At Thursday’s meeting of the County Council’s Education, Localism and Libraries Panel, Liberal Democrats voted against the Conservative Group’s proposals to set up an independent charitable organisation to run its Library Service. This new service should be viable only because it will not have to pay £1/2 million business rates, which would otherwise have in part provided income to all the District Councils in the County.
Using a competitive tendering process, any organisation will be able to bid to run the service as a Public Service Mutual organisation, which unlike the present Library Service will obtain charitable status. The risk is that while one bid will be spun off the existing service, the others will come from outside organisations. This could result in an organisation like Carillion which recently collapsed being trusted to run the service. Even if the provider remains solvent, and in spite of assurances to the contrary, there is a real risk that smaller or unprofitable libraries might be closed or services cut.
“It was a strange meeting” commented County Councillor Mark Watkin, Liberal Democrat and Opposition Spokesman for Libraries, “we had one paper spelling out an excellent vision for what the library service could grow into, which was fine. Then the next paper explained that this would be delivered by an unknown third party whose funding depends on saving Business Rates being able to raise charges substantially. There is deep uncertainty about the Government’s plans for business rates. If these were to be changed, the whole economic model on which this scheme is built might look very different. Raising charges may well disadvantage the most needy in society who could benefit most from what libraries offer. Not surprisingly, and reflecting the 41% of voters who, in the recent consultation, rejected this very high risk approach, Liberal Democrats opposed it.”
Links to paper: