How is your library doing? Or, to quote Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, “Is it safe? Is it safe?”
Yesterday we heard the latest of Suffolk County Council’s confusingly articulated plans for our library services. It is inviting nominations from community library groups to fill interim board positions at an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) that will be set up to run it.
On 15 December, the County’s Tory Councillors voted in bulk to transfer library management and running to an IPS, despite this being judged by the County Council to be the riskiest and least hands-on of the three business models they evaluated. (The other two models being “in house business unit” and a “company limited by guarantee, wholly owned by SCC”)
According to the Portfolio holder Cllr Terry, the IPS ‘will set libraries on a sustainable footing for the next ten years.’
“Did she forget her reading glasses? “ a Suffolk Libraries campaigner asked me. “Or has she simply forgotten she has guaranteed public funding for two years only. How will we fund our 44 libraries, the central book stock, the staff and all the other things that make up a library service, after that?”
“Council documents suggests that our library service will in the future rely on volunteers and on their fundraising efforts. Yet Cllr Terry said at the Council meeting that it would not be reliant on volunteers. I suppose it slipped her mind that the community groups who have come forward to run their libraries are all volunteers. And, of course, the IPS will have a Board of Directors who are also all volunteers.”
The Council has adopted something called a Library Access Model: a hierarchy in which large towns (Major Centres) can apparently keep their libraries but the 14 libraries located in the (smaller) ‘Key Service Centres’ could be at risk. At least that’s what campaigners fear.
And the Council meeting did nothing to answer these fears. In the film, Laurence Olivier keeps asking, “Is it safe? Is it safe?” and getting no reply. Much the same happened at the council meeting. It was clear one would have to start up the dentists drill to get any actual answers from the horse’s mouth.
The opposition asked questions about the IPS and how it would work.
- Would members of the public be able to access the minutes of IPS meetings?
- Could Freedom of Information requests be made to the IPS?
- What about public participation in the IPS?
- How exactly will the IPS will be accountable to the public? (Particularly as it seemed as if the IPS would not be subject to the Council’s Scrutiny and Audit Committees).
Interestingly enough, some of these questions are addressed in yesterday’s press release . On 15 Dec, the Portfolio holder’s colleagues were less fortunate. It was like drawing teeth to get any substantive answer from Cllr Terry. Her replies had no clarity, meaning nor in some cases, much fact (At one juncture she denied point-blank that there had ever been any intention on the part of SCC to close any libraries whatsoever. In stark contrast to her own words as quoted by the EADT or indeed, testimony from an ex-SCC employee quoted in the Guardian, and even the original Libraries consultation.)
Most disturbingly there seemed to be no intention on the part of the Portfolio holder to address her colleagues’ wholly legitimate concerns.
For my part, I asked the following very specific questions to allay very real anxieties expressed to me by Suffolk residents:
“It is good news that there are likely to be ‘lower community contributions to the IPS than expected’, but even the lowest proposed contribution is substantial. As such, there is a very real risk that some libraries will be taken back ‘in house.’ But what IS ‘in-house’ with an IPS? Will all libraries be given sufficient SCC grant to stay open – and if taken back, would any be expected to close? I am particularly concerned because the 2011 Review casts doubts over the long-term future of 3 Ipswich Libraries and 1 in Lowestoft. Could I have assurance that these 4 libraries would be accorded the same priority and funding as libraries in Major Centres.”
To which (wholly unexceptionable and valid) concerns, the Portfolio holder responded with two words; “No imagination”. This was one of her politer responses.
As the campaigner wrote to me afterwards:
“Like lambs to the slaughter, the Conservative Councillors voted a resounding “yes” to the IPS. They were told that all libraries would stay open, so who cares about the risk and the long-term and the small print and the fact that there is only guaranteed funding for two years?
Or maybe there was another reason those lambs were so silent. It was only opposition councillors who stood up and asked searching questions . In reply, Cllr Terry directed extremely aggressive and insulting remarks at them. Sadly, I have heard similarly rude and insulting remarks regularly at Suffolk County Council meetings -not only from Cllr Terry, but other Portfolio Holders too. Why doesn’t the Chairman intervene and stop such objectionable behaviour? “
This brings us back to the problem of democratic deficit in Suffolk. This particular campaigner is a very committed, experienced, articulate, intelligent person – just the kind of person this county should be electing to represent them properly. Yet she said to me that she couldn’t take the kind of behaviour she saw in the Council Chamber:
“Is this a regular feature of SCC meetings? It’s appalling and unprofessional. I would be so embarrassed if I was the Chair. To be honest I just couldn’t do what you do. I think you’re much tougher than I am to put up with all of the rude comments”.
Clearly she is unlikely to stand for election and so her wealth of expertise, commitment and public-spiritedness is lost to this county.
Remarks like those we heard in full Council on the 15th Dec do disservice in so many ways. Not only do they fail to answer the concerns of the people of Suffolk; they also frighten off some of the brightest and best who could otherwise contribute to the well-being of the county. If a thick skin and a brutal manner becomes a key requirement of participation, there is a danger we will end up with a council run by pachyderms and cavemen.