Mark Bee interview 12.5.11

Mark Bee and library campaigners on Mark Murphy Show, BBC Radio Suffolk

Transcript from the broadcast from Oulton Broad Library on 12.5.11.

 

The main interview after the 7 o’clock news was with Tory Leader Elect, Mark Bee (MB), interviewer Mark Murphy (MM).

MM: (The library consultation process) has been one of the big talking points, hasn’t it, over recent months?

MB: Very much so and I think we recognise that we’ve got to listen to what communities feel is important – and I think we have done that, Mark

MM: Take us back to the reason for this whole Consultation. Why are we doing this?

MB: The main thing is that the Council has to save £20 million over the next three years, because obviously Government grant has been reduced. And that’s meant that we’ve needed to look at such things as libraries. Currently they cost £9 million a year [out of a total budget of a thousand million pounds] and our aim has been to reduce costs by 30% or more.

MM: So that’s why we’re doing it. Other local authorities, though, have got similar savings to make but they’re not looking at libraries.

MB: Not yet. And I think that, obviously, we’re looking at them this year. Nothing has closed this year; what we’ve done is go through a process of consultation which, of course, is now concluded and we’re responding to that.

MM: Were you surprised at the level of support for libraries or not?

MB: Not at all. I think libraries are very much the fabric of our communities. And I think that’s shown how important that is. I was recently over at Bungay and met a big group of people who presented me with their scrap book and it’s quite clear that libraries are part of the hub of communities. I think that therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that people value them so much as they do.

MM: Well, we’re here in Oulton Broad, this is one of the smaller libraries in Suffolk and it’s just full of books, CDs, literature, newspapers; you can come and get your tea and coffee. Isn’t this just the kind of thing that your Conservative colleagues nationally would like to see us doing: getting out and using the local area? Are you at odds with your national Conservative colleagues on this?

MB: Not at all and I think that what we’re actually looking at is ways in which we can secure the funding for the libraries so that all of these things can continue. Actually, in fact we could try to expand the service into new ways where we can perhaps have book clubs and have the use of the buildings for other things. This building here, for instance, in Oulton Broad would be a fantastic Tourist Information Centre. It’s absolutely well-placed for that type of thing. People perhaps don’t want to go into Lowestoft to use a particular service, they would come here and use it here. So that’s why a building like this, placed as it is, could have more than just a ‘traditional’ library role. And we’re very interested in looking at that.

MM: Some people have embraced the idea of divestment in this way and said: “yes, we’ll take on the running of our local library – or we’d like to – but actually for some people it is a really big thing. People are busy trying to earn a living these days and they haven’t got time to get involved in running libraries in the way that perhaps you hoped they would.

MB: And I think that’s why we’re able to say today that we’re looking at setting up these Community Interest Companies. Now, this would be at arm’s length of the Council, but community groups who are interested could be on the board of these particular groups. They would work with Councillors and officers and perhaps with the Suffolk Association of Local Councils. This would cut out local bureaucracy and would also enable the Council to monitor its statutory responsibility for providing this important service. By having the communities involved, they would be part of the running of it. What, of course, we also recognise is that people don’t have the time and capacity to do that; and this Community Investment Company could provide that framework and they could have their say, but not necessarily feel that they have to run it. We feel that that would be a good way of doing it. It’s arm’s length and it’s not profit making.

MM: So you’re still looking for a way to lessen your responsibility and spend in libraries. You’re still – despite what we’ve heard the last few days, just before the elections some people were a bit cynical about some of the anouncements which were being made – you’re still looking to run the libraries in a different way to the way in which they run now.

MB: We’ve always been clear about that. Because we still have to square the circle about how we can do things with less money. The financial factor doesn’t go away. But where it is different is that we recognise that community groups can be involved and that we are seen not to be shutting libraries, because we don’t want to shut libraries. We want to keep them open. We want to find new ways in which they can be part of the community by involving community groups and by involving the councils and by involving other groups in the running of these libraries , that could be a better way of doing it. And this sort of thing works in other aspects. If I look at where we are here in Waveney, you’ve got Waveney North who collect the dust bins and nobody sees any difference in the service – I fact, they see it as a better service. It’s not part of the Council function, we save money but we still have our responsibility, albeit at arm’s length.

 

MM: [introduces library campaigners at this point…]

Pauline Raynton (OB Library user): I would like you to confirm that there is a clear change of tone, because I’ve just heard you say: “we don’t want to close libraries”. Yet, the Consultation document started with the sentence: “if we don’t close libraries, then it will be the front line services such as Fire or personal care” and ended with the sentence (I paraphrase): “come up with an idea or we’ll close libraries”. My second question would be about the community business. You talked about the need to save money: central government has been intent on getting rid of QUANGOs – which is what this sounds like to me. When you’ve got arm’s length government, that is a QUANGO. Why is it necessary to set up another administrative tier between the Council and the running of the library when it’s the Council that has the statutory requirement to provide the library service? Is that necessary and is there not a cost to that?

MB: To answer your first question first: the change of emphasis is that it isn’t always about closing things, it’s about finding new ways to keep them open. That’s the change. So where we can do that, we will. The second question about this being a QUANGO. This isn’t a QUANGO, it is a not-for-profit-making company. That company can be run on a business footing. It doesn’t mean that it’s privatisation. But it means that it’s community based and it means that instead of people outside the area trying to run it, it’s you yourselves: people within the community have much more of a stake. And I think that that fits very well with what the government have said about localism and people being very much more hands-on in running things. Now, clearly we recognise the fact that people haven’t got the time to suddenly come in here and run a library from nothing. But we can provide that framework through this community company.

MM: Are you saying this morning that there’ll be no library closures?

