Monday, January 09, 2012

My libraries letter that the Bham Post won't publish

On 17th November, the Birmingham Post published a lengthy letter from John Dolan which raised questions about the future of Birmingham Library Service. Indeed, the Post also reported this letter in an article and added an editorial piece about the letter.

You would think the Birmingham Post in fairness would allow me a response. But no. I sent my letter in on 9th December and waited for the letter to be published. A month later, nothing.

As I have said before, the Editor of the Birmingham Post is running a politically biased newspaper. Articles praising Labour or criticising the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition are given ample room. Opportunities to provide balance are ignored.

My letter that the Birmingham Post won't publish is as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam,

The letter from John Dolan OBE regarding library services in Birmingham (Birmingham Post 17th November) contained a series of questions on the future of the Birmingham library service and I felt compelled to provide detailed answers to them.

However, before answering those questions, I hope you will allow me the opportunity to comment on the overall tone of Mr Dolan’s letter. It was quite clear from the letter that he believes Birmingham City Council is abandoning its library service. I would argue that the case is the complete opposite, which I will try to illustrate below.

Since 2004, the City Council’s present administration has invested £4.3million in improving the fabric of its community libraries. Many of our community libraries operate from within aging buildings that have been poorly maintained over the last 20 years. Since 2004, we have been correcting the impact of that poor maintenance. In addition to this £4.3million, a further £1.1million is being invested in our libraries in this financial year. Kings Heath, Selly Oak and Hall Green Libraries will have new roofs by April 2012.

Further, we are investing £188.8m in a new Library of Birmingham, to replace the Central Library. This will be a world-class facility, with world-class resources and a re-energised vision for the library in the twenty-first century.

I hope your readers will accept that these are challenging times for our libraries: not only are libraries up and down the country having to absorb the impact of the national financial crisis, but technological advancements such as the internet are questioning the future role of the public library.

In Birmingham we recognise that there is still the need for community libraries in: up-skilling our citizens; improving literacy, especially in communities where English is the second language; and in reducing the digital divide. It is for this reason that no community library in Birmingham will close under the present administration’s proposals. Subject to approval from the Constituency Committees, 16 out of our 39 community libraries will remain open five days a week, as now. The remaining 23 libraries will open four days a week, instead of the present five.

While other cities are closing down community libraries, I think what Birmingham is doing is highly commendable and deserves praise. New operating models will need to be considered, but these are tough times and we need to maximize every penny spent on our library service.

I think it would also be helpful if I outlined where the responsibilities lie with regard to Birmingham’s Library Service. As the Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture I have the responsibility to set the strategic direction and policy for our libraries, I do not however have the responsibility for community library budgets or their management, this rests with the relevant Constituency Committee.

Having said that however I will seek to address the questions raised by Mr Dolan, I have included his original questions for ease of reference.

Q The Birmingham Post sets out cuts planned for Birmingham Libraries This comes out one day before the last Council public consultation meeting on its budget plans. There was no mention of libraries in list of cuts up for public consultation. In all the public papers (at; the words 'library' or 'libraries' are not used anywhere.

A Libraries are not referred to in the consultation, since the new consultation exercise relates to savings required the 2012/13 financial year. Library service savings for the next three years were addressed in last year’s budgetary and consultative process.

Q This is actually about dismantling the service through the back door while pretending to fix the front door. Birmingham has already dismissed most of the senior and middle management.

A A number of library staff have chosen to take voluntary redundancy, but Birmingham still continues to employ a substantial number of qualified librarians – many more than most library authorities both as professional librarians and as managers

Q Previous cuts: What is the financial value of cuts and savings already made this financial year? - Managers and staff? Bookfund? Other resources? The closed Children's Mobile Library? The closed Schools Library Service? Maintenance budgets? Training budgets? Reduced hours? Libraries closed "for repair"?

A The savings target for Community Library services in 2011/12 is £1.3m and this cumulatively increases to £2.3m by 2013/14. The savings target for Strategic Library Services is £2.5 million cumulatively rising to £2.7 million by 2013/14. Savings are being made through staffing budgets.

Q Investment: What is being invested in library buildings, their maintenance, on re-opening libraries closed "for repair"? How many libraries already require repairs over say, £50,000? How much will be spent on self-service machines? What's the timescale? Who will be charged with installing them and training staff?

A The City Council has invested over £4.3 million in its Community Library buildings since 2004. A further £1.1 million is being spent on library buildings this year. In addition the city is investing in the £188.8 million Library of Birmingham. Funding was found in 2010-11 for a number of self service machines for 10 Community Libraries. These are currently being installed by the city’s IT provider and training will be provided. The Central Library has had self service for some time.

Q People: Why does this report not say that, already, nearly all senior and middle management have been made redundant, that the majority of librarians are being made redundant? Why are you deliberately getting rid of librarian skills? How will you provide library services of any quality?

A Birmingham continues to employ a substantial number of qualified librarians – many more than most library authorities - both as professional librarians and as managers. In addition we employ professional conservators and archivists in recognition of the unique and valuable resources within our special collections.

