign has a handy checklist to make sure that campaigners have everything covered: 

• You need to know how the local council works, and how libraries fit in to the structure of the council — for example, which councillor is the portfolio holder for libraries.

• If a council plan comes up that threatens libraries, you need to get going as soon as possible by starting a local campaign.

• Getting your message out is the most important thing you can do. There are so many ways to communicate these days, including letters to the local newspapers and social media.

• Press coverage is vital and it’s useful to know how journalists think. The Library Campaign can help you with media tips, press releases and getting published. 

• What are the facts behind the council’s assertions? What are the flaws? You will have questions, and you have the right to get answers under the Freedom of Information Act. 

• If you are getting nowhere, there are other ways to take matters further, including street protests, mass lobbies of council meetings and “read-ins” at threatened libraries.

Local campaigns

The Save Birmingham Campaign says that the closure of 25 libraries would mean only one library for every 100,000 people in the city. Many residents have signed petitions and applied for official protection for their libraries through the “asset of community value” process on Change.org.

The Save Birmingham campaign is urgently appealing to council leaders and officers to explore alternatives to shutting down or selling off community libraries. Their proposal involves residents taking over the management and ownership of these libraries.

The Save Nottingham Libraries campaign was launched when proposals were first made at the start of 2022 to close three libraries in Nottingham in the socially deprived areas of Radford-Lenton, Basford and Aspley. The campaign was a success when the city council eventually announced that these libraries would remain open, but with reduced opening hours. 

Nottingham library campaigners went back into “defensive mode” when the latest council budget plans were unveiled in December 2023. 

Radford-Lenton, Basford and Aspley libraries are once more in the firing line for closure and as many as one third of library staff could be facing an uncertain future. 

The campaign to save Nottingham’s libraries is part of a bigger community-based movement, which includes the trades council and individual unions, to resist the total package of budget cuts that is being imposed on the city council by outside commissioners.   

Class and culture

The Communist Party of Britain recently produced a pamphlet on Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy that was designed to help party members and allies in the labour movement to develop practical campaigns on cultural issues alongside existing work on political and economic issues. 

The Save Our Library campaigns in Birmingham, Nottingham and other parts of Britain are a perfect opportunity for putting the Class and Culture ideas into action. CPB branches can join these campaigns and work alongside local communities as they fight to defend their libraries. 

Britain’s Road to Socialism points out: “The ruling capitalist class wages its political struggle on three main, distinct but interconnected fronts: the economic, the political and the ideological and cultural. This requires corresponding responses from the labour and progressive movements.” The cultural struggle includes the fight to save public libraries. 

As Pavlos Kotsonis told the government: “Those are not your libraries, they’re not your community facilities. Those are assets belonging to the people of Nottingham, they are buildings and services that carry the weight of their history. The great women and men of Nottingham that built them, the generations of people that used them and those who use them still.”

The Library Campaign can be contacted at librarycampaign.com.

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