Saturday, 9 March 2013

Epistemological? What are you talking about?

Ed Vaizey has been given a speech proclaiming the arts sector is in "rude health" this is while Newcastle are slashing their arts budget by 50% and Westminster council by 100% and responded to the decimation of library service by listing lots of cherry picked examples of stuff going on and proclaiming: "Libraries “In Crisis”? Again, I don’t think so."

Yes there are new libraries opening, they seem to be large city centre libraries, replacing their 60’s predecessors backed financially by the widely discredited PFI method of funding and the other stuff he mentions is blue sky bullshit about business incubators, hatchery spaces and other nonsense descriptions of the things that good libraries have been doing for years anyway. All the waffle, nonsense and Boris lite bluster doesn’t disguise the fact that actually library numbers are being savagely cut.

In the last few years 347 libraries have closed, 7.5% of the library service. This is before the cuts have even really kicked in. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number for 2013 is higher than the 201 that closed in 2012. And on top of that the arts council say that by April this year, 425 libraries, or 12% will be community supported, in other words, local authorities no longer see them as part of their statutory network and volunteers are keeping them open.

So since the coalition came to power, 19.5% of libraries will have been closed or cut either wholly or partially so they have to rely on volunteers to replace the low paid library managers and assistants. A fifth of libraries, cut. Crisis, I do think so.

By the end of this year, the 19.5% is obviously going to be a much higher figure, if Ed worked in the real world and the business he was responsible lost this many branches he would be out of a job. At what point will he think any of the 151 library authorities will be in breach of the “comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” 25%, 30%, 50%? This is from the man who when one authority was closing libraries in 2009 declared: “If Andy Burnham is not prepared to intervene when library provision is slashed in a local authority such as the Wirral, it is clear that he is ignoring his responsibilities as secretary of state, which in the process renders any sense of libraries being a statutory requirement for local authorities meaningless.”

The hypocrisy is so high I’m surprised it hasn’t breached the distance across the curved universe and hit Ed in the back of his own head. The minister is of course selectively ignoring part of the act, he has also ignored the part about needing an advisory body but helpfully has added in extra parts saying councils can factor in the resources available to then as a factor on deciding what their statutory library provision should be. As long as they tick the boxes in the right way, they can close as many libraries as they want. The councils rather than band together to pool the management resources are in nearly all cases cutting the low paid library managers and assistants rather than tackle the duplication that exists across the authorities borders and the shocking high service support costs of running library services. The sensible plan, as cuts are inevitable would have regional library management hubs to cut down on the duplication of having 151 library authorities, the Tories, despite supposedly the party of efficient public services are not doing this though.

Ed’s boss Dave, went to the electorate with the central plank of his manifesto being the “big society”. The public said no, so we are getting it anyway, without a mandate. Others including quangos and taxpayer funded organisations are also supporting the big society, also without a mandate from voters, the Arts Council, The LGA, SCL are all pushing the approach that cuts low paid staff, maintains the bloated service support and get the volunteers to provide the service to themselves approach. The approach that is destroying the library service on the altar of Dave’s vision of the big society.

In 2025 the library service is likely consist of lots of badly managed, glass monstrosities, with PFI liabilities soaking up whatever’s left in the library budget. In the areas outside the city centres, in the rough suburbs of Swindon, Sunderland, Liverpool and beyond, in the remote rural villages, in the shires and the Home Counties thousands of communities will have had their beating hearts ripped out, never to recover, never to be replaced.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Two types of chair

I stuck in a email to Dan Jarvis MP asking some questions on why Labour were not doing certain things in opposition on libraries. My concern is despite the hours and work Dan Jarvis is putting in, the position if Labour get back in may be little different to what we have now.  Below is the email exchange:

I appreciate you engaging with me over the libraries issues on twitter (rubymalvolio) I do as I have said appreciate all the hours you are putting in over the issue, nobody can doubt you are doing your best. Reading the thing you wrote on libraries does have some good stuff in it but there is nothing that ties a future Labour government to do anything to save libraries and so many have been lost already. I appreciate it must be very difficult and as a shadow minister half way through a parliament you have to be careful not to box yourself in. I have repeatedly asked you to name one authority that you don't believe is "comprehensive and efficient". I have no disagreement with you over the nonsense of the funding formula but you cannot really defend the conduct of Newcastle Council and maintain any sort of credibility with library users. Lots of councils are cutting way beyond what The Wirral did that triggered the Charteris Report intervention by Andy Burnham. You could do the following things that would help, without boxing yourself in too much:

Dan Jarvis:
Many thanks for your email, which I much appreciated – it is always a pleasure to have really thoughtful and constructive input. You make some very good points, which I'll respond to in order. 

