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NEWS RELEASE – for immediate release

The reason given by many Councils for the closure of public libraries is declining visitor numbers and book issues statistics demonstrating that the libraries are not cost-effective and should be closed. What they often fail to take into account, or mention, is that the decline is a direct result of their budget cuts that have starved the libraries of up to date stock, ensured that lack of investment has meant that library buildings have become jaded and unappealing places to be and in some cases led to reduced opening hours.

Closing libraries is politically difficult so some Councils appear to be taking a new approach. They encourage or force communities to take over the library entirely or at least to provide volunteers to replace paid staff and then starve them of essential support. The lack of support will seriously jeopardise the effective running of the library with the inevitable result that some will fail. At this point Councils can claim that the failure is the fault of the community and walk away with their political integrity intact. Surrey County Council appears to be a Council that is taking this approach either by design or accident.

In July 2012 Surrey County Council (SCC) decided to replace paid librarians in 10 Libraries with volunteer staff. This caused a public outcry but despite protests and the fact that SCC admit the move will not save money, they still decided to press ahead with this deeply unpopular initiative.

The Surrey communities are being forced to provide volunteers or their library will be closed. The communities are trying to provide volunteers and work with SCC to provide a Library service but moves by SCC are jeopardising their efforts.

Key to running a Library and providing a comprehensive and efficient service to the public is access to the Library Computer Management System. SCC are denying access to their computer system (GALAXY) to all 10 of the volunteer-run libraries. Instead they are installing Auto Checkout Machines that only have limited functionality and are unpopular with a large number of library users. This means the Community Partnered Libraries are forced to provide a standard of service that is lower than expected by the public with the inevitable result that the public will go elsewhere as is evidenced by falling visitor numbers and the falling number of books issued. Despite repeated requests and there being no imperative to withdraw the system from these libraries, SCC has not given a good reason why they are denying access.

Another area in which SCC is deliberately denying CPLs the support they need is by refusing to pass on an offer of help from an experienced manager of a successful volunteer-run library. Jim Brooks, leader of the award-winning Little Chalfont Community Library in Buckinghamshire – often offered as an example of excellence in volunteer-run libraries – generously offered to help and advise the Surrey CPLs set up their community supported libraries. This offer was dismissed by Helyn Clack, SCC Cabinet Member for Community Services, and the offer was not passed on. Helyn Clack’s response to Mr Brooks offer was:

The Surrey model for community partnered libraries is very different but thank you for getting in touch.

Jim Brooks, leader of Little Chalfont Community Library, has been working with communities all over the country to help them set up their own community run or supported libraries. He has worked with one of the affected communities in Surrey and is appalled at the treatment they have received. Jim says

There is are large number of Councils in the UK and they all seem to be taking different approaches to library cutbacks and moving the library service into the voluntary sector. For example in Buckinghamshire the Council is taking a very supportive approach including providing full-blown access to their Library Management Computer System. We have used the computer system for over 5 years without any major issues arising. If access can be provided in Bucks why is not possible to provide access in Surrey. If Surrey are serious about making their Community Partnered Libraries a success then they need to take a positive and helpful stance rather than denying an essential resource.

Notes for Editors

1. Contacts

SLAM spokesman: Lee Godfrey 07916 297871 or leejgodfrey@gmail.com

Little Chalfont Community Library spokesman: Jim Brooks 01494 762328 or email jim.brooks@ntlworld.com

2. Text of the email exchange between Mr Brooks, Cllr Hodge and Cllr Clack follows:

From: Helyn Clack 

Sent: Friday, October 12, 2012 2:30 PM

To: jim.brooks@ntlworld.com 

Subject: Fw: Community Libraries

Dear Mr Brooks,

The Surrey model for community partnered libraries is very different but thank you for getting in touch.

Best Wishes

Mrs Helyn Clack

County Councillor for Dorking Rural

Cabinet Member for Community Services and 2012 Games

Surrey County Council

Email: Helyn.clack@surreycc.gov.uk

Tel: 0208 541 7595

—————————————

From: David Hodge/Councillor Con/SCC 

08/10/2012 10:11

To Helyn Clack/Councillor Con/SCC@SCC, Peter Milton/COM/SCC@SCC  

Subject Re: Community LibrariesLink

Please see email  below.

David Hodge

Leader of the Council

——————————————-

“Jim Brooks”  

08/10/2012 08:58

Subject Community Libraries

Dear Councillor Hodge

Many Councils are searching for ways to reduce expenditure on public libraries. Often this involves establishing Community Libraries run entirely or partially by local people.

I am the Chairman of the charity that runs the award winning Little Chalfont Community Library. The Library is entirely managed and run by unpaid volunteers and offers the full range of services available from a Council-run Library. A case study giving more information is attached.