MB: You can never say there’ll never be anything. You can never say that. And you can’t say that you can give that guarantee forever more. But what I’m saying is that we will work to ensure that, where we can, we will keep libraries open. We don’t start the process by saying that things are going to close. It’s all about trying to keep them open.

MM: Just play with me for a second; get your crystal ball out. Two year’s time: will we see the volume of libraries and mobile libraries in Suffolk?

MB: I think we’ve got to review all of these things and –

MM: – I mean, is it your aim to try and keep them all?

MB: We want to try and keep libraries open. Mobile libraries could be a completely different situation because it might be more about wanting to create something that is more static within the community. And I think that’s going to be a very different thing. But our emphasis very much on this today is about ensuring that people can have amore hands-on involvement in things that can have an impact. As I said about this particular one, you’ve got roles and functions that this library in Oulton Broad could do and, of course, that could be replicated around the county.

MM: OK. As I said, they’re queuing up to ask you some questions. So let’s go from this part of north Suffolk – your own patch, of course; you’re still Waveney Leader at the moment, aren’t you?

MB: Yes, I am.

MM: … To Bungay. Sustainable Bungay have been campaigning to keep Bungay Library as it is, as we heard from Josiah Meldrum earlier. What do you want to say to the Leader Elect of Suffolk County Council?

JM: We would like to save Bungay as it is, as I think Mark knows. We’ve also felt because of the nature of the Consultation document which said, you know: ”come up with a plan or you’ll close your library”, that we have had to come up with an expression of interest. That’s been extremely difficult to do because SCC haven’t provided us with the kind of information we need in order to provide them with the kind of plan they want to see. It’s slightly frustrating now to be in the position where we’ve done all this work and to find that the plans have changed. The thing has changed. I’ve been in contact with officers at SCC this week to ask whether we still need to be working up a business case. They say “yes”. But they still say: “ we haven’t got the information”. Now, I would like Mark to make a commitment to releasing the outline plan for the new Community Interest Companies within the next fortnight so that we, as campaigning groups trying to save our libraries, can understand how our business cases need to fit in with these new proposals.

MB: I think we can clearly say “yes” on that. We want to work with communities and clearly if Bungay – and, you know, I met you the other week and I saw the strength of feeling there and I know how passionate people are in Bungay about trying to keep that particular facility open – then, yes, we will work with you. And if within the next couple of weeks you want to have the opportunity to do that, then, yes, we will make sure that that happens. Because, you know, we want to work with you and we want to hear your ideas so that we can keep that facility open.

MM: And now to Saxmundham. Jenny Pink is campaigning for Saxmundham and the wider library service in Suffolk.

JP: I’m just so baffled by a non-plan that’s still emerging, Mark Bee. We’re seeing you saying you’re putting money into the budget for this CIC. We don’t know the nature of it ; we don’t know how it will survive if it isn’t privately funded. We’re suspicious that this is another means of outsourcing and taking away responsibility from your council. I’ve been writing to Ed Vaizey, Minister of Culture, who informed me that local authorities have been written to and reminded that when they reorganise library services, it’s important that authorities have a strategy. You’ve changed very quickly – overnight it seems – on your first strategy [consults document] “They have considered the needs of their local community”: you haven’t had the courtesy to talk with your Library Managers. “They look at the efficiency options”: I’ve asked for business plans from Judy Terry; three months I’ve been writing, no response. “This is a listening leader (to be) of your County Council looking at shared services”: where’s the information on that? “Merging functions on staffing … back-room reorganisations”: where are the plans for that? We need answers to these questions specifically.

MM: Well, I’m not sure we’re going to get answers to all of these specific questions this morning. [To Mark Bee]: You might want to have a chat with Jenny off-air in a moment or two. But clearly there are a lot of people confused; it’s in a state of flux.

MB: Of course it is. Because we’ve got slight change from where things were. This is an opportunity –

MM: Why change? Why change the direction?

MB: Because I think we needed to respond to the strength of feeling that there is out there. There is an opportunity with a new Leader coming in to say: “right, we’re going to have a change of point-of-view on this”. And we’re going to want to re-emphasise certain things. That’s what I’m all about. So we are where we are, I recognise that, and we want to work more co-operatively than perhaps you feel we have before. I think the intention was always there before. You’d probably argue that it hasn’t come across as it should do. That, we want to change. That’s what I want to change. That’s why I’ve been prepared – and happy – to come here today to say this. And I’m very pleased with what Judy Terry has come forward in proposing this business plan that we have. And more of this can be rolled out. This is all new, we’ve just said this. And you can then be involved in the detail. It’s all about what you want in your community in Saxmundham. As opposed to what we would necessarily want to do uniformly in Endeavour House.

Steve Smedley [Leiston Library campaigner – being hurried along by MM]: Yes, well, I welcome the news that we’re going to be hearing the details of the C.I.C. proposals within the next two weeks. I just wanted to ask whether the people of Suffolk are going to be given another opportunity, maybe through another Consultation exercise, to express their views on these new proposals.

MB: Obviously, we need to get on and do all of this. There is a recognition that clearly you can’t just keep consulting and consulting. But, I mean, that the whole thrust of the way in which we want to run this whole business thing is for people to actively be involved. So yes, there will be, but we don’t want to go into another few months and whole round of detailed consultation.

SS: I just feel that a lot of campaign groups and community groups have put these expressions of interest together effectively now under false pretences because they were put together under the original plans for divestment and the plans have changed, so I –

MM: But that’s all about consultation; that’s what consultation is all about, isn’t it?

MB: Indeed. And, of course, these plans could perhaps be fashioned to work within what we’re now suggesting. So I don’t think there’s necessarily lost opportunity or wasted time or wasted work there.

[wrap-up of discussion 7.23am]

 

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