First, I agree that the cuts in Newcastle and elsewhere are very worrying. The library service as a whole is being badly hit: 343 libraries have been closed or come under threat since April, with hundreds more closed to handed over to volunteers since 2010 – I'm sure you will have seen the Public Library News figures. I think we are on course many more in coming years. 

My concern is that attacking the councils for the cuts puts the focus and blame on them, and risks letting the government off the hook. Councils have an important part to play finding ways to protect frontline services, but they also face some genuinely tough choices. They might have to decide between cutting care for the elderly and cutting libraries. Libraries are not an optional luxury, and I think we should be supporting councils and strongly encouraging them to find innovative ways to make savings without closing branches. But I am also reluctant to parachute in without the benefit of long analysis of the specific challenges they face and criticise them for the difficult judgments they make. I know the financial position that Newcastle for example finds itself in is extremely challenging.

1. Announce that if you get into government you would properly define the 1964 "comprehensive and efficient for all the desire to make use of thereof" Proper benchmarks and measures that are minimum requirements required by the act.  

In relation to defining the 1964 Act, I agree that it is being rendered meaningless in current circumstances, and that needs to change. At the same time I think too rigid a definition of service levels would be the wrong path. I personally support re-examining the interpretation of the Act to make the requirement more meaningful, and will pursue that if I am still in this post when Labour returns to office. The first step would be to publish better information on how local authorities are performing.  

2. Start pushing for interventions by the current government into a couple of the worst offending authorities, Glos, Brent, Newcastle, Swindon, Liverpool there are lots to choose from. Any of them really, but choose a Labour and a Tory pair to maintain neutrality.

 I agree that government should be ready to intervene in some cases, but I am reluctant to call out specific authorities for same reasons I am reluctant to publicly criticise them. I also think the first thing the government should be doing is supporting councils – working with them to identify ways of making savings without cutting services, providing incentives, and sharing best practice. I also think there is a lot of scope to link libraries with other aspects of the work of government, like health and employment, so long as it does not compromise the independence and core functions of the library - and that this could potentially be used to generate more funding. (An example could be funding to create business incubation centres in libraries, which the government has in fact given a small amount of money towards – also greater use of libraries as centres for community life and education). Sanctions have a place in the worst cases, but I believe the first focus should be on finding positive ways to realise the potential of the service, which is huge. 

3.The biggest cost to most library authorities is the management and professions costs and service support. Its mind boggling how expensive the councils say library services cost to support (this is service support, other expenditure in the cipfa returns). Suggest a network of regional library management hubs, based on the Tri Borough arrangement in London, there are lots of savings to be made by joint working. 151 service supports, 151 other expenditures, 151 management and support structures, its exact duplication up and down the land. All the libraries could be invested in further and millions could be saved if there was the political drive to do this.

 I agree this is one option to look at for making savings, and an important one. Not every library authority is suitable for amalgamation, and there are a lot of issues to be worked through first – the Tri-borough model took some time to organise. But I think there is a big role for government in actively engaging with councils and encouraging them to look at this option. I've spoken in favour of this idea, but clearly not loudly enough. That is something I hope I can rectify in the future. 

 I know he is doing bugger all now but Vaizey was a vocal critic and urged intervention in a specific case in opposition, there is no reason why you cannot do the same. 

As you say, Ed Vaizey was good at declaring his indignation about libraries in opposition, though he has been much less effective at standing by his words in office. I don't want to fall into that trap, but there is a lot to be indignant about in the current situation. I have been trying to make the case in various speeches and press releases, but I hope I can amplify that message further.  

Trevor, thanks again for your points. Afraid I have very limited resources with which to do this job – not a single £ of resource for a wide shadow ministerial brief, so I’m not able to enter into protracted correspondence, but once again many thanks for taking the time to engage.