Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Readers of The Stirrer will be aware of the little storm that has erupted in recent days over Labour's campaign to preserve the library service under threat from the Liberal Democrat councillors who ru(i)n Birmingham Yardley.

Let's go through the facts. For some months, the library service has been the subject of a 'service review' in Yardley. Whenever I hear those two words, I just wait for the cuts to arrive, for arrive they will. When the Liberals reviewed leisure services, we ended up with our local leisure centre not opening at all on Bank Holidays and closing early on Saturdays - in a warped bid to extend swimming. Go figure.

So, it was no real surprise last November when the interim report came to the constituency committee and the following comments were made about three of the five community libraries in the constituency.

Kents Moat Library is unsustainable as a stand alone site and does not have the space or facilities necessary to provide a full level of service. In the next few years the service will migrate to the proposed Poolway Customer Service Centre. However there are short term benefits in relocating to the Neighbourhood Office, Stechford Cascades, Meadway Community Centre or Poolway Co-op.

Glebe Farm Library is unsustainable as a stand alone site with insufficient space or facilities to provide a modernised library service. The current site could be developed to involve other partners who would provide services to complement the library. As a stand alone site Glebe Farm Library experiences security issues which would be addressed within a shared site. There are opportunities to work creatively with Hodge Hill Constituency to relocate Glebe Farm Library and remodel services to meet the needs of specific group within the community e. g The Pump. - Services for young people.

Sheldon Library is inflexible which limits the potential to offer a modernised and IT based service. The library does not have the flexibility to offer facilities and enhanced IT provision to meet the expressed needs of older people within the area. There is an expressed need for information and Neighbourhood Office services to meet the needs of older people within the performing meeting space, adequate public toilets, kitchen and refreshment area. Working for the Future has identified that services should be co-located to an enhanced Customer Service Centre at the Sheldon Community Centre.

The message there is crystal clear - those three libraries will be closed and the library service relocated elsewhere. The report also includes the reasons

Since localisation Yardley libraries have faced the ongoing challenges of a budget insufficient to operate universal levels of services from five libraries. Previously external funding has been used to allow for innovation, outreach and a programme of activities to increase the take up of the service. Currently services are being
delivered with minimum staffing levels, tight control of supply pool use, budget expenditure kept to a minimum and non filling of vacancies including critical supervisory posts.

This was raised in the meeting and the following comment was recorded in the minutes.

Adnan Saif, Constituency Director assured members that libraries were undergoing a business transformation which meant that Yardley had to achieve a
transformation of services. This did not mean that local libraries were closing...

That the report on the service review of Constituency libraries be noted.

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people weren't convinced and many left the meeting with a different view of the report. I can certainly say that I wasn't convinced and we decided to start a campaign to draw attention to this threat to our libraries from the Liberal Democrats, a party that won power in 2004 on the basis of a manifesto promising to raise library use to the national average. In Yardley in 2008, around 12% of the population borrowed a book, against a national average of 49%.

Thereafter, consultations were held with key user groups. Rather like the comments from the users of the Meals Direct service, these were immensely positive

At Glebe Farm Library [the unsustainable site] there was support for the staff and the services that have developed over the past five years. There was enormous praise for the work with local schools and successes in the Reading Challenge and initiatives to support National Year of Reading.

‘Staff are vital- ‘ they act as the facilitators. It is the staff attitude at Kents Moat [unsustainable] that makes it such a special experience.’

Marie only started using Kents Moat [unsustainable] library for Wired up to Wellbeing. She thought they were quiet ‘ shush’ places and not for her. It is only in the last year that she has started using libraries and she loves the experience of learning, using IT in good company.

The satisfaction levels are high - 93% of adults expressed satisfaction with the service and the report claimed that only 69.9% of children were happy with libraries. A union representative has since pointed out that this latter figure is incorrect, as it was calculated by taking the satisfaction statistics and dividing by the five libraries - ignoring the fact that for the duration of the survey, South Yardley library was closed, so not generating any returns. The accurate figure jumps up to 90.7% satisfaction - which is closer to the adult statistics and feels more accurate.

As you may be aware, we've taken this campaign up with gusto, working hard around the threatened libraries and gaining support in the most unlikely areas. And it seems that this riled the Liberal Democrat councillors, who seem to have become a little complacent in their exalted positions, so our campaign has come under sustained attack. When The Stirrer picked up the campaign, the big guns were rolled out, with Lib Dem councillor and deputy leader Paul Tilsley ringing Adrian Goldberg to tell him to 'do his homework' and then a press release from another Yardley Lib Dem, Jim Whorwood describing the original piece in the Evening Mail (which was based upon the report submitted to the councillors) as 'scaremongering.' The panic in the Lib Dem ranks even led to yet another gagging order - to match the one applied to the Meals Direct staff when that story broke - on the library staff in Yardley as the Stirrer threat-level was upgraded to 'mischievous.'

The Liberal Democrat councillors all seemed a little surprised and hurt that they were being held to account for their decisions by a rejuvenated opposition group determined to get involved properly in the political fight. Paul Tilsley told The Stirrer
'We have got no intention of closing libraries so I get very angry and upset when what I regard as responsible people are taken in by a political campaign by the likes of Stewart Stacey... He’s running a masterclass in how to attack a ruling administration.'
Now, let's nail this.

We haven't made this up. The truth is that this is a major concern to the people of Yardley and to the dedicated people in our libraries, who are also concerned about the future of their service. John Hemming has attempted to twist our simple message - wrongly claiming that we wanted to close the Glebe Farm site or that we opposed co-location or self-service checkouts.

Let's get one thing straight. Labour in Yardley aren't opposed to developing the library service, relocating libraries, technological improvements or co-locating them with other services. What we are opposed to is closing libraries, getting rid of the staff who are the lifeblood of the library system or replacing community libraries with 'neighbourhood libraries.' Neighbourhood libraries are little more than a room with a few shelves and a self-service RFID book checkout - they are designed to be run without much staff intervention. We've got no problem with them as outposts of the main libraries, but we will oppose them being used to replace the main service.

We've run a simple petition, calling for libraries in Yardley to be kept open and fully staffed for at least their current hours until better replacements appropriate to and agreed by local communities have been provided and opened. That's the nub of the campaign.

Paul Tilsley is right in one thing, though - it has been a masterclass from my friend Stewart. Even at a local level, some form of effective opposition to challenge the elected members is right, proper and healthy for democracy - and I'd argue the same in Sutton Coldfield, Yardley or even Ladywood. I would go further and say that the lack of an effective opposition to channel that challenge allows groups like the BNP to pick up on dissatisfaction and twist it to suit their own ends.

If Paul or any other elected member has problems with that, then they are in the wrong line of work. Labour in Yardley fully intend to turn the heat up in the political kitchen.

More on this tomorrow when I have had the chance to write up the outcome of tonight's meeting.

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