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Thursday, 28 January 2016

Monitoring Volunteer Library Performance in Brent

One advantage of the proposed rate relief that has been rather indiscreetly leaked about the former Preston Library is that it will give Brent Council a chance to develop a regime for assessing what a volunteer library is actually doing.  I have remarked in the past that volunteer libraries seem to have had remarkably little scrutiny in this regard.  Cheerleaders such as Ed Vaizey have simply assumed a volunteer operation can do as much or more than a professional library service without real evidence either way. 

The terms of the case for NNDR relief seem to bind the Council into making some form of assessment before deciding top grant relief.  Since the relief is time limited it will have to be repeated every time the relief is considered for renewal.  Indeed it may be that Brent officers have already developed a model, given the Cabinet decision on 20 January.  In any case if the group returns to the building, a big "if" I have previously argued, an assessment for any tax relief would have to be made.

A checklist of factors to consider is on page 94 to 95 of the Cabinet papers.  My experience of the Brent library groups in general was that they were quite resentful of this sort of scrutiny.  For example, the Council's decision to base its assessment on whether equality needs were being met was actual one of the planks in their unsuccessful legal challenge

I think the Council might find it hard to justify the NNDR decision as relieving the Council of the need to provide library services or as necessary to supplementing those services, since Brent Library services can be plausibly be argued to be at their most successful level ever following the implementation of the Libraries Transformation Project.   Why more public money should be thrown into a service that is already greatly improved, and in a way that is drastically different to the current publicly run service defeats me.

The Council's requirement that the organisation "demonstrate a major local contribution" would require a far higher level of scrutiny than any of the existing volunteer libraries have hitherto undergone either in Brent or in most other authorities.  I am not sure whether the organisation has a full constitution or audited accounts, but in any case it will need them if it is to successfully attract another of the Council's conditions.

All this should have been before members when they made the decision to grant NNDR relief.  If it was not, it will be far harder for Brent to resist calls by other organisations for similar relief.

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