Monday 24 June 2013

Questions to Locality

I put in an email into Steve Wyler at Locality to try and understand their role in libraries. Steve very kindly answered my questions, the full Q&A's are below.

Why has your charity decided to involve itself in libraries?

This is not a new agenda for us. Locality has a membership of community organisations, and in many case our members have long-standing relationships with library services – hosting publicly managed libraries in community buildings (eg Zest, Sheffield), taking  ownership of library assets and securing capital investment to help upgrade public libraries (eg Prudhoe Community Partnership, Northumberland), taking over the management of library services (eg Alt Valley Community Trust, Liverpool) or calling for the establishment of new libraries and managing  them (eg Fresh Horizons, Huddersfield). 

18 months ago we began to receive requests for support as local library branches came under threat of closure and the option of community ownership/management became apparent. 

Locality members work predominantly in deprived communities, and we believe that people in those communities are too often denied resources and opportunities to fulfil their potential. We see literacy, access to learning, and education as one means of redressing this and therefore believe libraries have a vital role especially in deprived communities.   

We also believe in the benefits of community ownership and community self-determination. So where there are local community groups who want to try to save their library by playing a part in running a library service, we will get behind them to the best of our abilities. 

You have received millions from the DCLG as payment for implementing government policies, what percentage of your income is from membership fees and what from government grants?

Yes, much of our funding comes from DCLG and other government departments (eg Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice). We produce annual accounts, so we are of coursew transparent about this. Last year total government income from contracts and grants was 80% and membership fee income was 1% (NB: we have reduced membership fees because of the financial pressure faced by many community groups).   

We don’t simply implement government policy. We also draw on community experience in order to shape policy where we can, for example on policies about transfer of land and buildings into community ownership. We also challenge government if necessary, for example on the disproportionate spending cuts affecting the poorest communities, or on procurement policies which favour large private sector corporates.

What evidence does Locality have, both quantitate and qualitative that the social entrepreneur model is sustainable, saves money and produces as good a service as council run libraries?

The community enterprise model, whereby local community organisations develop and deliver services, and seek to achieve business viability, has a long and honourable track record.  Some of our members have proved sustainable for over 100 years, operating to this model.  We publish an annual survey of our members which shows that despite the considerable financial pressures, our members by and large are proving pretty resilient even in very difficult economic times.

With respect to community-run libraries, it is still very early, in terms of the range of different models which people are adopting, to be sure which will be most resilient in times to come.  We recognise that, especially in deprived areas, one or more of the following are usually necessary to ensure financial viability: an endowment fund, a transfer of assets capable of generating income, a continuing financial relationship with the library authority in the form of grants or contracts, access to professional staff and resources from the library authority, help and investment for the community group to develop associated income-generating enterprises.  

From our point of view, community-run libraries are not about saving the public sector money – they are about providing a mix of services which local people want and which they can shape.  

Do community run-libraries deliver as good a service as council-run libraries? It is probably fair to say that council-run libraries are sometimes extremely good, sometimes relatively poor, so it is hard to make any comparison in general terms.  Looking forward the questions will be whether community-run libraries can maintain or extend opening hours, whether they can maintain or increase numbers and types of people using the library service (against the current trend of decline), and whether they can deliver other added value through related enterprise, volunteer activity, and community ownership. We think the early indications are promising, but they are still only early indications so far.

What is the difference between Locality’s mission and the Big Society?  

We are still not completely clear what the Big Society agenda was - government seemed to be advocating different versions. One version seemed to be that public services and indeed much of the voluntary sector (labelled by some as ‘the usual suspects’) could be taken over by a new wave of volunteers supported by wealthy private ‘venture philanthropists’. We have spoken out on many occasions against this.  

Our mission is very different.  It is certainly not just about volunteers – it is to make every community a place of possibility, through social action, community enterprise and community asset ownership. This means paid staff alongside volunteers, community action alongside state action. We have recently published a statement about what we stand for:

Is there any statutory service that your movement and preferred model for libraries (Social Entrepreneurs) couldn’t provide? Do we actually need government at all to provide hospitals, social care etc. Where is the line?

