Response to Hampshire County Council’s Library Service Consultation 2020

This response is made on behalf of communities within the jurisdiction of Fareham Borough Council and has been compiled, approved and submitted by Fareham Liberal Democrats as part of our support for local communities.

In summary, we reject the rationale underlying the proposed options for Hampshire library service budget reductions. We call for a reversal of continuing under-investment as a first small step towards restoration of community well-being.

We propose a shift in investment priorities to better reflect the interests of citizens and communities.

1: Austerity – not what it said on the tin

This library consultation presents a major dilemma for respondents. As much as the background ‘Information Pack’ may try to project a positive ‘Future Vision’ for Hampshire’s libraries, any rejection of the two main consultation options (i.e. library closures and/or less library opening hours) leaves the respondent with only the third option: to propose some other way to achieve a budget reduction. Just saying NO is not a permitted option in the consultation, but this is what we say is necessary. The basic premise of the consultation is therefore false.

2: Intelligent Communities

Investment in Public Library services is globally recognised as an indicator of Intelligent Communities, i.e. the ‘fabric of society’. Library Services have primary linkages with education, employment, health & social care, homelessness, and with many other aspects of thriving communities.

Communities are long-term projects. At a local community level, patient investment in essential infrastructure includes far more than transport, energy, sanitation, drainage, flood defences and connectivity.

Libraries contribute towards creating a skilled workforce and digital equity – a role shared with schools and colleges but also embracing the constant retraining needs of mature citizens. Similarly, libraries have a role in developing access to ‘open data’, supporting local advocacy and growing innovation capacity. The skills of well-trained library professionals are central to helping entire communities develop and thrive.

Libraries facilitate all of these vital threads by their trusted presence in communities in a way that individual government agencies cannot. The values of this wider community contribution are not revealed in blinkered accounts or footfall metrics. Libraries are key to creating the culture of that place we call home.

3. Statutory Requirements

Community leadership often demands expertise in managing ambiguity. Difficult choices must be made and, inevitably, individual preferences may not always be sustained. It helps, therefore, to have some basic principles – some certain truths that underscore a commitment to societal wellbeing. Fortunately, such principles are enshrined in law – notably the Localism Act 2011.

Hampshire County Council’s Executive Member for Recreation and Heritage, Councillor Seán Woodward, has the lead responsibility for library policy. On 6 th November 2019 he was delighted to announce a quadrupling of demand for digital library services: “These figures show that the appetite for reading and listening to books remains incredibly strong in Hampshire”. As keen exponent of new library services he said, “We want everyone to be a part of these offerings at Hampshire Libraries, by exploring what’s available and getting the very most out of them in terms of fun, creativity and learning.”

We agree wholeheartedly with these statements and the wider sentiment expressed. In the context of the Statutory Requirements overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sports, it is clear that Library provision is very much a local matter and not beholden to national strictures including funding. It is therefore disingenuous for Hampshire County Council to suggest that the requirement to make savings is a direct result of underfunding from national government. It is not clear whether the current consultation and analysis of need was pre-reviewed by the DCMS department.

It is of course important to recognise that some aspects of library services must change over time to meet new needs and exploit new resources. It is entirely reasonable to try and match libraries to shifting populations and demographics to fulfil the Statutory Requirements. Hampshire’s analysis of future library locations and public transport adequacy, however, seems not to anticipate the needs arising from major housing growth areas such as Welborne. In the context of environmental pressures to reduce vehicle use, the increased dependency on future public transport provisions (similarly under budget constraints) seems implausible.

Volunteering has certainly been beneficial in terms of community engagement and in delivering the cost savings often sought, for example, by charities. Library Services are not however charity shops, but a non-optional local government responsibility. It is what Local Governments are required to do. The minimisation of well-trained core librarians and the shift away from outreach activities simply shifts cost and logistical burdens onto other similarly stretched departments. It is not surprising that some schools are now unable to afford subscription to the Schools Library Service.

Conclusion

The Hampshire library consultation shines a harsh spotlight on the long-term impact of austerity policies. Indeed, it is difficult to explain where the benefits of a decade of Austerity policies might be found. Voices (notably Lord Bird of ‘Big Issue’ fame) are already raised, demanding a long-term funding settlement for library provisions in the forthcoming budget.

We reject the options proposed in the consultation as false. We call for the £1.76m cuts to Hampshire Library Services to be replaced with a restorative £2m investment instead.

Peter Davison

Chair, Fareham Liberal Democrats

05 March 2020

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