Libraries – Lost at an alarming rate but will we ever get them back?

This is former Aintree Ratepayer Councillor Terry Baldwin speaking at a meeting to try to save his local library in 2013.

Libraries have been lost at an alarming rate across the UK because of austerity which, I might add, was backed by all 3 major political parties in the 2010 General Election. So whichever party had won back then the consequences would have been as they turned out to be or even worse across most public services. Indeed, it has been argued that under Labour in the 2010 – 2015 Parliament the cuts would have been greater as they planned to make £1b more than the Coalition Government actually made. The Treasury/Institute of Fiscal Studies chart below illustrates my point:-

But for me one of the greatest losses in our communities has been the demise of libraries, indeed I put a great deal of effort into trying to save Sefton’s closing libraries along with many other community campaigners. The loss of Aintree Library caused me the most concern as until 2011 I had been a Borough Councillor for Aintree Village. Others of course will have felt just as keenly the loss of their local library be it in Churchtown, Ainsdale, Crosby (College Road), Birkdale, Litherland or Orrell as Sefton Borough lost 7 of its libraries to cost cutting by the Council.

All that, as they say, is history. However, my question is will we get any of the lost libraries (in a suitably modern form) back? Well we won’t be getting Birkdale or Aintree Libraries back in Sefton Borough as the sites both now have housing on them. Here are before and after shots of Aintree:-

Me outside the former Aintree Library

The same site in 2017 when the houses, now completed, were being erected.

Libraries are far more than places where books are kept and borrowed from and I say that as a hoarder of books. A library is a community meeting place, a hub for the community, a place where lonely and isolated people can meet others. Yes they provide IT access and they should all have coffee shops within them too, like at Liverpool Central Library. Their foundation was all about the joy of reading together with gaining knowledge and such worthy aims are still quite valid to my mind.

Readers of this blog-site will probably know that I found Sefton Council’s unwillingness to run libraries, that it could not afford to run, in innovative ways using volunteers most perplexing (and that’s being polite about it!); it was a though the Council saw volunteers as more trouble than they were worth. But other models of running libraries have been successfully established across the UK where councils did not use their dead hand to stop such innovation.

Such innovations have regularly gone though my mind as I’ve come across them and then recently on a visit to the north east I saw this in Tynemouth:-

What’s more it was directly opposite a flat we had rented for a week’s holiday. Wow I thought, that’s great a library to visit and explore. And then the cold light of reality struck me, it was a closed library although not obviously so until you got right up to it. As you can imagine my heart sank when I realised I’d witnessed another gone library. Then this appeared a couple of days later:-

North Tyneside Council mobile library

Well a mobile library is far better then no library at all but whilst any kind of library will make me smile there is a part of me which looks upon them in a similar way to a rail replacement bus, if you get my drift. And so I thought, well at least Tynemouth has a mobile library as some council’s have withdrawn them too and my mind, such as it is, wandered elsewhere.

Then almost by chance I saw a local newspaper in our flat called the News Guardian and in flicking through it and smiling at some of the local articles of the kind you only find in local newspapers:-

‘Man bites dog – dog to sue’
‘Council leader thinks new traffic island is fantastic’
‘MP has a cup of tea and a cake with with potholing club members’

(and yes I did make these headlines up for the avoidance of doubt)

my eyes fell upon this article:-

Well that’s innovation and a future for Tynemouth Library I thought and my spirits lifted until that is I thought back to the lack of library innovation back home in Sefton Borough of course!

Libraries are still worth saving and personally I’d like to see a new modern network of them being re-established….

Click on the photos and newspaper article to enlarge them

Aintree Village – Where once Aintree Library stood….

This is what the site of the former Aintree Library looks like now:-

And this is what it used to look like when it had a flourishing Library:-

Me outside the Aintree Library

Things certainly move on quickly as it seems like only yesterday that a volunteer group was formed to take over this library which Sefton Council had given notice that it no longer was going to run. Of course there were 6 other libraries that Sefton Council swung its axe over – Orrell, Litherland, College Road (Crosby) Ainsdale, Birkdale and Churchtown.

