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Library closures – a reply to Steve Bullock

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. A full version of the article can be found on

Here, Sydenham Society member, Bryan Leslie, replies to this article:

Mayor Bullock, in between grappling (as we all do) with Hegelian dialectical materialism, sets out an apparently reasoned argument in favour of drastic reductions in Lewisham’s existing library service.  Closer scrutiny however reveals the Mayor’s dialectic – a bit like some of the libraries that he intends to close – to be in need of repair.

 No one doubts the extremely difficult position of the Mayor in having to make swingeing cuts to his spending programme – cuts forced upon him by central government diktat.  But Mayor Bullock would have you believe that he has no choice but to axe almost half of the borough’s library service.  Slashing the library service as he proposes produces a saving for the Council of £830k – all piled into year 1 (2011/12) of the Council’s savings programme.  This is among the highest tranches of cuts in the Council’s Phase 1 cuts programme.  It seems that the library service has been singled out by Mayor Bullock for special treatment.

 Are there realistic alternatives to closure?  It’s difficult to make a truly informed judgment without full access to Council papers.  We all have our favourite ideas about cuts – including a reduction in the pay and perks of senior Council officers and/or councillors, and not forgetting the Mayor.  Satisfying as such cuts might be it’s not clear that the savings would be anywhere near what is required to save the libraries.  However a more considered and thoughtful proposal has been put to the Council in which it is argued, with supporting figures, that if the proposed cuts were spread across the entire library service then all libraries could remain open albeit with each providing a somewhat reduced service.  The Council’s response?  Silence.    

 The Mayor will be well aware of the statutory obligation placed upon him to provide “…comprehensive and efficient public Library Services…”  He will also be aware of the 2009 Wirral Inquiry findings which established that library closures should take place within the context of a strategic plan for or review of the library service.  Yet the Mayor’s proposal to close the five libraries under threat was based on the crude and single criterion that they were not libraries where there had been (recent) significant capital investment.  So much for a strategic review. 

 In the case of Sydenham Library, the Mayor also argued that the building was in such poor condition that it required substantial, and unaffordable, investment.  That argument – which turned out to be based on a dubious assessment of repair costs – was especially annoying since such repair work as was needed had arisen because of a Council failure, over a number of years, properly to maintain the building.  (It’s worth noting, by the way, that the 2009 Mayor’s Commission, to which Mayor Bullock refers, did not recommend any library closures).

 As for alternative forms of library provision some of those initially mooted by the Mayor were wholly inadequate.  In Sydenham, for example, the Mayor wished to shut down our library and replace it with subsistence level provision – a handful of books and no staff – located in the Naborhood Centre.  Local and borough wide campaigning has forced the Mayor to take a more considered view.  Even so it is far from clear that the model for community libraries which the Mayor says he has developed will provide a viable level of service.  Take the Blackheath Library for example – it has a stock of around 21,000 books.  The Mayor’s proposed community library would have 7,000 books.  So, although the Mayor places great store on the community library model it remains to be seen whether it is capable of producing anything other than a Lilliputian version of the current, much loved, library facilities.     

 None of this is to argue that the Mayor is not faced with extraordinarily difficult choices but I do wish that whenever he meets resistance to his ideas he would not put it down to “special interest groups”.  Those many residents, locally and across the borough, who have deep concerns about what the Mayor intends deserve more respect than that.

Bryan Leslie