Birmingham City Council published its Budget for 2016-17 yesterday and brought forward proposals to make £90m worth of cuts and savings next year. This is part of an overall cut of £250m over the next 4 years and is on top of the £500m reduction made to the Council Budget since 2010. What does this mean for the future of Birmingham’s Community Libraries?
The buzz words are redesign, one-front door, local partnerships and community hubs. But the bottom line is the intention to cut the costs of local neighbourhood services including Community Libraries by £12m over the next four years.
The political blogger News in Brum has published a figure of 10 Community Libraries to close with the loss of a further 60 library staff. This has been denied by Cllr Penny Holbrook the Cabinet member with responsibility for the Library service who claims that the shape of local community services has yet to be determined.
The Council is badging its proposals for rationalising and closing community services as ‘Open for learning’. This programme will “redesign and rationalise local assets to deliver service focus not asset focused approach.”
The ‘Open for learning’ strategy involves the closure of ‘unfit for purpose’ buildings and the disposal and sale of council-owned buildings. Where “libraries, adult education and early years services in the future will need fewer separate buildings.”
This will involve the closure of Community Libraries with the Council claiming that its approach is about delivering services not maintaining places and buildings. It is a moot question as to how public access in the case of public libraries is to be maintained let alone improved with reduced access to buildings.
Then there are the supposed synergies of local partnerships promoting learning and the Council’s cultural offer by co-locating learning services in community hubs. These community hubs will be increasingly focused on promoting the learning and skills. This is a very narrow and utilitarian conception of public libraries from their present manifold public and community uses.
Another gambit in this brave new world is the ‘need to think differently about our workforce’. This will involve the further dilution of a professionally led and provided library service as workers multi-task in these reduced community hubs with an increased use of self-service technology.
Public Libraries will also be working with local businesses to ensure free internet access for everyone.
These advocates for ‘Open for Learning’ tell us these new rationalised community hubs are to be co-designed and co-produced around the needs of communities and are not about preserving existing services. But the bottom line is always the bottom line and a £12m cut over 4 years means that public and community needs currently met through the network of Community Libraries will be denied to many in future. Further these proposals are seeking to change the very identity and purpose of public libraries.
The future of the network of Community Libraries serving local neighbourhoods is now very much in the balance. Over the last five years every time a Community Library has been under threat of closure campaigns organised by local people have forced the Council to keep them open. West Heath, Aston and Spring Hill Libraries remain open due to the community action of local people. This type of response is going to be required many times over.
The consultation on the City Council Budget proposals 2016+ runs from 9th December 2015 to 8th January 2016. Information about the consultation meetings and details of the Budget can be found here: http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/budgetviews
Now more than ever is the time to stand up for your Community Library!