I bet the volunteers who were looking to take over the running of some of the closing libraries are still as angry as I am that they were not given the chance to try to do it. Seeing one of the closed library sites being repurposed, no matter how positive that new use is, does not diminish the anger at how those volunteers were treated by Sefton Council.

Austerity as we think of it post the financial crash is far from being the whole story of the decline in council services

There is no doubt that austerity as either implemented by the Coalition Government (and then sadly pushed far, far harder by the present Tory Government) or indeed as outlined by Alistair Darling (his austerity would probably have been harsher than the Coalition’s some commentators say) on behalf of the Labour Party prior to the 2010 General election has had a huge impact on the ability of councils to deliver services.

But in fact there is a funding crisis that goes back much further than the financial crash of 2007 that has impacted on local authorities. That funding crisis is back in the headlines now but I recall it rearing its head almost every year that I was Sefton Borough Councillor during the budget setting process. In fact it was twofold i.e. children in care and care for the elderly.

Year on year senior council officers would present the need for extra money to be put into these two care budgets, often the amounts asked for, year in year out, would be have six 000,000’s behind them.

My point is that the elderly and children in care budgets have been eating further and further into council budgets for many, many years so austerity as far as local authorities are concerned did not start with the great financial crash but maybe 10 to 15 years prior to that.

And what made me think of this matter which must have been impacting on every local authority with responsibility for elderly/child care? Well two things really. The elderly care crisis is hitting the headlines yet again because politicians refuse to address it properly and have failed to do so for a least the last 20 years. And the other very local issue that made me think about it is the demise of public toilets and in particular the former award winning ones in Maghull.

Maghull's closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Maghull’s closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Public toilets have been in decline for a long time and the Maghull ones are an interesting and sad example not least because Sefton Council would once boast about them being award winners (Public Loo of the Year or some such award) back in the 1980’s. But since those days the Council’s focus, you could say its priority, has been slowly but surely moved towards funding the elderly and children in care.

What’s happened has been a creeping process whereby the amount of money each local authority has to spend on other services has got smaller and smaller as the budgets for elderly and children in care have got bigger. And this well before the consequences of austerity and the financial crash hit them via government grant cuts.

The thrust of government policy has in effect been to force local authorities to spend their money in these two key social care areas and on little else. Yes there’s no doubt that the austerity that followed the financial crash sped up this process beyond what anyone could have conceived but it had been a trend for a long time, one which was pursued by governments of all colours.

In reality local authorities (this does not include Town and Parish Councils – they don’t get an government grants) are now focused on delivering statutory services and have almost no money to deliver things that local people may want. Public toilets, for example, are a non-statutory service hence their demise across the UK.

Personally, I have thought that the funding of local authorities has been inappropriate for many years because they are in reality delivering two very different things i.e. local often non-statutory services for their communities and statutory services where they are in effect simply an agent delivering governmental/national services. The two got muddled up in the times of plenty and it did not seem to matter. However, in times of scarce money it is the local mainly non-statutory services that have been lost as the money has gone to prop up the statutory ones.

The former Aintree Library - closed by Sefton Council.

The former Aintree Library – closed by Sefton Council.

Sadly, it is more complex than that even because if you take the example of libraries they are a statutory service i.e. local authorities have to provide them. But the level to which they are provided is a different matter so Sefton Council was able to reduce it’s libraries from 13 to 6 without falling foul of the law not so long ago.

However you look at it local authorities are the fall-guys for austerity because governments of all colours over the past 20+ years have not funded statutory services, particularly adult/elderly social care, properly.

Closed Sefton Libraries – Why I was so angry over Labour’s ‘just close them’ approach

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/first-look-inside-waltons-revamped-11457683

The Liverpool Echo has the story – see link above

I probably bored for England during my attempts to try to stop the straight closure of 7 of Sefton Borough’s libraries. And yes of course others did far more than I did to try to save their local libraries and the huge campaigns in Churchtown, Aintree, Crosby and Birkdale come to mind – all of which were sadly ultimately unsuccessful.