We are NOT saying that ‘social entrepreneurs’ are our preferred model for libraries. We are saying that community-run libraries, where possible including community enterprise elements, should be a valuable part of the mix, to safeguard and enhance library services.  That mix, in our view, stills mean essential roles for the library authorities – after all our research for the Arts Council showed that the vast majority of community-run libraries are not stand-alone but rather an active partnership with the library authority retaining important functions.  

More widely in respect of other statutory services, we believe that we absolutely need government – central and local – for public services. At the end of the day, as elected bodies, they are the democratically accountable safeguard. Their broad public interest role means that they should (for example) retain the strategic overview, protect the public, and ensure that provision is of the highest quality possible. That doesn’t mean that everything need be directly delivered by government.  There is no absolute line here – we believe that the relationships and partnerships are best forged at a local level, responding to the fine grain of local knowledge.

Who is democratically accountable for services provided by the #Socent model?

I don’t know exactly what you mean by the #Socent model. But for services delivered by community-run libraries, it is worth remembering that that councils remain responsible for statutory library services (irrespective of the provider).  Last summer when we conducted our mapping exercise for Arts Council England, we found that 95% of community libraries are linked to local authorities – and to that extent they are still democratically accountable services.

Community organisations use different mechanisms to make themselves accountable to their community.  Sometimes though membership and elections, sometimes through ‘participative democracy’ where they in effect conduct a continuing conversation with users and local people, holding themselves open to engagement and challenge. But we recognise that – as with formal democracy where the voter turnout is often so low, and the extent of democratic participation extremely attenuated – participative democracy can have its weaknesses too.  For example we would not support a community organisation which intended a community run-library to limit services to a particular section of the community, or wished to impose restrictions, for example for faith reasons, on the books and other resources held by the library.

How many trained library professionals do you have advising library groups?

Locality is not – and would not pretend to be - a library service, so we don’t employ library and information professionals ourselves. Our function is different - what we do is make it easier to share knowledge and skills between community groups who are managing community libraries, and there is a great deal of expertise of all kinds within that network. And we encourage community-run libraries to engage with library professionals, in formal partnerships with the library authority where possible. Its worth noting that 55% of those community libraries we identified in the ACE report benefited from professional paid library staff in situ.

How can communities ensure that services provided by #socent are unbiased and impartial? For example, religious or political groups may running services may have views that are incompatible with the neutral space that a library provides?

As described above, the overwhelming majority of community-run libraries retain partnerships with the library authorities, which are bound by Equalities duties when entering into such partnerships.  And also as said above, Locality would not support community initiatives which excluded some groups of people or failed to respect the neutral space of a library. 

Victorian philanthropy created a lot of the public library network, is your movement not a return to this sort of service provision?

No, we are looking forward not backwards, while of course wishing to learn the lessons of the past. As said above, we do not believe that volunteers and private philanthropy by themselves are the solution: we need to build new forms of local community-public partnerships. 

What stops the library service becoming a postcode lottery under your proposed model for service delivery?

Our members experience a ‘postcode lottery’ all the time: in deprived areas in particular there are huge variations of employment opportunity, heath outcomes, crime and reoffending rates, educational attainment, opportunities for learning, access to youth and play services, access to advice, financial services, and so on.  Locality sees the goal of our movement as helping to make improvements in all these areas, and that applies to libraries as well as to other services. 

But we don’t think that is best achieved simply through standardisation, determined by centralised bureaucracies, an approach which has failed time and again. We think a shift of power and control to local agencies and local people is necessary if positive change is to be achieved.   

Should the 1964 libraries act be changed to allow councils to hand responsibility to communities to provide libraries?

As you will know in terms of libraries the Public Libraries Act (1964) requires that councils provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’. We believe that this is right, and that they should continue to be held to this.  But in our view that does not mean identikit solutions – there is always a need to take account of local circumstances and aspirations, and sometimes partnerships with community-run libraries will have a part to play in this.

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