Many thanks to Gill Johnson for writing up her notes of last week’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting. (A shorter version is available 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.
Cllr. Rodgers evidenced these points stating that he had been contacted by a number of voluntary groups expressing their concern about the statutory obligations they were being asked to take on. He said that the EIA was supposed to reduce the impact of the proposals on the most vulnerable sections of the community but this clearly had not happened because the 2 libraries most immediately at threat from losing their council-run library, Carcroft and Denaby, had been identified in the Borough Strategy as wards where the quality of life needed to rise the most. He added that the tick-box format of the consultation questionnaire did not take sufficient recognition of the freeform replies given by respondents.
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.
The officer from Legal & Democratic Services was asked for his advice and stated that the Borough Strategy was designed to show the ‘big picture’ but was not a detailed delivery plan. Doncaster had to respond to significant economic challenges and Cabinet had sought to focus resources because no change was not an option. Therefore he did not consider the Cabinet’s proposals to be outside the Borough Strategy framework. He also referred to the recent decision in the London Borough of Brent confirming the legality of their proposals to reduce their library service although he noted this decision was under appeal.
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.
The meeting was then opened to questions from other elected members.
Q. How did the Executive view the dramatic negative impact arising from the proposals.
A. From a personal point of view the preferred option would be a volunteer –run service from the current library building. If that proved impossible then hopefully a service could be provided from an alternative venue/location. Believed this amounted to a ‘transformed’ service – change is inevitable.
Q. ‘Volunteers’ are not free. There is a cost arising from the necessary support, training, practical issues such as CRB checks etc. What professional support, budget, safeguarding measures was available?
A. Legal obligations for CRB checks would be met. Training would be given some of which might result in a qualification. Self-service provision would also be used more. This is the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.
Q. These proposals amounted not just to closure but to a death sentence. Of the individual examples of other authorities quoted how many libraries had been sacrificed?
A. Time and effort needed to answer that question would be unreasonable. Some authorities had simply closed libraries. Doncaster is trying a damage limitation exercise within available resources.
Q. Were the proposals based on whether a community could find volunteers or not? It appears none could be found in Carcroft or Denaby hence the proposal to close them.
A. Comprehensive meetings were held in Carcroft. Current building unsatisfactory regarding location/lack of parking. It is believed that a mobile library along with enhanced outreach would deliver a better service. In Denaby there were other council services with a better take-up where some co-location might be feasible.
Q. Re sustainability the anticipated community-led provision is uncertain. What volunteers are there for each community; what commitment do they have and what is the timescale for the hand-over?
A. A ‘comprehensive’ number of volunteers have been identified in Warmsworth, Bawtry, Intake and Wheatley but there are also others in many of the other communities.
Q. Wasn’t the consultation flawed because in effect only 2 options were given, i.e. community-led or closure?
A. A number of creative solutions were proposed and communities were listened to hence the different solutions suggested for different areas.
Q. In Denaby there would be a continuing cost from the space in the LIFT building therefore how could a saving be achieved?
A. Another council service has been identified that could make use of that space.
Q. Re Intake nothing has been finalised yet the community (ICE) is supposed to be taking over in January. There has been no discussion of costs re rents, rates etc. outside one meeting with DMBC Lettings department that had suggested ongoing costs in the region of £6500pa for rent and £22,000 for rates. ICE still had many unanswered questions.
A. The policy re building leases etc. is being examined – peppercorn rents might be a possibility because the Council is not in the business of profiteering. Charities can obtain rate relief of up to 80%. Recognised there would be many other costs but it is hoped to keep these to a minimum. Meetings had been held with ICE since 2010 but the timetable had slipped because of delays arising from the need to repeat the consultation, reconsider the proposals at a second Cabinet meeting and now a further delay from this O & S meeting. Some community groups had misled DMBC about their intentions. The current cost of running the library will not necessarily be the future cost. In Intake the possibility of leasing some space to a commercial enterprise is being looked at. All options are being considered and no final decisions can be made until legal agreements ready for signing.
Q. IN Bawtry there is a strong sense of looking forward rather than backwards but the community wanted support from DMBC, e.g. how would the question of CRB check costs be handled?
A. All these details will have to be set out in the business case for each location with the funding required from the community and the Council contribution specified in a legal agreement. However there is no massive pot of Council money available but there might be some small element of support. Re CRB checks this is not currently a requirement for library assistants.
Q. The whole exercise is about financial savings yet there will be some long-term costs e.g. training of volunteers. How much might this impact on the saving achieved? E.g. if another council service is to move into the LIFT building space in Denaby will this not simply transfer that cost to another DMBC budget head? Maybe what is required at Denaby is more input to encourage/increase use.
