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Friday, 9 October 2015

Brent and Lambeth Libraries

I see Lambeth have been going through a major review of their libraries.  Their overarching strategy seems to be to concentrate resources on a smaller number of improved and more flexible buildings with good transport links.  In other words, very similar to Brent's Libraries Transformation Project.  Since Lambeth is also a densely populated urban authority with good transport links I would expect such an approach to be successful (as it has been in Brent).  Lambeth have the advantage that they can look to how libraries have progressed in Brent over the past four years to see how their approach might work.

Where they currently differ from the Brent approach is in their attitudes toward the sites that will cease to be proper libraries.  This must have been a subject of considerable angst I am sure.

In Brent we considered going down the Big Society route only to decide that it would not have been viable on the proposals put forward.  This was a major part of the legal challenge put against the Council, which the Council comprehensively won.  The issue is given extensive coverage on the very good Brixton Buzz blog site. 

Lambeth Council appear to be considering keeping the buildings to be run by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) as "healthy living" centres.  I can see the logic of that.  It nods to the idea of libraries becoming more joined up with the public health agenda as indeed local government in general is becoming.  It may have benefits in bringing the sport service in Lambeth and libraries closer together.  It ensures the management is done by an established service provider that the Council has a long standing relationship with. It also, which I suspect is the main driver of the policy, keeps the buildings as Council owned assets.

That last point is one I see as wrongheaded.  I don't think that keeping buildings in Council hands should be an end in itself.  Building cost time and money to maintain and manage. If they are not being used for Council services, it would be better to dispose of them, and use the money to make the existing buildings fit for purpose.  Look at our experience in replacing the old Brent Town Hall Library with Wembley Library and watching the number of visits increase sixfold.

The dangers of trying to cling to the old buildings and use them to provide services are:
  • You start to design your services around protecting buildings rather than actually meeting community needs.
  • You may get into a procurement middle as in Lincolnshire and be subject to legal challenge.
  • You may give an unwarranted soft deal to one provider.  Brixton Buzz suggests that GLL is getting those buildings on a 25 year lease at a peppercorn rent.  If true that does not sound to me like a good use of a public asset.  I suggested in another case that such deals may not even be lawful for the Councils concerned to enter into. 
  • Anecdotally, I have been told that where inexperienced volunteers have taken over libraries, they often expect advice and support from the Council library service which under pressure Council services struggle to provide.  This can easily turn into a negative relationship where the staffed service feel that they are constantly having their energies draining away into supporting volunteers and that the Council's own services suffer as a result.  Conversely, the volunteers often feel that the level of support given is inadequate, leaving neither side happy.

This will be a potential danger in the recent decision to awarda contract to the organisation led by former Lib Dem councillor Paul Lorber in the Barham Park complex, although disposal of that building was never an option in that case.

One final point of interest is the proposal to adopt the Merton model of volunteers.  This retains Council buildings and some Council staff, but with a much wider role for volunteers.  Given the fashionability of volunteering in the library sector, I am surprised that it does not get more coverage as it seems more viable than the "Big Society" stand alone model.  

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