Thursday 28 April 2011

Brent Library Closures - the final act?

There were gasps from the public gallery at last night's Scrutiny Committee last night when Cllr James Powney strode into the Council Chamber in what appeared to be an early 20th century beige Amazonian rain forest exploration costume. The gasps (of admiration or incredulity?) soon turned into gasps of shock at the man's sheer audacity when he responded to objector's representations on the closure of half of Brent's libraries.

He accused the chair of Brent Youth Parliament (see below) of not having read the hefty document on the Libraries Transformation Project and described their request as 'superfluous'. Cllr Helga Gladbaum drew mutters from the public when she said she liked the way students used tables and chairs in the Town Hall for studying. Kishan Parshotam had pointed out that during the Easter holiday there had been over-flow from the Town Hall library because of the number of students and asked what the impact would be on these numbers if six libraries closed. The BYP's request that the Executive ensure suitable study facilities be available during the 2011 examination period was reworded into a recommendation that they consider what provision could be made during the current examination period and was approved with three votes for, 1 Labour against and three Labour abstentions. There were four Labour councillors on the committee, 2 Lib Dems - including the chair, and one Conservative. Labour voted down the other two recommendations as a block and did the same for all subsequent recommendations.

The criteria for alternative business plans were the subject of a long debate when the Preston Community Volunteer Library proposer spoke of the difficulty of getting financial information from the Council in order to formulate plans. Her request for details had been treated by officers as a Freedom of Information request with a timeline that meant the data was not available before the submission deadline. A legal investigation as promised on whether that was lawful.

The council was also criticised for not making the criteria on which the plans would be judged public before the campaigns worked on them. Instead the plans were submitted before the criteria were published and it was therefore no surprise that they did not meet them. As if this was not enough Cllr Powney said they would all have failed anyway because proposals had to all to be at no cost to the council and that any handover of council buildings would be at an 'exorbitant' cost to the council. In other words the volunteer proposers would have to purchase the buildings. A recommendation that the Preston Community Library proposal be reconsidered after the proposers had time to reformulate it was rejected. A similar request from Kensal Rise Library campaigners was rejected as were requests that the timescales should be clarified in order to ensure there was no gap in service (the six libraries will close imminently but extended hours and other changes will take a long time to implement) and that school staff and students should be consulted further as so few has responded to the original consultation.

This latter caused a further debate. Only 8 of 79 schools had responded to an e-mailed survey. Preston Library campaigners over the last 24 hours had found that at least 10 schools had said they had not been consulted. Cllr Powney insisted that they had all been consulted and that in addition a meeting had been held with school literacy coordinators. He claimed that they may not have responded because they were happy that the Transformation Project would be an improvement but also that  'administration in the schools may not be effective'.  Cllr Lorber retorted that the likelihood of a response would have been reduced  if the e-mail did not make clear that the proposals were about the closure of six libraries. Sarah Tannburn, in the absence of library officers who were on holiday,  confirmed that the title of the e-mail referred to 'Transformation' but 'as I recall' some of the 15 questions referred to closures. Lorber said if the the letter had been explicit about closures, schools would have responded.

A final recommendation from Paul Lorber that the Neasden library closure be reconsidered as the library's profile did not fit with the closure criteria and that Dollis Hill residents were faced with closures at both Neasden and Cricklewood, was rejected.

Cllr Powney concluded by saying that consultation respondents were not representative of either library users in particular or residents in general, consultations were not referendums and that the council could not merely comply with consultation outcomes as they would be in breach of regulations about council efficiency, securing best value, and other legislation. He was sure that the proposals would result long-term in an increase in library usage, study space and IT provision.


Anonymous said...

Who were the Councillors on the scrutiny pannel Martin - Give us their names!

NMac said...

For some years now the "public consultations" by various official bodies have been nothing more than a cynical charade. Having studied many Council responses it is clear that even when petitions signed by many thousands of people are presented to them they still fall back on the lame excuse that many thousands of people are "not representative". It is time we let these people know that it is them that are not representative. Under our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system most of them are rejected by over 50% of their electorate, and their so-called majorities are actually fake. They don't mind ignoring the fact that it is them that are "not representative".

Martin Francis said...

The Scrutiny Committee was: Alec Castle (Lib Dem - Dollis Hill), Joyce Bacchus (Lab - Tokyngton), Helga Gladbaum (Lab - Harlesden), James Denselow (Lab - Queens Park), Sandra Kabir (Lab - Queensbury), Paul Lorber (Lib Dem - Sudbury), Harshadbhia Patel (Con-Preston)