This is an unusual post for Public Libraries News.  For months, almost two years, this website has been reporting on the closure of libraries in Brent and the campaign to stop them.  Arguably, the reports have largely been from the campaigners’ point of view rather than that of the authority.  Councillor Powney, one of the chief movers behind the decision to close the libraries, has been in touch in order to redress the balance and to give his, and the council’s, side to what has been the most emotive and high profile closures in, possibly, the history of UK public libraries.  This post belongs to him. I expect to publish a response to it from campaigners tomorrow.

Background

Kensal Rise. cc “Park Life”

The decision in April 2011 by Brent Council to close six of its libraries (Barham Park, Cricklewood, Kensal Rise, Neasden, Preston and Tokyngton) set the stage for what was to become the most high profile of all of the recent UK library campaigns.  Of the six, the most high profile was (and is) the fight to save Kensal Rise Library, originally opened by Mark Twain,  where celebrities such as the Pet Shop Boys, Philip Pullman and Alan Bennett have all lent their support.  A court case in October 2011 against the decision to close was lost, with the building finally being stripped of books in a “3am raid” in May this year.  The Save Kensal Rise Campaign has recently raised significantly over its £70,000 target in order to put forward a sound business case to run it as a volunteer-run enterprise.  Public Libraries News has been reporting on the campaign from the beginning and has been largely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, negative about the closure of so many libraries.

Cllr James Powney
cc Brent Council

Biography

Cllr Powney  became Lead Member for Libraries in Brent in May 2010. He therefore headed up the decision to consult on the Brent Library Transformation Project, as well as heading the consultation, and the ultimate decision. He is also ward member for Kensal Green, where the Kensal Rise library building sits.  He is the Labour councillor for Kensal Green and his blog is at Http://www.jamespowney.blogspot.com.

The interview

What do you consider to be the role of public libraries today?
I think libraries are and must remain a free, universal service focused on information and literacy.  This still mainly focuses on book lending and periodicals at the moment, but will increasingly become electronic.  In addition, libraries are serving ancillary purposes such as community space, study space, venues for arts events, and centres for advice of various kinds.  The service is more than asking people to come to our library buildings: it encompasses access to online resources and taking the library out to people in their homes and communities.  As with other universal services there is a need to balance these sometimes conflicting demands.

 

Do you see it changing over the next five years?
The growth of ebooks is the biggest challenge currently facing libraries.  Within two or three years, ebooks could plausibly account for the majority of the book trade in the UK.  Unless the problems about libraries lending ebooks are solved, and a requirement that ebooks must be lent for free is enshrined in law, the public library service will wither on the vine.

“Whereas the publicity has focused on buildings, I think it should concentrate on services.”

A separate issue is the preservation of library services despite the government’s programme of cuts.  Whereas the publicity has focused on buildings, I think it should concentrate on services.  My view is that these have to be high quality, or there will simply be a steady decline in usage, ultimately resulting in a loss of public support for libraries and the closure of library services around the country.

 

Given the scale of the budget cuts for local authorities, was the council closure of half its library branches the only alternative to “hollowing out” its service?
I am not sure that the scale of the cuts, and their ongoing nature, are fully appreciated.  Brent is not unusual in having a 28% cut over four years (more than 100 million pounds).  There are other pressures coming on top of this in terms of an aging population and rising demand for school places.  It also seems likely that the government will continue the financial squeeze well into the next Parliament.

“two basic choices”

My view is that this leaves two basic choices.  One was the Brent approach of concentrating resources on high quality services in a smaller number of excellent buildings in accessible locations (as well as an enhanced online offer).  The other is to retain the buildings (avoiding political flak), but reduce spending on the services in them by cutting books and IT, reducing and deskilling staff and having fewer events and outreach programmes.  How can you improve literacy without new books, accessible locations and welcoming buildings?
The alternatives favoured by some Brent library campaigners during the consultation were:
  1. Cutting opening hours by 40%:  This would make the financial savings, but probably double the reduction in visits.  It would also have increased library staff redundancies by about 25%.  It also doesn’t really deal with the increasing use of technology or the mismatch between where the population is and where the libraries are.
  2. Ringfencing the libraries budget:  We decided no part of the budget would be unexamined.  The bulk of the Council’s spend goes on protecting vulnerable groups (disabled, the poor etc.), education and a number of legally required services.  Whereas, I believe in trying to get the maximum efficiency savings possible, the sheer scale of the cuts means that libraries could not have been simply ignored.
  3. Closing down other libraries to protect the local libraries of particular campaign groups: We selected which libraries to invest in on two main grounds (a) We wanted to concentrate library services near areas of deprivation (b) We find that the libraries with highest usage are in High Street locations with good transport links, and of a sufficent size to have flexible uses (including space for appropriate co-location with other services).  We didn’t pick the locations to close based on the market value of the building.

