Below are condensed notes taken by Gill Johnson. For a full-length version please see here.
The tone of the Overview and Scrutiny (O & S) Committee on 10th November to consider the Cabinet decision to implement the Library Review was set when, despite the good turnout of elected councillors and members of the public, the Chair was informed that both Mayor Davies and his portfolio holder with responsibility for libraries, Cllr. Cynthia Ransome, had both sent their apologies offering other commitments as their excuse; accordingly the Executive would be represented by Cllr. Mark Thompson. The Chair, Cllr. Sue Phillips, expressed her displeasure noting that at the date and time of the O & S meeting had been arranged to coincide with a space in the mayor’s diary.
Cllr. Kevin Rodgers introduced the item giving the reason for calling in this item as follows:
- Recent information about the high level of young people not in education, employment or training in Doncaster (25%) which underlined the deprivation in many of Doncaster’s communities;
- The perceived inadequacy of the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted as part of the Review;
- The Executive’s claim that there were groups of volunteers ready and waiting to take over the running of libraries in their communities;
- The opinion that the consultation on which the Review’s proposals were based did not adequately reflect community views.
He concluded that many of the 14 communities affected by the proposals had no expertise or appetite to run their local library and that the Executive had offered no Plan B should this large scale transfer of so much of the library service to volunteers fail. Rather the Review should have looked across the whole service in more detail.
On behalf of the Executive Cllr. Thompson offered the meetings that had taken place between officers, community groups, organisations, elected members and at public meetings as evidence that community views had been sought. He stated that many authorities in different parts of the country were considering similar proposals re their libraries – some 3 dozen in all. He referred to a recent report from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council on community-run libraries and said that although some local authorities were simply closing some of their libraries Doncaster was recommending this alternative to such action. He went on the restate some of the statistics from the consultation concluding that only 12% of the Borough’s population actually used libraries and that what was proposed was the best that could be achieved in difficult circumstances.
Questions from elected members.
Many contributions mostly from councillors representing wards where their library was at risk. Matters covered included the cost of training and supporting volunteers; uncertainty around the sustainability of community-led provision; concerns about the quality of the consultation; the lack of information provided by DMBC in response to specific queries; CRB checks/costs; concern about co-locations in schools; whether or not a Plan B existed in case of no community-led solution; the disproportionate effect of the proposals on deprived communities; costs relating to securing/disposing of empty buildings.
Questions/comments from members of the public.
Again many of these were about specific libraries.
Matters covered included the failure of DMBC to answer the many questions prospective volunteers might have; criticism of the consultation process; the 2- tier nature of the public library service in Doncaster that would arise if these proposals implemented.
Response from the Executive.
Preference for volunteer-run service in current library building; inevitability of change given funding cuts; Doncaster was trying to keep some library service going where some other authorities had simply taken a decision to close libraries; no one solution for every community; no pot of money available to support communities but discussions taking place about letting/leasing policies and charges and advice about grant opportunities; frustration because delays resulting from the call-in had impacted on discussions with communities and decisions on hold.
It was apparent that in some specific cases relating to a particular library/community there was sometimes a divergence of opinion as to whether consultations with the communities had taken place or not and the accuracy of the information being provided by DMBC.
Conclusion and recommendations.
The Chair summarised the Committee’s concerns especially:
- The cost of training/supporting volunteers
- Access to a consistent level of service across the Borough and the impact of a 2 tier service
- The safety of volunteers and issues regarding the safeguarding of children and young people.
- What happens to disused buildings.
- The Equality Impact Assessment and the Borough’s overall policy framework.
- More specific information required about alternative provision solutions.
- Acceptance that the consultation had been flawed.
- Is there a Plan B and if so what is it?
- To refer the Cabinet decision of 12th October back to the Executive with a request for specific answers to the concerns as expressed and some more detailed examples, especially regarding how community-led library solutions had worked out over a period in other authorities with a view to assessing the medium/long term sustainability of the proposals.