Library Closures: Fireworks or a damp squib?

It was always unlikely that Langport Library would close. Somerton has been less fortunate.

The latest consultation on the future of libraries over summer led to an autumn review and then a scrutiny committee meeting of Somerset County Council. Finally we made it to a Cabinet meeting today, the 5th November. 15 communities are scheduled to lose their SCC run library under these proposals saving SCC some £323,000. Among those 15 due to lose an SCC run library is Somerton.

It is a serious subject but your humble correspondent couldn’t help but manage a smile at the start of a presentation to introduce the subject. Perish the thought that we should talk of library closures. No this is the “Library Service Redesign Programme 2018

That “Service Redesign Programme” was agreed at the SCC Cabinet meeting today but only after a lot of interrogation not just from opposition members, but from the Conservative administration too.

Sad news for Somerton Library. The Cabinet decision means it has now been confirmed that SCC will no longer provide a service. Instead Somerton will be offered the opportunity to use the library building, but with a Community Library Service (CLS) run and staffed by local volunteers. The only sop being that SCC will provide some £3,000 of match funding to help set up and maintain the volunteer service and that this should run for 7 years.

So far so predictable.

It was disappointing to see no-one from either Langport or Somerton ready to speak up at the cabinet meeting to make a case for either local library. But that may be because Langport residents assumed their library was safe.

Except….

Suddenly, although Langport is to be kept open, it is to be on the basis that it is run at a lower cost. This was news.

So how do SCC propose to reduce costs at Langport Library? Apparently by “Exploring the potential to share library buildings to reduce costs….”

Essentially this means in the case of Langport (and Ilminster) by getting the District Council to subsidise the service. So SCC will “Explore the development of a customer access and digital inclusion service for South Somerset District Council, through an initial pilot at Langport Library, and with the potential to extend the service to Ilminster and other libraries in South Somerset. This could bring in a modest income which could support the sustainability of these libraries, as well as improving information services for customers in South Somerset District, and supporting the District Council’s transformation objectives.”

SCC reckon they have a reasonable level of confidence that the budget for Langport library could be reduced slightly, and are confident that the income generation opportunities would have no material adverse impact on service users. They may be right but the statement is disconcerting.

So although Cllr David Hall noted “We must not rely on volunteers or the public to deliver our statutory duties” the same does not seem to apply to letting SSDC picking up the tab. Is that so bad? Only in as much as District is effectively cross subsidising a facility with tax payers money, that it does not have a responsibility for. On the other hand it is really good to see local authorities working together. I will only note that if Somerset was a unitary authority as many of our neighbours are, this would be a non-issue.

The work of the Library Service has certainly been thorough. The report which was put before Cabinet for a final decision ran to 832 pages. But it makes it difficult to come to grips with the significant issues impacting each community. So I will finish by drawing attention to one more clause. It wasn’t discussed or raised by councillors in the Cabinet meeting. It is certainly a learning point for your humble correspondent to try and read every paragraph even if the document does look like War and Peace!

The successful delivery of the proposals ….. is dependent on continued support from a range of third parties. Whilst we are confident that all these proposals are achievable, there is a risk that support from third parties may not come through as anticipated, and this is outside of the County Council’s control. This being the case, these recommendations are being put forward on the basis that ….. local needs in the four communities of Langport, Martock, Ilminster and Cheddar could be met through library buildings with a reduced level of opening hours. Any reduction in opening hours would be subject to a separate and further public and staff consultation exercise in the locality affected.”

You have been warned.

The future of Langport Library is perhaps less secure than we may have thought. At the very least, if SSDC do not step up to the plate, Langport Library will be open for shorter periods. And of course if it is open less, footfall will fall and eventually SCC will conclude that the library is not viable.

One comment

Leave a Reply