“the sheer scale of the cuts means that libraries could not have been simply ignored.”

 

I have seen many comments about the surviving libraries being too far away from local communities, is that the case?
97% of Brent residents live within 1.5 miles of a Brent Library.  The remaining 3% live within that distance of a library outside Brent.  Brent has the benefit of one of the densest public transport networks in the country.  We benefit from three Tube lines (Bakerloo, Metropolitan and Jubilee), overground connections and a dense and well used bus network.  The accessibility of Brent libraries is better than many other urban areas of the UK, let alone rural areas.

 

Having seen the scale of protest against the closures, which has received much national and even international coverage, is there anything you think your Council could have done differently?
I think given the scale of the cuts to the Council Budget, some of the decisions we had to make were bound to be controversial.  But you should not refuse to do something because you are afraid of controversy.  You should only refuse to do something if you think it is the wrong thing to do.

“you should not refuse to do something because you are afraid of controversy”

We came up with a genuinely transformational approach that prepares Brent Library for the future.  The judges in the Judicial Review process confirmed that our decision making process was “thorough” and conducted “with rigour”.  I understand that some people don’t like many aspects of the policy, but I believe that it was best way forward in terms of the interests of the Borough as a whole.  By that I mean that Brent will will have the best possible Library service with the resources available, and one that I suspect will be better than many of our neighbours.

 

What is your opinion on volunteer-run libraries?
A number of campaign groups (eg SLAM) argue that maintaining volunteer libraries is at least as expensive as having Council run libraries.  I find this plausible.  I also suspect there will be a “moral hazard” argument in many cases.  If down the line, a volunteer library finds itself short of cash, it is likely to approach the Council for more money, meaning the Council would be draining money out of its library services to support voluntary services of variable quality.  Given my view that libraries services need to be excellent, it is also important that Brent Libraries retain their brand value.  I think having reasonably paid, well motivated and appropriately qualified staff is essential to this.  This is not to say that Brent does not believe in the use of the public in supporting roles.  For example, we involve volunteers in stock selection, the design of the libraries we are investing in, and in our outreach service for the housebound.

 

Is there anything you would like to say to those people who have campaigned to keep their local libraries open?
I said at the time of the Executive decision that, in my view, Brent Libraries will have more book loans and library visits in 2014/15 than we had in 2011.  Subject to the timetable of the Willesden Green Library development, I still think that likely.

“Brent Libraries will have more book loans and library visits in 2014/15 than we had in 2011″

We have to accept that libraries, like everything else, are subject to change.  We need to embrace the increasing use of the Internet (as virtually every other sort of service has).  We need to work out a solution on ebooks, and we need to recognise that the former library buildings were erected when the north of the Borough was much less densely populated, and society worked in a number of different ways.

 

At what level of reduction in library provision, if any, of any English local authority do you think the Secretary of State should intervene?
As said above, I think the key thing to concentrate on is service provision, and the most useful thing that could happen would be a new definition of comprehensive and efficient in terms of a minimum service level.  I hope that the Reading Agency’s Universal Reading Offer might be the basis for such as definition.  I also think it has to include provision for free ebook lending over the Internet.

“the most useful thing that could happen would be a new definition of comprehensive and efficient in terms of a minimum service level”

In terms of measuring the success of the services, I think we need to keep the traditional concentration on book loans, but the other main measure of visits is likely to become less useful.  It is now possible to search for a book and even download it without setting foot in a library.  It would probably be useful to pay more attention to web page hits and computer log ons as well.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject of Brent and its libraries?
I would like to point out that our Libraries Transformation Project was not purely budget driven.  It is a genuine effort to address the massive changes that have taken places since our first libraries were founded under Queen Victoria.  It involves the extension of opening hours to seven days a week in all Brent Libraries for the first time; investment in new and improved library buildings; an extended range of services; an improved outreach service to reach parts of the Borough that have never had a nearby library, and a more imaginative approach to how libraries can tie in with other services _ such as promotion of the arts.

“a genuine effort to address the massive changes that have taken places since our first libraries were founded under Queen Victoria”

I would also like to say that the key thing you need for a high quality library service is high quality staff, and I am proud that Brent has such dedicated and able people working in its library service.