I popped into the afternoon session at the High Court today to see how the case was progressing. Crammed on to an uncomfortable, creaking bench and barely able to hear the proceedings my attention kept wandering to the back of Councillor Powney's head where beguiling kiss curls spread across his shoulders. Enough! Back to the serious stuff...
Brent Council's case was being presented and their basic claim was that their decision had been rational, based on 'the facts on the ground' (including their financial plight), that any view of the reasonableness of their decision on grounds of whether their library service was 'comprehensive and efficient' was for the Secretary of State and not the Court, and that their consultation had been thorough and followed common procedures. They argued that Section 7 of the Libraries and Museums Act mentioned library services and facilities but not buildings as such so that guidance in the Section did not include premises. Their basic case was that the Libraries Transformation Project would give a better library service from fewer buildings.
The areas where the Council's case began to crumble a little under the judge's questioning was the timing and thoroughness of the Equalities Impact Assessment and the lack of detail in the Needs Assessment. The judge said that the LA seemed to have only assessed needs at a very general level. He asked if a high level decision has been made on data which had not been spelled out. He said that from the data you could not tell how particular groups, like mothers with young children or schools had been considered. They did not feature in an assessment of need for the particular fixed facility which they could attend. There was no analysis of how the Library Transformation project would cater for them.
Another issue which perplexed him, and Brent's answer hadn't yet satisfied him when the Court adjourned, was the matter of the criteria for voluntary groups to make an offer to run buildings. He was concerned about groups not being informed of the criteria and the evaluation process for bids changing over time. He also asked about whether such offers were supernumerary to what Brent considered (in its transformed state) a 'comprehensive and efficient service'.
The Council side seemed to get a little unhappier as the afternoon proceeded and the Campaigners slightly more confident but it appears that it may eventually be decided on quite narrow interpretations of terms like 'viable', 'robust', 'reasonable' and 'comprehensive'. Brent Council is arguing for a very limited concept of consultation, which is in line with their recent practice - emphasising it is not negotiation, but made great play of the pages of submissions, letters, area consultative forum meeting minutes etc - but did not tell the Court that they had ignored them all.
The proceedings will go on tomorrow morning when the case resumes in Court No 2 at 10.30am. Supporters are urged to get down to the Strand to demonstrate outside and then join the audience in the public gallery. This helps demonstrate the strength of feeling in the community and the importance of the case. If you are worried about getting a sore bottom, be reassured that speeches from the Council and Campaigners QCs are not likely to take much more than one and a quarters hours. The judge is unlikely to make an extempore judgement tomorrow and may announce his decision as late as August. Brent Council has promised to take no action over the six library buildings until the judgement is announced.