Fighting for Southport's Libraries

Fighting for Southport’s Libraries

What angered me was the lack of imagination and forward thinking in Sefton Council. The fact that under the dead hand of its Labour Leadership straight closure seemed to be the only possibility being seriously considered. Yet across the UK innovative ideas have been tried to re-purpose/reorganise community libraries to give them a viable future and I have commented on many of these ideas before.

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

And here we have another one and it’s on Sefton’s doorstep in Walton! I am not saying that all 7 of Sefton’s closing libraries could have been saved like this but I am saying that with innovation maybe they could all have had a future in differing ways.

Oh for the dead hand of local political leaders!

Library losses and a strange ‘volunteer’ thing happening in Sefton Borough

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956“>www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956

The BBC has the story on its web site – see link above

Fighting for Southport's Libraries

Fighting for Southport’s Libraries

If you type in ‘Sefton’ in the box on the BBC web site article to gain information about your own local authority the following comes up:-

In Sefton since 2010 seven libraries and/or mobile libraries have closed. In 2010 there were 137 paid staff in libraries, compared with 58 now. The council had 80 unpaid volunteers in 2010 and has 164 volunteers today.

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

Now then the interesting and probably astounding thing here (assuming the BBC information is correct) is that the number of volunteers working in Sefton’s remaining libraries has risen substantially over the past 6 years, indeed it has doubled! But why is this a surprise? Well back in the turmoil of Bootle Labour closing Sefton’s libraries 2 or 3 years ago they made it very clear that they did not want volunteers helping to run libraries! The link below is to pertinent blog posting of mine from back in 2014:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2014/02/23/we-simply-do-not-want-volunteers-to-run-council-services-what-other-conclusion-can-you-come-to/

rsz_orrell_library_5

So where does this leave us? The big questions are:-

* Has Labour-run Sefton ditched its opposition to library volunteers? If so when did they make this most welcome policy shift?

* If the volunteers wanting to take over the running of Aintree and College Road Libraries were unacceptable, why was this the case when the Council has seemingly gone on to recruit other volunteers?

* Why were Bootle Labour so opposed to the volunteers running closing libraries in the first place? Or is it more subtle than that in that some volunteers are deemed to be OK whilst others were deemed to be the opposite?

The murky world of Labour-run Sefton Council means we will probably not be getting any answers soon. And that is so sad.

Aintree Library – A sad end to the campaign to save it

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/disused-aintree-library-set-turned-10681279

The Liverpool Echo has the story – see link above

I can’t really express who sad and indeed angry I am to see the former library in Aintree Village being sold off for housing. It was a lovely library, a real heart of the community facility for Aintree Village and Melling.

This is former Aintree Ratepayer Councillor Terry Baldwin speaking at a meeting to try to save the library.

This is former Aintree Ratepayer Councillor Terry Baldwin speaking at a meeting to try to save the library.

It was great to campaign to try to save the library alongside friends like Peter Gill and Terry Baldwin and many others in 2013 /2014. It was, however, terrible to see how poorly they were treated by Sefton Council and its Labour rulers. All they wanted was a chance to try to run the library using volunteers. They had the support support of Aintree Village Parish Council but Sefton Council denied them the chance to run the library for reasons I still can’t get my head around but assume were of a political nature.

Cllr. Peter Gill another hero of the campaign to try to save Aintree Library.

Cllr. Peter Gill another hero of the campaign to try to save Aintree Library.

Yes local Labour MP Bill Esterson did his bit but he was let down by his own Labour Councillors who refused to to either save the library or let the volunteers have a go at running it. Sorry, but Sefton Labour should hang their heads in shame over this and the other closing library sites in the Borough where volunteers were effectively held at arms length.

Now housing is going to be built on the site. Sefton Council has closed the library and disposed of the site but good folks of Aintree have got nothing from the deal.

One thing in the Echo article above is rather ironic though where it says ‘Later that year [2013], 20,000 protesters and local MPs and councillors campaigned to keep local library services running’. Well that’s true but the councillors were Lib Dem and Tory members of Sefton Council, the Labour Group were the ones axing the libraries!