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:
At a meeting on Tuesday 5 June, Members of the County Council’s Education, Libraries and Localism panel were faced with stark facts. Following years of neglect, the Council has apparently realised that it has two valuable art collections worth over £25M which nobody was looking after! Their solution: dispose of over 90% of the works, and just keep the most relevant to Hertfordshire.
Unsurprisingly those in the know had raised a petition from over 500 concerned Hertfordshire residents requesting that the Conservative-run County Council rethinks its plans and works considerably harder to ensure that the collection remains in public rather than private hands and seeks alternative management and funding options for the collection.
Panel members from all parties spoke mostly in support of the petitioners, whilst recognising that officers had at least begun to address the problem. Sadly a good and constructive debate was cut off by the Conservative chair who pushed through a recommendation to cabinet, backed by all Tory members, to just note the report and do nothing to address the concerns of petitioners – not good enough in the opinion of the Liberal Democrat and Labour Councillors present!
County Councillor Mark Watkin, Liberal Democrat and Opposition Spokesperson for Education slammed the County’s approach. “The way this wonderful asset has been allowed to fall into decay is shameful. It is all too reminiscent of the County’s gross mismanagement of Cuffley Camp Outdoor Centre which had to be disposed of because of lack of investment and neglect. It is clear that there has been insufficient and inadequate consultation with bodies such as the University of Hertfordshire, local Museums and other interested bodies. Nothing should be done until all local avenues have been explored, and a coherent strategy developed.”
At today’s meeting of the Education, Libraries and Localism Cabinet Panel. The Liberal Democrat team voted against the County’s plans to outsource their much loved and highly popular Library Service while the Labour Group leader abstained. In spite of this, the Conservative led Panel agreed to the County developing a detailed business case before finally deciding whether to go ahead with the scheme.
The Conservative run County Council is being forced into making swingeing cuts across all of its services, and in particular is looking to save £1min the Library Service as a result of the withdrawal of funding from the Conservative Government. It aims to do this by establishing a public Service Mutual (PSM) company to operate all the existing libraries which it will hope will result in achieving the necessary savings. To do this it is paying significant sums for consultancy advice from Mutual Ventures which could have been used to improve the current service.
The Council admits it is a high risk approach as the financial benefits of over £600k per annum will only be achieved if the PSM is awarded charitable status and is able to reclaim 80% of the business rates that the Libraries pay.
Mark Watkin, opposition spokesperson for Libraries explains “By their own admission, the County Council recognises that the current Library service is relevant, versatile and innovative. Its total usage through visits and online access is increasing. However the outcome of the recent consultation showed that more residents opposed the proposals than supported them, similarly so did a majority of the hard working library staff. The Council needs to have greater confidence in their ability to generate income from a wider use of their facilities. Expecting the County’s 10 District Councils as well as the County Council to forego their business rate income, is not a socially acceptable approach to solving the financial challenge.”
Note from the county council
A public consultation on proposed changes to Hertfordshire Library Service will run from 29 September to 7 December.
In addition to completing questionnaires, residents will also have the chance to speak to Members and senior library managers at a series of drop-in sessions at libraries across the county. You can read the timetable of these sessions on hertsdirect here. Please pass this on to residents in your area.
The consultation gives everyone a chance to consider specific proposals for their library. Their views will help develop the next steps in implementing Hertfordshire County Council’s innovative strategy ‘Inspiring Libraries’ which aims to ensure that the county’s libraries become increasingly important and relevant to local communities over the next ten years.
Some of the key changes proposed include: (more…)
Note from the County Council
More than 10,000 residents have already responded to the Future of Hertfordshire Libraries consultation, launched on 21 October 2013. We are sending out a new wave of publicity this week to remind people that there is less than a month to go before the closing date of 31 December 2013.
This exercise provides a unique opportunity for us to seek the views of Hertfordshire residents on their priorities for the library service over the next 10 years. The results will inform the development of a new strategy, which will set the future direction of the service, and determine how we address the social, technological and financial challenges of a changing world. We want to encourage as many people as possible to contribute their views in order to ensure that we continue to provide high quality library services that are relevant to the needs of local communities.
Further details, including a link to the online questionnaire and times for the remaining public meetings and drop-in sessions are available at http://www.hertsdirect.org/services/libraries/libraryconsultation.
From the county council
What will Hertfordshire libraries look like in 10 years time? The county council would like to hear your views in an extensive public consultation exercise which has been launched this week.
The county council is developing a new 10 year strategy for Hertfordshire’s libraries to ensure it can continue to provide a modern and relevant service. (more…)