A. There will be some ongoing costs involved in training, rates relief etc. but staff and building costs are long-term savings. Outreach is the key to success but in the past there has been no investment. 8 literacy engagement assistants are proposed for the new structure. The leasing cost of the Denaby space has not been included in the savings calculation because it was known that this would be an ongoing cost.
Q. In Rossington the proposal is to relocate to another community building. The consultation supposedly revealed 25 volunteers. The task of implementing this has been delegated to the Neighbourhood Manager who tried to set up a meeting for prospective volunteers. No one turned up. The offer under discussion at present is 2 x 2 hour library sessions per week . In reality this is no use to anybody especially when the suggested times do not take into account school hours. In essence this equals closure of the service in this community.
There was no response to this from the Executive.
Q. Re management of the volunteers – how and by whom would this be done?
A. A combination of management solutions. Where communities set up Companies Limited by Guarantee (CLGs) to run their libraries this organisation could provide some overall management. In places where co-location was the preferred solution management would be provided by other agencies.
Q. If this Library review is not implemented those opposing the proposals must produce practical suggestions as to how else the £1.37 million saving be found.
Q. Re co-locations in schools what would be the provision out of term-time?
A. These discussions still to be held. The delayed decision meant a lot still to be decided.
Q. Re Wheatley – if there is no community-led solution what is the Plan B?
A. Closure could be a possibility in some areas. Again the call-in process meant decisions further delayed.
Q. Does not accept the propaganda from the Executive. The Review has not considered the Library Service in its entirety. There is a disproportionate effect on deprived communities e.g. Scawthorpe. Have the costs or securing/disposing of empty buildings been assessed?
A. It is believed that there is option for a chemist to take over providing a library service in Scawthorpe in the current library building.
Q. Can assurance be given that Intake Library will not close in January?
A. The implementation timetable will be revised as a result of the time needed for the O & S call-in.
The Chair then invited contributions from members of the public.
Q. Re Stainforth DMBC claims has held meetings with Town Council but this disputed. Suggested relocation to Youth Centre is not practical. Believes effects of relocation of groups/societies using current library not adequately considered. No discussion about the stock. The questions in the consultation questionnaire were loaded.
A. A meeting was held with a representative of Stainforth Town Council on 8th November. Relocation to the Youth Service was discussed but DMBC would be happy to support continued service in current possible if this was achievable. Again mentioned the effect of delays.
Q. Why was the Mayor apparently not aware of the advice being given by a Doncaster CVS trainer at a seminar held for prospective volunteers re the range of responsibilities they might be expected to undertake. Via the media he had asked for further information about this which had been provided but no acknowledgement/response yet received.
A. If resubmitted an officer would respond. Essentially 2 levels of volunteering of which the Mayor referred to the first of issuing and receiving books. Accepted there was another level involving management tasks that may be a role for different volunteers. DMBC wants to try to ensure sustainability. Accepted that perhaps some communities did have unrealistic ideas – this is being addressed.
Q. Re Sprotbrough people living in outlying villages who used the library did not receive the posted questionnaires.
A. The questionnaire was available on-line to everybody in the Borough. Paper copies also available in Sprotbrough Library.
Q. Re Sprotbrough a recent visit to the library had demonstrated 2 or 3 groups likely to be affected because of the difficulties of travelling to the alternative of the Central Library suggested by DMBC including mothers with young children and the frail elderly or people with disabilities. One has to ask where are we going in this community – the residents don’t know and it appears DMBC doesn’t either.
A. Every budget head is being examined. A large organisation has approached DMBC and expressed extreme interest in Sprotbrough but has asked not to be named. Information will be released in due course.
Q. Point of information – the second consultation questionnaire was not available on-line because it was targeted specifically only at residents of the particular communities. Did not recognise others who may work/be educated and be valid users of those libraries. If this is the best way to deliver community library services why not do it everywhere. A 2-tier service is not the way to go.
A. Apologised that previous answer incorrect – this consultation was not available on-line. However the savings proposed by the Review had been agreed by full Council at its 2011/2012 Budget Meeting. If these proposals did not proceed where else would the savings be made?
A statement from the trade union Unison was read out.
Cllr. Rodgers continued to disagree with how need had been defined in the EIA and said significant socio-economic factors had been ignored. He repeated his request for a Plan B.
The Executive stated the meeting had been a fair example of a mature debate which aided the transparency of local government and added that it would consider the recommendation of O & S. Everything possible was being done to avoid the closure of libraries.
Cllr. Kidd queried the number of times officers had referred to decisions being delayed because the Cabinet’s decision had been called in by O & S. This was part of the legitimate democratic process and needed to be allowed for when timetables were being proposed.
The officer stated that she had not intended to appear to question the legitimacy of O & S. However there was frustration around groups not wanting to make decisions and not being able to move forward.
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.