Doncaster Libraries: Putting the ‘con’ in consultation

Managers of Doncaster Libraries and Information Service last week announced to staff that 14 library branches were to close as part of the service strategy for 2011-2015, which includes a savings requirement of £1,346,490 due to the government’s local authority budget cuts. The council is required to save £73 million over four years, a disproportionate amount of which falls with the library service.

Doncaster’s “dysfunctional council” (The Guardian, 19th April 2010) has demonstrated that it is controlled by ineffective managers who have, through a process of misinformation, mislead and misinform the citizens of Doncaster.

The library strategy is severely flawed in many respects:
Confusion over branches to close.

The branches to close are not directly referred to in any of the documentation to be circulated at the council meeting on 12th January. Instead, a list of current branches and remaining branches is provided:
“The existing Libraries are located in Armthorpe, Askern, Balby, Bawtry, Bentley, Bessacarr, Cantley, Carcroft, Doncaster Town Centre, Conisbrough, Denaby, Edenthorpe, Edlington, Hatfield, Intake, Mexborough, Moorends, Rossington, Scawthorpe, Sprotbrough, Stainforth, Thorne, Tickhill, Warmsworth, Wheatley and Woodlands.” (Executive Summary, Library Service Review 2011)

This means that the libraries to stay open are: Armthorpe, Askern, Balby, Tickhill, Bentley, Doncaster Town Centre, Edlington, Hatfield, Mexborough, Stainforth, Thorne and Woodlands.

The libraries to close are: Bawtry, Bessacarr, Cantley, Carcroft, Conisbrough, Denaby, Edenthorpe, Intake, Moorends, Rossington, Scawthorpe, Sprotbrough, Warmsworth and Wheatley.

However, the map provided in the appendices to the documents clearly indicates that Intake library will remain open and Stainforth will close. (Appendix 2: Current Libraries Map and Proposed Future Libraries Map) There is contradiction in the very review itself.

Staff at both Stainforth and Intake Libraries have been informed that their libraries are to close. Understandably, staff are very confused and concerned about whether this means that in fact, 15 libraries will close?

Lack of consultation

Local Authorities have a Duty to Involve the public in public service issues. DMBC have failed to do this in the following ways:

Julie Grant, Assistant Director of Customer Strategy & Development, claims that the proposed changes to the library service have been developed in response to required consultation with the public, library staff and unions. However, this is not the case.

As the providers of frontline library services to communities, library staff are extremely well-placed to help service managers understand the needs of communities. However, staff have confirmed that they have not been involved in any consultation with service heads;

The council have failed to communicate with Bawtry Town Council (their library is on the proposed list of those to close). Clerk to Bawtry Town Council, Jennifer Worthington, said: “There has been no public/town council consultation whatsoever via the Authority”.
Most shockingly, there has been almost no public consultation at all. In response to a Freedom of Information request, the council claimed that they had made a questionnaire available between 20th October and 15th September 2010. 27 days (23 excluding Sundays) is not enough time for an effective level of consultation. The questionnaire was only available in English, and the electronic version was hidden under many links on the council website, which in itself scores low in terms of usability. This means that the questionnaire was not widely or equally accessible for everyone in Doncaster.

Another Freedom of Information request revealed that the response rate to the questionnaire was incredibly low, with only 2,726 respondents. This is approximately 1% of the population of Doncaster (2001 Census), and therefore is not a valid or representative sample.

Lies about consultation results

The responses to the questionnaire did not provide the council with the data they desired. As a result, they are now lying about the responses:

Julie Grant, Assistant Director of Customer Strategy and Development, claims “Respondents [to the questionnaire] wanted fewer, higher quality libraries in better locations, kept in better condition and with better parking” (Doncaster Libraries & Information Strategy). This is not the case. Out of the 2,726 people who responded to the questionnaire, only 1,832 answered that they agreed or disagreed with the idea of fewer libraries. 887 people disagreed. This means that, of the small number of people asked (1% of the population of Doncaster), an even smaller number answered (0.6% of the population of Doncaster), and of that small number, almost half the respondents (48%) disagreed with the idea of closing libraries. Therefore, to suggest that respondents wanted fewer libraries is misleading, inaccurate and untrue.

Ms. Grant also claims that “the use of volunteers in libraries was endorsed by the majority of residents” (The Star, 6th Jan 2011). This is, demonstrably, a lie. Of the 0.7% of Doncaster residents who responded to whether volunteers were a good idea, 59% of them said they disagreed. This is neither the majority of residents of Doncaster nor the majority of the people who responded to the question.

The behaviour of the council is unacceptable. The proposed closures and cuts to library provision are the result of disproportionate cuts to the library budget and nothing to do with the needs of the citizens and communities of Doncaster.

Legality of Proposals

The cuts to the library service may be illegal; the number of libraries to close could mean that the council is in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act and the Education Act. This is being explored by the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign and the national organisation Voices for the Library.

Campaigning against the cuts

The Save Doncaster Libraries campaign is working to challenge the proposals. They are encouraging people to let their councillors and MPs know that the cuts to the library service will have a detrimental effect and that these decisions are not supported. A Read-In will be held at Doncaster Central Library on Saturday 29th January at 1-3pm to raise awareness of the closures and show opposition to the proposals.

A petition has been raised in opposition to the proposals. 10,000 signatures are needed to force the council into public debate on the issue. To date more than 3,000 people have signed the petition, surpassing by over 300 the number of people involved in the council’s public consultation process.The petition can be downloaded and printed off from this link: http://bit.ly/sdlpetition. Save Doncaster Libraries urge people to circulate it widely around their local areas.

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