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Steve Bullock on cuts to libraries

In a recent article entitled Reading in the Runes on, Steve Bullock argues that there is no alternative to reviewing the whole purpose of libraries and streamlining their provision. The article is a clear guide to his thinking on the five libraries threatened with closure in Lewisham:

Libraries have played a big part in my life. When I was younger, I used to hang around the village library a lot – reading books and obscure magazines, although the presence of an attractive young trainee librarian may have played a part too.

As a student, I wrestled with Hegelian Dialectical materialism beneath the dome of Leeds University’s magnificent Brotherton Library. And, as chair of leisure services in London’s Lewisham borough during the 1980s, I encountered a service which had developed piecemeal, and was finding it a challenge to come to terms with changing customer expectations.

Fast-forward to 2010, and I find myself the recipient of letters and e-mails which presume I know little about libraries – and care less.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Since becoming mayor in 2002, I have been able to deliver one new, state-of-the-art library, and see two listed buildings renovated and the libraries they contain dramatically improved.

Another new library will be built soon in one of the most deprived parts of our borough, while yet another is undergoing refurbishment.

All of that was planned before the current government decided to scapegoat local authorities and force cuts on an unprecedented scale to be made by every authority.

Without resorting to ‘shroud waving’, there is no escaping the fact that some of the services we provide, particularly to young and old, are pretty much matters of life and death.

Sustaining those services at an adequate level will be a struggle, not least because they constitute such a large part of our controllable budget, and we face rising demand for them.

Against this background, every other service has to be re-examined. We need to rethink what constitutes an acceptable level of provision for those services which contribute to the vitality of our communities, but are not essential on a day-to-day basis.

Library services are inevitably going to be part of that consideration. Those for whom libraries are the most important thing will argue the case for absolute priority, just as those who care deeply about other non-essential services will argue their corner.

But those of us who are charged with taking an overview, and reaching conclusions about the allocation of diminishing resources, cannot take such a view. For a service to be offered even a degree of protection, let alone absolute exclusion from cuts, there must be an overwhelming case, and I have yet to hear such a case in the context of library provision. But neither is Lewisham or anywhere else, I suspect, proposing completely to close down the library service, despite what much of the public debate on this issue suggests.

In Lewisham, we began thinking about the future of the library service long before we faced the current financial horrors. In 2008, I set up a commission to identify and respond to the opportunities and challenges faced by the borough in developing library and adult learning services.

Members of the commission were drawn from Lewisham’s political parties, the community and voluntary sector, library and community education service, users, colleges within Lewisham, the Learning and Skills Council, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, and Lewisham’s Primary Care Trust.

One of the things the commission reinforced for me was that we did not provide a service which was being delivered on an equal basis across our borough.

The bigger libraries, with greater facilities and longer opening hours, provided a service not only for their immediate area, but also drew enthusiasts in from further afield. Other libraries, despite their limited facilities and shorter opening hours, served very local communities, and changes to either the service or the building were seen as a significant loss to that community.

It is perhaps worth noting that Lewisham has 18 wards, and has never been able to support a library in each one. Libraries are local for some of our residents, but by no means all.

We are part of the Future Libraries Programme, formed by a partnership between national and local government, which aims to help the library service during the current, challenging financial situation. Together with other south-east London boroughs, we are looking at options and opportunities for improving quality and reducing costs by working more closely together.

Our investment in buildings and technology has led to increased usage, and we have developed a model for community libraries which is delivered in partnership in areas underserved by the current provision.

It is this model which offers the possibility of making significant savings, but sustaining a library service in a number of locations where otherwise there would be straightforward closures.

This is no easy task, and each location has unique challenges, but it means that if we can help create strong local partnerships, they will be able to deliver not only library services but act as hubs for the local community.

Libraries will remain an important part of the services that Lewisham and other councils provide, but in a world where central government formula grant funding for councils is falling by 12.1% in a single year, with further cuts to come, change in both the scale and nature of library provision is unavoidable, however loudly special interest groups deny it.

Photographs courtesy of