Library campaigners fear that the battle over libraries has only just begun

20 Feb

Save Suffolk LibrariesThe following letter has been sent from Rosehill Readers to local and national press:

Dear Editor,

As a group which is very interested in Suffolk’s public library service and the volcanic events surrounding Suffolk County Council over the last eighteen months, Rosehill Readers has noticed a peculiar thing in regard to the press reports of the subject. The EADT and Evening Star coverage was thorough, not to say dogged, in its uncovering of the strange goings-on in Endeavour House: investigative journalism at its best, many would say, although we doubt that the Tory county councillors would agree. Local Government Correspondent, Paul Geater in particular seemed determined to uncover the truth about the Chief Executive and Tory Leader and the dreaded ‘New Strategic Direction’ (NSD), to the point of his being banned from Endeavour House at one point. That is, until about April 2011.

Looking back at that short period: the resignation of Tory Leader Jeremy Pembroke, the successful family march organised by Rosehill Readers in defence and celebration of Suffolk’s libraries, the sudden departure of two senior council officers (the early departure of controversial Chief Exec. Andrea Hill was soon to follow), the election of Mark Bee as Tory Leader; all these events – particularly the last one – seem to have marked a change in the reporting of council matters. By the 2nd May 2011 the SCC spin doctors were obviously working overtime with ‘Libraries saved’ and ‘end of New Strategic Direction’. Neither of these headlines, no matter how often repeated turn out to be true. So why did the press coverage change so dramatically around April 2011?

Far from ending the NSD, Mark Bee’s regime are driving it forward dressed up as “We are listening, we have learnt”. Already cutting the central management and support services of Suffolk libraries to an unsustainable degree, the Conservative councillors are driving forward with the divestment of our libraries to an external, experimental and high-risk organization called an Industrial Provident Society (IPS). This will result in community groups running their libraries, heavy use of volunteers and extra layers of delegates and board members as well as county councillors, but probably even fewer qualified library staff.

We don’t recall anyone complaining about heavy bureaucracy in the public library service before now – it was more like a shoestring operation which delivered an excellent service to the public with great value for money due to the dedication of the staff – but the spinners were at it again and ‘cutting bureaucracy’ now regularly appears as an aim of all these changes. Looking at the IPS plans, such as they are, they can only create new layers of bureaucracy as people inexperienced in delivering a valued, professional service are asked to volunteer to shoulder weighty responsibilities.

No matter how many times ‘Libraries are saved’ appears in the press, they are under a greater threat now than ever before. What lies behind this threat? A little perspective might be helpful. Mr Pembroke regularly told us that SCC was a “billion pound business” (that is £1000 million per year). Suffolk libraries and Record Offices – paid for from Council Tax and Government grant – cost us £8.9 million in 2010/11. So our valued library network of 44 branches, mobiles, archives and all the materials, access to information, services and community involvement which are provided is 0.89 of one percent of the Suffolk County Council budget. And they are still cutting it hard: it was voted through by the large Tory majority on Thursday 15 December 2011. This can only be an ideologically-driven action by people who have always disapproved of publicly-funded public services and now have the power to achieve their aims. Suffolk, be warned. Other services you rely on will be next.

Finally, a plea to the Editor of the EADT: please keep reporting the detail; the people of Suffolk are looking to the local press to keep them informed.

Regards,
-Rosehill Readers
https://rosehillreaders.wordpress.com/

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