In the last year or so we have been contacted by over 70 communities from all over the country for help and advice on how to set up a Community Library and we have gladly provided the support needed. We suspect that there are many other communities that would benefit from our help and advice and we are willing to provide it free of charge. Our motive is that we do not want to see unnecessary library closures simply because local people do not have the knowledge to set up a Community Library.

If we can help communities in your Council area please do not hesitate to put them in contact with me. I would also be grateful if you would share our offer of help with your colleagues and other relevant persons.

Jim Brooks MBE

Chairman

Friends of Little Chalfont Library

A Registered Charity

Home Tel. 01494 762328

Email: jim.brooks@ntlworld.com

Website: http://www.buckscommunitylibraries.org/little-chalfont/home

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Little-Chalfont-Community-Library/159422364115103

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The call-in of the cabinet’s decision to proceed with volunteer-run libraries is tomorrow (16th August 2012) between 10am and 1pm in the Aschcombe Room, County Hall in the London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. All are welcome to attend.

The special meeting of the Communities Select Committee will decide whether to refer the library decision back to the cabinet for reconsideration.

Witnesses have been called to address the Communities Select Committee and answer questions as follows:

  • Helyn Clack – cabinet member for community services
  • David Hodge – Leader, Surrey County Council
  • Sue O’Connell – Chair of Bramley Parish Council
  • Jenny Meineck – Ewell Court Library
  • Lee Godfrey – SLAM

Another prospective CPL announces its dissension

The Friends of Stoneleigh library, the group expected to take over Stoneleigh library should the CPL policy be approved, are the latest group to have sent an open letter to SCC CEO David McNulty announcing their disquiet about the CPL policy and ask for sensible amendments to the flawed CPL policy.

Their complaint highlights that their volunteers came forward because they were led to believe running their own library was the only way to save enough money to keep it open. Now SCC has admitted the policy will save no money they are demanding their paid staff and library management system back.

The letter was sent on 11th July and, as yet, they have had no reply. The Friends of Stoneleigh library are not the first group to have been ignored by SCC and I suspect they won’t be the last.

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We sent this brief open letter to Helyn Clack, SCC cabinet member for community services, earlier this week. In the letter we ask for confirmation that the 10 libraries earmarked for CPL status are now no longer under threat of closure.

It is minuted in many SCC meetings over the past 16 months that the aim of the CPL policy is to save £195,000, and that if volunteers do not come forward to run the libraries then SCC will consider those libraries for closure. Now that it has been established by SCC that removing paid staff and replacing them with volunteers will save no money – indeed, that cost saving is no longer the justification – it is reasonable to assume that the libraries are financially sustainable as they are and are, therefore, not under threat of closure.

We have received many emails, letters and calls from volunteers asking to seek such a clarification because, they say, the threat of closure was the sole reason they came forward to volunteer. They say that they would much rather the professional staff ran the library and that they only agreed to volunteer as a last resort. We think it is only fair to the volunteers that SCC clarifies its position.

Helyn Clack has not yet responded to our letter but she did manage to give an interview to Get Surrey website (http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/s/2115284_libraries_campaigners_criticised_by_councillor).

 

In the interview, Helyn Clack denies any knowledge of the letter but we have established that she has, in fact, received it. She also criticises SLAM for providing “opposition for opposition’s sake.” We (all of us Surrey residents) have campaigned for well  over a year now, have raised very many legitimate concerns and issues alongside many other Surrey residents and in any number of mediums, have organised protests and demonstrations, petitions that attracted thousands of signatures opposing the CPL policy. My goodness, we even went to the very great trouble of taking SCC to the High Court, and we won. All of this, according to Mrs Clack, is “opposition for opposition’s sake.”

It is tempting to feel insulted by Mrs Clack’s dismissal of the campaign and her disdain for Surrey residents. But truth be known, we feel sorry for her. Mrs Clack is obviously feeling the strain and is lashing out. She is being put in front of the media by her leader, David Hodge, and being made to justify a policy that is now unjustifiable. She is trying her best for him but with each interview her answers get weaker and weaker, her justifications making less and less sense.

But we have a limited amount of sympathy for Mrs Clack, and much more sympathy for the now long-suffering and stressed staff that have had the damoclean sword of dismissal hung over their heads for nearly 18 months without any good reason.

SCC’s library staff, Surrey residents and the volunteers that came forward in good faith to “save their libraries” deserve an explanation and some assurances.

We call on Surrey County Council to confirm that the ten libraries potentially affected by the CPL policy are no longer under threat of closure.