Q Volunteers: You talk of using volunteers. What skills will they need? What will be their responsibilities? Who will manage volunteers? How will they be trained? Will they be able to do information searches, tell stories to children, advise on reading, assist with homework, show people how to use the computer, plan and run summer reading/literacy programmes? Will they have access to my personal information?

A Our Volunteer policy is on the library website. Libraries have been working with volunteers for some time to assist with the Summer Reading Challenge, ICT support, Friends Groups etc

Q Bookstart: Who will distribute the Government-funded 'Bookstart' books for babies as the 'Bookstart' librarian has been made redundant?
A Alternative arrangements have been made following a voluntary redundancy request and we will continue to deliver Bookstart through our libraries

Q Income: Where's the business plan for leasing rooms? How many rooms? Rooms are already 'leased' - so does this mean the end of reduced / free room use for voluntary community groups? What is the additional income forecast?

A This is a localised matter – each Constituency will make its own decision under the current governance arrangements. You will need to contact the various Constituency Chairs for this information.

Q Co-location: Which buildings are you planning to share with others? Aston has already moved to smaller premises; which others are to move?

A The new Shard End Library will open in 2012 sharing premises with a Neighbourhood Office and community facilities. There are plans to re-locate Kents Moat Library in a future Poolway development to bring local authority services together. Plans are also being developed to re-locate West Heath Library as its current building is no longer fit for purpose. Co-location opportunities which will enhance library provision and meet user needs will always be considered.

Q Library of Birmingham: You have a chance to do something special to put Birmingham on the map. How much are the "savings being made on the £187 million Library of Birmingham"? Are you still planning for the LOB to be a "world class" library - in services as well as architecture?" How will the LOB work with and support local libraries in local communities? Do you have a revenue budget for the LOB? Will it be what was envisaged or will you downgrade the world class vision to the provincial ordinary?

A The Library of Birmingham will be a world class library with world class resources. The savings have already been made through procurement bringing the overall cost from £193 million to £188.8 million, and we expect through excellent project management to deliver further savings against this budget without compromising the quality of the library. The revenue budget forms part of the city’s medium term financial strategy. Your quoted figure of £187 million is inaccurate press reporting. Work is underway to pilot innovative new relationships with Constituency Libraries through a pilot project with the new Shard End Library, due to open in February 2012.

Q Community libraries: How do you envisage a community library will play an active part in community life if it's only open "two days a week"?

A The Scrutiny report on Community Libraries - which was wrongly reported in the newspaper - is available on the City Council website. Nowhere does it mention libraries only being open for two days a week. The developing proposal to meet is that over a third of the community libraries will retain their current 5 day per week opening hours and the remaining smaller less busy libraries would reduce budget savings from 5 to 4 days per week. However, it will be up to each Constituency Committee to decide if they wish to accept this proposal or to find another means of meet their savings target

Q Birmingham Library Services: This was an historic, outstanding and innovative public service. Will the library service be reunited as one service or remain divided across constituencies, duplicating and wasting resources? How much does each constituency have to save? What if some agree and others don't? Or what has already been agreed out of public view?

A The Localisation and Devolution governance arrangements were reviewed by the City Council in 2010 and re-confirmed with all party support. However, I do hold a similar view that the library service would benefit from being managed strategically, with Ward Councillors being able to influence the service in their local libraries. Although I have put this view forward on more than one occasion each Constituency will continue to be responsible for implementing its own budget savings. The developing proposals provide a consistent future operating model for Constituencies within the overall reduced level of funding available. It will be up to each Constituency Committee if they wish to accept these proposals or to meet the savings target through another means.

Q Total savings: These savings were not in the list for consultation with the total savings target. Why were they omitted? Are they extra to those announced?
A Libraries are not mentioned in the present consultation because libraries are not required to make any contribution in this extra round of savings. The 2010-13 budget savings which affected library services were announced in the Council Business Plan 2011+.
Q Public consultation: Why has there been no public information about these proposals? Why was this information deliberately omitted from the presentations at the public meetings? Why is there no public consultation about library service cuts? What do intend to do about that?

A Libraries are not mentioned in this budget consultation because libraries are not required to contribute any savings towards this new figure. When finally developed, proposals will go to Constituency Committees for consultation and decision.

Q Would you accept that there is actually no strategic thinking here about public library services? There has been no meaningful consultation on library service cuts or its future. isn't your real intention is to neglect and downgrade the service to be, at best, mediocre? How therefore, do you intend to meet your duties under library legislation? You must provide a "comprehensive and efficient library service" to everyone who wishes to use it. How will you do that?

A We are conducting a full service review to provide a strategic approach to library provision in a very difficult economic climate. We’re awaiting the findings of the full service review but, against a backdrop of closures up and down the country, we remain committed to keeping our 39 community libraries open.

Further to this, I have suggested that if Mr Dolan has any further questions, then my senior portfolio officers are more than happy to meet him to provide further explanations.

Councillor Martin Mullaney
Cabinet member for Leisure, Sport and Culture
Birmingham City Council


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