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“I don’t think so” – Ed Vaizey on UK public libraries

It’s tough being a Minister having to put as good as possible spin on things when there’s a crisis. The basic first step, of course. is to deny there is a crisis at all. This is what Ed Vaizey the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries did when he spoke at the Local Government Association Conference on 7th March. He admitted that authorities face difficult choices, caused by a crippling budget deficit and that this meant that everyone had to “cut their cloth” accordingly but then put the best possible of glosses onto the effect of this. This is not to say that the speech falsifies real or important improvements in the sector: Mr Vaizey was quite right that there are some and that they are very real, notably the pilot introducing library cards to all schoolchildren and the work being done partnering libraries with businesses. Rather, the speech resolutely avoided all mention of anything else and then claimed that, therefore, nothing bad was happening. The first half of the speech took this line about the Arts and then the second – more relevant to the purposes of this website – took the same line about libraries. This must have been especially difficult for Mr Vaizey, and his audience, considering the LGA have just a few months ago said that libraries could become “almost unsustainable” due to cuts and with rises in other costs.

Let’s look at Ed’s point in detail, in the order he mentions them, I have added in links and put in my comments in italics.

Enterprise hubs e.g. Northamptonshire. “the concept has been so successful, the council is planning to extend the concept by setting up a ‘hatchery’ space in their libraries, providing business incubation for up to one year.”. Business spaces will be in libraries for use by the under 25s. This looks like a great initiative. No mention, though, that Northamptonshire is cutting its library budget by 25% by April 2015.

“Local Authorities invested £820 million in libraries last year” which is a large figure but has been significantly reduced in recent years. Compare with the £1 billion or more that libraries budgets have recently been (e.g. this report claims £1.2 bn four years ago) then add on the effect of inflation for a real sense of the current budgetary situation.. [Addition: please see examination of English library spending published on the subsequent post].

“Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester are all making major investments in their central libraries, and Birmingham’s will soon be the largest library in Europe when it opens this year”. These will be great boosts for the respective cities but one should remember that they were all started under previous government. They would never have got the go ahead under the current regime that Mr Vaizey represents. Moreover, there are fears that the expense of these libraries will result in a major strain being placed on the rest of their respective networks. Indeed, this aleady being seen: Birmingham is cutting libraries budget by £2.3m 2013/14 (from £8.5m in 2011/12; Manchester is withdrawing from five libraries and Liverpool is putting ten of its nineteen libraries under threat).

“In the spirit of fresh thinking, the Public Service Mutual model is offering another way to maintain the delivery of library, and other services. In York, work is underway developing the first staff-led, public service mutual in library and archive services, with help from the £10 million Mutuals Support Programme”. Non-profits have critics as well as supporters and there is also the matter of the £250k cut to York libraries budget. One should also note that non-profits and mutuals are not immune from council cuts – Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, it has been reported this weekend, is facing some of the deepest cuts to its library services in the country, at 39% over three years.

“The Government has appointed a specialist adviser on libraries to work with local authorities and Arts Council England. I encourage you to engage with Yinnon Ezra over the coming months to consider different approaches to library service provision, and new ways of thinking about sustainability”. Yinnon is part-time, the libraries team in Arts Council England has been reduced to five for the whole of England and will soon not have a full-time libraries lead. The “new approaches” mentioned is also suggestive of a coded reference to volunteers replacing paid staff, especially coming so soon after Mr Vaizey spoke in favour of them at the Localities conference.

“The Arts Council has established a £6 million fund to support culture in libraries. We have published the CIPFA comparative profile reports for the first time. We are piloting automatic membership for school children and young people”. The comparative reports and the automatic membership are both very worthwhile measures. As ever, though, the funding claims require further examination. The ACE funding is over two years and the overall ACE budget has been further cut on top of the reduction in funding to £3m from the £13m that the MLA enjoyed. By the way, the Book Trust had its funding halved. There are also some concerns about the Governments insistence that public libraries are best fit into the Arts. Others suggest, that due to the importance of libraries to children and literacy, a better fit would be with the (far more protected) Education sector instead.

“And we are supporting a pilot £1.2 million project to turn six libraries into ‘incubators of innovation’ – to see them roll-out business support to towns and villages”. This does indeed look good.
“Libraries “In Crisis”? Again, I don’t think so.” See the great majority of non-government reports on UK public libraries in the last two years or alternatively, this list or this one. Alternatively, of course, good news can be found here. However, it’s hard to argue that the 201 libraries withdrawn last year and the 348 currently under threat represents a system that is not enduring dramatic and almost certainly negative change, at least for the hundreds of localities affected.

Taken as a piece, the message is clear. Authorities and users need to accept that the cuts are happening, stop griping and find the best way to soften the blow, trying any way they can to limit the impact on voters/users. This includes ways such as taken libraries out of council control – be it giving them to Trusts or the unpaid – that were not considered palatable even a few years ago. The impression is reinforced by the positive reception that volunteer branches have been given by the Communities Minister, Dan Foster MP. Another thing to note is what Ed does not say: there’s nothing about merging authorities or the importance of skilled paid staff. With Localism still very much the mantra of all main parties, he may feel that he cannot force library services to go for this economy of scale, thus signifying the at least partial death of his previously much-vaunted Future Libraries Program. It may, of course, be that this was simply too hard a message for what he wanted in an everything-is-rosy speech.

All of this, the Culture minister believes, should be done while keeping the most optimistic expression that one can have on one’s face at all times. Authorities and their library staff may see this as instruction to smile through gritted teeth and try to salvage what they can and how they can, while hoping that the results of the next General Election do not mean a continuation of such stormclouds/silver linings doublethink beyond 2015.

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