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Archive for December, 2011

SLAM has initiated legal action against Surrey County Council over its plans for the mobile and static library service.

Public Interest Lawyers, who represented Gloucestershire and Somerset library campaigners in their successful legal challenge, sent a pre action protocol letter yesterday, on our behalf, to SCC’s CEO David McNulty for the purposes of a judicial review.

The letter  asks that the Council reverses its decisions made over the course of 2011 in relation to the library service. SCC has until the 10th January 2012 to provide a full substantive response.

In short, we are challenging SCC’s decision-making process and their lack of scrutiny, both of which we believe to be inadequate and unlawful.

We have taken this action with great reluctance, having exhausted all other means of trying to hold SCC to account  over their library  plans.

We have also become exasperated at SCC’s avoidance of any discussion or consultation with Surrey residents on the library plans, and also the Council’s increasing hostility towards legitimate protest (blocking SLAM’s emails, and witholding information in relation to Freedom of Information requests, to name just two examples).

We believe we have been given no other choice than to hold SCC to account by pursuing legal action.

Funding of the case

We have already incurred costs in initiating this action and continue to do so. We have set up a “fighting fund” to help pay for the case and ask anybody that can help to make a donation to the account below:

Lloyds TSB
Account Title: SLAM
Account Number 48371668
Sort Code: 30-99-80.

If you are kind enough to do so, please also email to let us know at slamtreasurer12@gmail.com  so that we can return any money in excess of what is needed.

Happy New Year!

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Those attending today’s Cabinet meeting at County Hall would be forgiven for thinking that all is tickety-boo with the library plans. But as sycophantic Cabinet members fawned over each other in a nauseating display of self-ingratiation, local libraries were being badly let down.

For what this back-slapping hides is a major slippage in the library plans. According to the Council’s schedule, all of the volunteering groups should have signed contracts and be well on the way to setting up their “Community Partnered Libraries” by now. Today’s Cabinet meeting was due to discuss progress and to make a decision on closing libraries whose volunteers had not made sufficient progress.

As of today, however, not one group of volunteers has signed the contract. The Council has now given many of them until June 2012 to do so – a six month slippage in a project that is only three months old!

The project over-run will incur more costs, of course, adding to the hundreds of thousands of pounds already wasted on the folly, and now easily out-stripping the money that was supposed to be saved by creating the volunteer-run libraries.

The local groups, who have only agreed to volunteer in a last-ditch attempt to save their local libraries, deserve better. It’s time for the Council to cut its losses on the Community Partnership experiment and keep the libraries and library staff exactly where they are.

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According to Surrey County Council’s library plans, today’s Cabinet meeting (2pm, County Hall, Kingston) will decide on the closure of libraries where sufficient progress has not been made towards “Community Partnered Library” status. We have been campaigning very hard in the build up to the 20th December meeting, trying to influence the decision, and have received a hostile reaction from the Council, most notably during the JUNK-gate scandal of last week (see previous blogs).

Progress has been slow in getting volunteers to agree to the terms Council is imposing on them. The Council’s deadline for the 10 affected libraries to sign contracts (which make the volunteers set up businesses, passing all of the risks of running the libraries on to the volunteers while the Council gets to make all the decisions) was the 15th December. That deadline passed and, as of today, not one of the volunteer groups has signed the contract.

According to the plan, therefore, the Cabinet will discuss the closure of all ten libraries this afternoon. We believe that closing these libraries would be unconscionable and most probably illegal. Representatives of SLAM and the affected libraries will attend the meeting, trying our best to convince Cabinet not to act rashly, as it has too often in recent months.

David Hodge’s fledgling leadership has been characterised by its chaotic style so there is hope for a third embarrassing u-turn in as many weeks: the Council could back down on its closure threat and give the volunteering groups more breathing space. But this will only serve to pile more pressure on the volunteer groups, who are trying their best to save local libraries with a Council-held gun to their heads.

This is another option, of course. David Hodge could  swallow his pride and abandon the library plans all together and put all libraries on a firm footing, saving Surrey Council-tax payers hundreds of thousands of pounds and putting this whole sorry affair behind him. We urge Mr Hodge to listen to Surrey residents and library users and take this option.

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We are very pleased to announce that Surrey County Council has been forced to remove its block on emails from SLAM’s Chair, Mike Alsop.

Under considerable pressure from opposition Councillors, SLAM, Surrey County Council Trades Unions, the local press, Surrey residents and other groups the Council had to admit that it had broken its own constitution in gagging the legitimate protests of library users.

The following email was written to all Councillors this morning from a Senior Council Official (name withheld to avoid implications):

Dear Members

I am sure that you will remember that earlier in the week that we took the decision to place emails from Mr Alsop in our email filter to allow members and officers to choose to release and read them. The policy employed was an established one which we employ from time to time to better channel the correspondence from residents who use what is often  described as a “broadcast” approach to a specific issue.

It has been brought to my attention that in this case the policy used does not comply with paragraph 42 of the Officer member protocol which states

42        Information and correspondence will be sent to Members by post either directly or through the pigeon holes at Members’ Reception, by email or by fax as appropriate and its delivery will not be delayed or interfered with by officers or Members.

With this in mind I have removed the filter applied to Mr Alsop’s emails and will be writing to him this morning to apologise for my actions. Could I also apologise for my error in applying the policy in a way that turned out to be inappropriate in this case.