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For 16 months Surrey County Council has justified its removal of paid staff from ten libraries across Surrey on the basis of cost savings. The Council has argued that the reason it needed volunteers to manage and deliver library services in the ten communities was that it was the only way to reduce costs and for them to stay open. We have argued all along that the cost savings argument doesn’t stack up. We have argued, most recently in yesterday’s open letter, that maintaining professional staff in the libraries is the cheaper and simpler option.

Today, Surrey County Council admitted that we have been right all along: that there is no cost justification in its Community Partnered Library (CPL) policy. In a statement to the SCC cabinet meeting today Helyn Clack, cabinet member for community services, said:

There are no expected financial savings in 2012 – 2013 in the Library Service as a result of Community Partnered Libraries proposals and there are no expected annual savings as a result of the Community Partnered Libraries proposals.

This is an astonishing admission as it removes the central plank around which the library policy was built. There is nowhere left for this policy to go. A policy without justification is no policy at all.

What about the workers?

The past 16 months has been a very stressful period for the staff in the affected libraries. Some have already been moved on, others live in daily fear for their job. We have found, nonetheless, that they have maintained the highest of professional standards throughout. They are a credit to their profession.

SCC has insulted its employees and their profession by claiming that any willing volunteer can provide a better service than trained, highly knowledgable and experienced  staff. And now, without the justification that savings need to be made, SCC’s attempt to dismiss its “much-loved” professional staff is unfair and unjust.

And what about the volunteers?

SCC made it very clear indeed that if volunteers did not come forward to run their libraries, the council would likely close them. SCC convinced volunteers that them running the library was the only way to save enough money so that the library could stay open. Time and time again, David Hodge, Helyn Clack and other Conservative councillors said to the media, to council meetings and to anyone that would listen, that their intention was to keep all 52 libraries open, and that the volunteer library policy was the only way to do it.

The council has hoodwinked volunteers that have come forward in good faith to save their local library. But they have been fed a despicable lie by SCC. Their libraries were never under threat. There was never any cost savings basis for making volunteers run their own library. SCC has caused considerable stress for very many Surrey residents on all sides of the argument, and it has spent an inordinate amount of money on a policy with no justification.

SCC should now apologise to Surrey residents for its illegality, its irrationality, and for wasting taxpayers money. But above all, it should now swallow its pride and find the decency to abandon its unjustifiable library plans.

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They say that if you tell yourself something enough, you will eventually believe it to be true. This is the hole that Surrey County Council has dug itself into.

SCC has convinced itself, by mantra, that it lost the judicial review on a technicality. This, despite the judge not saying anywhere in his 10,000 word judgment that his was a technical ruling. This group-think denial by SCC is leading it into further trouble.

In an attempt to shore up its unlawful decision, the council is engaging in a quick box-ticking exercise. Hurrying to retake its library decision, it is attempting to consult with too few people and on too narrow grounds.

The council’s consultation asks some library users narrowly what equalities training should be given to volunteers (see previous blogs for details). In its haste it addressed most of the envelopes incorrectly. Recognising its error, it has put back its decision to a later cabinet meeting (24th July) and has sent out further consultation documents, confusing those that received and sent back the first set.

We now know that many have sent in two consultation returns, many have not sent in any, and others have not received either set of documents. Further, SCC has requested that Community Partnership steering group members send in two sets of consultation returns each, perhaps to bump up the numbers and perhaps to increase the number of favourable responses. Who knows?

Quite what SCC is hoping to learn from such a shambolic process is not clear. The information does not seem to be that important to SCC in any case. Helyn Clack, SCC Cabinet member responsible for libraries, gave this response in an interview about the library plans with the Surrey Mirror:

 

Can you envisage being persuaded by further consultation?

Helyn Clack: Probably not.

If that’s the case, why is the council wasting everyone’s time…and money?

Open letters

Mrs Carole Deakins, Chair of New Haw Library Community Partnership Steering Group,  sent an open letter to SCC CEO David McNulty  last week, updating him on progress, but also criticising SLAM for “challenging the decisions of our democratically elected representatives.”

We drafted this open response to Mrs Deakins, congratulating her on her progress and spelling out why we felt it necessary to challenge our democratically elected representatives.

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Mr Justice Wilkie passed his final Order in the Judicial Review on 1st May, quashing SCC’s decision to proceed with setting up Community Partnered Libraries in ten communities across Surrey. The final Order is here (Final JR Order).

In response, SCC has announced its intention to retake the decision at a cabinet meeting on the 19th June 2012. Ahead of that date, and to inform the cabinet, SCC also announced that it will be consulting with library users over its CPL proposals.

SCC’s decision to consult with library users is welcome news. We have campaigned for such a consultation for a long time. A proper consultation with library users is entirely appropriate given the serious nature of what is being proposed: the removal of all paid staff and making volunteers take over the management and delivery of a vital public service. Even the Council admits this is a “radical” proposal.

