Cllr Powney certainly lived up to his nickname of Flakman when he appeared at last night's library consultation in front of a passionate, vocal and rebellious audience. This followed his appearances at Area Forums last year when he had a tough time defending the Council's Waste Strategy. Powney took the flak last night from the stage while other Labour councillors sat quietly in the audience. He made a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible (the closure of half the borough's libraries) but ended up quoting Margaret Thatcher's TINA mantra (There is no alternative).
In fact the audience came up with quite a few alternatives including abandoning the expensive Civic Centre project, getting rid of highly paid council officers, reducing opening hours rather than the number of libraries, and refusing to implement Tory-Lib Dem Coalition cuts.
Contributors emphasised the importance of libraries to the cultural life of local communities and particular emphasis was placed on their importance to young people, the economically disadvantaged and older members of the community. I stressed the importance of children having a library within independent walking distance of their homes and described the buzz at Neasden library on a Friday evening with a homework club in progress, people working at computers and others borrowing books. Children from Braintcroft Primary School and adult learners using the recently installed ICT resources will be deprived of a vital resources which could change their lives.
After the meeting I spoke to a pensioner who despaired at losing community facilities that had been in place for years and helped many generations of Brentonians. Libraries are particularly valuable to older people because they provide both stimulation through books and valuable social contact. It is also important for them that they are within easy travelling distance.
A borough-wide 'Save Our Libraries' campaign would be one way of resolving some of the differences in approach that were evident amongst residents at the meeting. There is a particularly active campaign around Kensal Rise Library (45,755 visit per year at a cost of £4 per visit) and the group seemed ready to form a volunteer force to help save the library. Others were against this idea, wanting a full, properly funded service. Such volunteer support may not be available in less affluent areas such as Neasden (117,604/£2.30) but where the library is vital to raise the life chances of the local population. Another area of potential conflict is the '40% proposal' where all
libraries would cut their opening hours by 40% rather than closing some. It was suggested this would safeguard the future of the buildings which would otherwise be disposed of or revert to trusts such as All Souls College, which originally provided the land. A reduction in opening hours would still impact on accessibility and jobs.
On the issue of volunteers and charities Michael Rosen, the children's poet and former Children's Laureate was absolutely clear in a recent Daily Mirror article:
It is a scandal. What this Government is doing is taking over where Thatcher left off. The library system took 150 years to build up and they are destroying it.
I am completely opposed to this idea of handing libraries over to charities and retailers. It is purely ideological and there is no justification for taking libraries out of public ownership.
Books should be free to all and not reliant on charity donations. However well-meaning, charities end up begging for money. It is another Tory attempt to break the social contract by which we look after each other through taxes
When I suggested that the Labour Council were not fulfilling their commitment to protect the most vulnerable from the Coalition cuts Cllr Powney outlined the dire condition of the Council's finance (Readers of this blog will know that I have posted articles on this), demanded that we be realistic and said that if the Labour councillors refused to implement the cuts they would be replaced by others who would implement them away - with the implication that they would do so less sensitively.
This is an argument that we are going to hear regularly in the Area Forums in the coming month when Ann John and Muhammed Butt appear to talk about the impact of the cuts on local services and the difficult decisions they will have to make.
Meanwhile, back to Michael Rosen and some reading for adults opposed to the cuts (from the Independent
So angered is Michael Rosen by the Coalition's plans for welfare cuts, the children's novelist and poet paid the bulk of production costs for a new anthology called Emergency Verse, a compilation of protest poetry featuring work by more than 100 writers, including the Beat poet Michael Horovitz, Jeremy Reed and John O'Donoghue. Rosen says he is "very angry" at the roll-back of "advances" that softened "some of the worst effects of rampant capitalism", adding: "These rampant capitalists, who walk off with the majority of the wealth anyway, now want to steal our services too – people who have no other means of getting health care, education and social care will have it snatched away." The anthology was launched at the Southbank Centre's Poetry Library, and copies can be downloaded for £2.99 from www.therecusant.org.uk
Prior to the consultation meeting Brent Fightback said:
Brent Fightback supports keeping ALL our libraries open. Once closed, they are gone for ever. We hope that, while pursuing their local campaigns, the libraries campaigners will unite and will become part of our broader campaign to defend jobs, services, pensions, benefits and the environment.
The Kensal Rise campaign can be contacted at email@example.com and they have a blog LINK
and a Facebook group 'Save Kensal Rise' library.
Preston library users are getting organised and I will put their details up when I have them.
The Friends of Cricklewood Library can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org Information
Many authors and individuals including Alan Gibbons and Michael Rosen have set up Campaign for the Book
and Voices for the Library
are asking individuals to send them statements on how important libraries are in their lives.
The Guardian has also covered the meeting using Kensal Rise as an example of wider closures LINK