We will continue to offer the facility of making available one of our Customer Relations Managers to Mr Alsop should he wish to have a single point of contact for more complex enquiries

Once again, please accept my apologies and I wish you a good weekend

Sincerely

We are very pleased that this latest attempt to avoid listening to the concerns of Surrey Residents over the controversial and money-wasting effort to diminish the library service has failed. In truth,  this bungle is just the latest example of bad government from David Hodge’s Conservative administration.

We are very grateful for the support we have received on this issue from the many groups and residents that have stood up for us, and for democracy.

Buoyed, we will now re-double our efforts to  protect Surrey libraries from being forced down the volunteer-run route.

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We have become used to Surrey County Council ignoring the legitimate concerns of library users across Surrey over their controversial library plans but yesterday’s move to enforce a Council wide block on emails from SLAM’s chair and Surrey resident, Mike Alsop, amounts to an entirely unacceptable abuse of power.

Mike has been sending a series of one or two line emails to every Councillor every two or three days over the past two weeks in the run up to today’s full Council meeting, each highlighting a problem with the Council’s volunteer-run library scheme – they are characterized by their courtesy and brevity.

Yesterday, Mike received a formal letter from Simon Pollock, Head of Customer Service, insisting that Mike’s emails had “become unreasonable and unacceptable to a number of your targeted recipients.”

Surrey County Councillors also received an email from “Central Services” telling them that all emails from Mike Alsop would automatically be sent to JUNK MAIL before being seen by any Councillor, including his own Councillor.

We have received support from a number of opposition Councillors on this issue and some have lodged a protest against the illegitimate censorship of a Surrey resident.

By contrast, when confronted today at County Hall during the lunchtime break of the full Council meeting, SCC leader, David Hodge, told Mike that it was “nothing personal” but refused to apologise and would not commit to requesting that the block be overturned, effectively removing the right for Mike to contact even his own Councillor.

The act of deliberately gagging an elected representative of a legitimate and Council-recognised group of library users  is draconian and undemocratic, and one more example of bad government that is becoming the hallmark of David Hodge’s administration.

We have written to SCC CEO, David McNulty, requesting the names of Councillors that authorised this action so that we can properly seek redress. We are also seeking advice on the legitimacy and legality of what SCC has done and will be taking appropriate action.

More to follow…

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Dates for the diary

Just a quick blog to let you know about important dates coming up.

Friday 9th December – SLAM meeting at St Mary’s Centre, Byfleet, 8pm start.A good and interesting agenda, and a couple of very important decisions to be made!

Tuesday 13th December – Full Council meeting of Surrey County Council starting at 10.30am at County Hall. There is no agenda item specifically about libraries but you never really know what’s going to crop up. Perhaps a another surprise announcement!

Tuesday 20th December – Cabinet meeting of Surrey County Council at County Hall, Kingston. The agenda for this meeting is not available yet but starting time for these meetings is usually 2pm. The cabinet is due to discuss libraries and, according to library plans, this is the meeting which will discuss the closure of libraries that have not made sufficient progress in implementing the volunteering model for whatever reason. Members of the public are allowed to submit questions to this meeting so if you want to ask a question then you can do so on the Council website, here.

http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/sccwebsite/sccwspages.nsf/LookupWebPagesByTITLE_RTF/Have+your+say+-+Asking+questions+at+Cabinet+and+Committee+meetings?opendocument

Please bear in  mind that questions must be submitted 7 days or more prior to the meeting so 13th December will be the deadline for Cabinet.

 

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This week’s statement on Surrey libraries by Council Leader, David Hodge, seems to be a welcome u-turn, but on examination is little more than window dressing of the current policy.

Hodge announced that, due to the Council having “listened and learned”, he was prepared to cancel the second tranche of libraries that would be closed if the volunteering model could not be made to work and, also, that support staff would be made available to the first tranche of 10 libraries for 20% of opening hours.

My initial reaction was that this was a great success for the campaign and I was genuinely thrilled for those communities whose libraries were in the second tranche. But then I took a second look at the announcement and understood that nothing has actually changed.

On cancelling the second tranche of volunteer-run libraries

Hodge was very careful to state, in his announcement, that the national economic outlook was grim and that if the Council received another difficult settlement then a review of libraries’ operating model would have to be brought back on to the agenda. Well, we know that it is highly likely that Council’s income will be frozen for a second year running, which represents another difficult settlement. We know that, you know that, David Hodge knows that.

The original library plan says that progress of the first tranche of volunteer libraries would be reviewed in April 2013, and then the second tranche would be subject to the same volunteer-run model. In his announcement, Hodge has given himself the perfect excuse (when the foreseeable Council Tax freeze is announced) to carry out the original plan to press on with the second tranche.

On 20% of opening hours being supported by paid staff for the first tranche of volunteer-run libraries

This is straightforward. Hodge has offered absolutely nothing new here. Nothing new whatsoever.

The library plan issued at the Communities Select Committee of 18th October 2011 revealed that a new central library support team costing £100,000 would be put in place – its job to support volunteer-run libraries and to  travel between the first-tranche of libraries offering a mixture of on-site and off-site support.

We are told that the “extra” paid staff mentioned in Hodge’s announcement will not be working as library staff and David Hodge admitted in an interview with BBC Surrey on 30th November 2011 that the paid staff will cost nothing extra.

It is very clear, therefore, that David Hodges announcement is simply a restatement of what is already in the plan. Hodge has misled Surrey residents in claiming that he has offered something new because he has “listened and learned”; he has done nothing of the sort.

What we want, and what Surrey residents want, is a firm commitment to the future of professionally run libraries for the long term, not desperate attempts to spin an unworkable and unwanted policy.

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