The Council has already begun its consultation. The first batch of consultation documents landed on some library users’ doormats last week. We attach here the documents – these sent to parents of children in the affected areas, but all consultation documents are very similar (Cover letterConsultation documentEqualities/Diversity form).

So we should be pleased, yes? No. Consultation is good, of course, but only if done properly, comprehensively and in an open-minded way.

We looked up HM Government’s “Code of Practice on Consultation”. It has seven consultation criteria. It is worth checking SCC’s attempt at consultation against these criteria to see how the Council matches up. Criteria quoted verbatim below:

Criteria 1 – When to consult

Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome

How does SCC match up?

It is clear from the consultation documents that SCC has already made up its mind and that these documents are being sent out solely to shore up its previous unlawful and quashed decision.

Indeed, Cabinet Minister in charge of libraries, Helyn Clack, was recently interviewed by David Farbrother of the Surrey Mirror newspaper (Helyn Clack interview with Surrey Mirror), and gave this response:

DF: Can you envisage being persuaded by further consultation?

HC: Probably not

Criteria 2 – Duration of consultation exercises

Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible

How does SCC match up?

The first batch of consultation letters started to arrive last week and users have been asked to return forms by 6th June. Many library users have still not received their documents. Let’s be generous and say the consultation began on 1st May. That’s a 5 weeks consultation period. Woefully short of what would be considered good practice.

Even if SCC dismiss the Government’s code of practice, it is still fanciful to suppose that it can properly consult, consider and analyse the results, and then present them to the Cabinet by 19th June.

Criteria 3 – Clarity of scope and content

Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposal.

How does SCC match up?

Helyn Clack has already said she will “probably not” be influenced by the consultation. So why bother consulting at all? The answer can only be that SCC are simply trying to tick the right boxes.

Nowhere in the consultation documents does it explain the costs of the proposals. It is understandable that SCC does not want to reveal these costs, of course, because they are considerable and have by far outstripped any hoped for financial benefit.

Criteria 4 – Accessibility of consultation exercises

Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach.

How does SCC match up?

We believe that, of the documents sent out so far, most (yes, most) have been sent to the wrong recipients or to the wrong address. We are collecting envelopes as evidence and are finding more examples than not that have been sent to non-existent people.

We also have an example of a letter that was sent to a real person but at the wrong address. It just so happens that the person that received the letter knew the person that it was supposed to be sent to so could send it on. We have no idea how many other letters were sent to the wrong address in this way, but it is likely to be many.

Criteria 5 – The burden of consultation

Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained

How does SCC match up?

The questions in the consultation document imply that the survey-taker has not only a full understanding of the Equalities Act 2010 and the Council’s specific obligations under its Public Sector Equalities Duty, but also that the survey-taker is experienced and highly knowledgable in assessing training needs and devising training programmes.

We are sure that the occasional Surrey resident will have this knowledge and these skills but to expect all residents to respond in a meaningful way to these questions is unrealistic and over-burdensome.

Criteria 6 – Responsiveness of consultation exercise

Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation

How does SCC match up?

As stated earlier, we fail to understand how SCC can receive the replies, analyse and consider them properly in order to present a coherent report to the Cabinet by 19th June.

Criteria 7 – Capacity to consult

Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learned from the experience

How does SCC match up?

If officials did seek guidance on how to run an effective consultation, we would be very interested to know where they looked. We found the Government’s “Code of Practice on Consultation” by doing a simple online search. We think that, as an absolute minimum, SCC officials could have done the same.

Conclusion

There is a final sentence underneath the criteria in the “Code of Practice on Consultation”. It reads, “These criteria should be reproduced in consultation documents”.  The criteria are not reproduced in SCC’s consultation documents.

SCC was taken to the High Court by Surrey library users and residents, and was found to have acted not only “unlawfully” but “significantly short” of what is required by the law. It would be reasonable to think that, given another go, SCC would make every effort to get it right this time around.

Not content with the hash it made of its first attempt at passing its CPL plans, it seems, if anything, to be doing an even worse job on its second attempt. It is perfectly obvious to any reasonable person that the Cabinet will not have sufficient information in front of it to make a decision on June 19th. If it attempts to make that decision in spite of the serious shortcomings of the current consultation attempt, it will be seriously misguided.

More and more Surrey residents are now saying enough is enough. The Council has already spent too much money on this library policy and it continues to burn money on it – far more money than it ever hoped to save. Common sense must now prevail.

Kenny Rogers sang in his song, The Gambler, “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.” For Surrey County Council, it’s time to fold.

In our next blog – how people are  emphasising the benefits of paid staff in their consultation returns

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