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Friday, 16 March 2018

Does Brent Libraries Strategy Need to be Changed?

Returning to yesterday's comment on Brent's Libraries Transformation, let's go though it all again for the benefit of Scott the commentator.

Is the 2011 Libraries Strategy Unpopular?
Not to judge by the numbers of visits and loans, both of which are substantially up at a time when most UK library authorities have seen a complete collapse in usage.  Similarly the people who actually use the service say that their experience of Brent libraries has improved since 2009.

Finally, if the strategy was unpopular one might expect to see that reflected in Brent election results since 2011 when the decision was taken.  I cannot see any such result in 2012 or 2013 (when the controversy was at its height), nor in 2014 (which actually saw Labour get its best ever result in Council elections in the Borough, nor in the General Elections of 2015 or 2017.  If the strategy was unpopular, where is the evidence to show that?

Are Volunteer Libraries a form of Privatisation?
In examples of this strategy across the country, such as that currently being undertaken by Northamptonshire, the plan appear to be to take a publicly owned building and either give it to an association of private individuals or retain ownership but allow the building to be used rent free.  That sounds like privatisation to me.  Most of these decisions appear to be an attempt to rid the relevant Council of the financial cost, including the management cost, so in most cases Council staff will no longer be providing the services and will no longer be in control of the building.  I have looked at examples around the country, often via the excellent Public Libraries News, and there seem to be surprising few (in fact no as far as I can see) attempts to lay down what these buildings are for once the Council is no longer in them.  The new organisations have complete control to (for instance) refuse entry to people they object to.

All this suggests to me that the buildings are effectively under forms of private control.

In the case of a charity, it is the people running the charity (as regulated by the Charity Commissioners).  The building is no longer like (say) Brent Library service which is subject to all the public sector reporting rules, with elected councillors ultimately responsible and legal duties to be accessible to the public.

Are the Allocation of CIL in this case the Best Use of the Money?
We would have a better idea of the answer to that if we knew who was making the decision and why, which is what I have written to Brent Council to enquire.

The process seems far from clear and could be, in a number of ways, unlawful and/or an extremely bad use of funds.

I would argue for this not to be the case, any grant would have to address a real need, would have to be assessed as meeting that real need on an ongoing basis, and if an asset is handed over there has to be a clawback mechanism in case the need is no longer being addressed.

In addition, to those fairly basic rules, it sounds to me that there is a real danger of the Council playing "favourites" with particular community organisations.

Does Brent Libraries Strategy Need to be Changed?
Finally, to answer the question at the top of this post, I would say not really in which case what precisely is the Council currently doing?

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