Monday 23 January 2012

Willesden Green Library Regeneration: the case against

Guest posting  from Sophia MacGibbon, a Willesden resident who spoke at the recent Willesden Area Consultation Forum. There will be an Executive report on the Willesden Green Library Regeneration at tonight's Council Meeting, 7pm, Brent Town Hall

I have a number of concerns about the Willesden Green Regeneration proposal as outlined by the Council

I find it hard to see what exactly is being proposed. The document is full of good sounding phrases, but short on what they actually mean. Because of that I cannot see whether the proposed development is going to give the people of Brent more than they are getting now. In fact all the vague proposals could be delivered in the existing structure with better management and some investment in improved technology. 

I am worried about the proposal for a number of specific reasons:-

1 The proposal will, I believe result in the demolition and loss of the original library building, currently housing an Irish Advice centre. This building is an historical and architectural gem and these are in short supply in Brent. It would be an act of vandalism to destroy it      

 2. The loss of car parking space. I know it is environmentally fashionable to knock car use and proposals that appear to make bringing cars into the town centre more difficult should be the current good thing to do. However I believe the councillors should study the finding of the survey undertaken for the Government by Mary Portas.  She argues strongly that for local high roads to stand a chance against shopping centres etc, there has to be parking provided at minimal cost. While it is possible to park at Sainsbury’s, the space is limited and I fear that many of the shops further along the High Road will lose custom if the car park at the library were to go. Many people park, use the Library centre and then nip out to the local shops. What rate benefit the council might accrue from residential development of the parking space may well be offset by the loss of business rates if yet more shops close down. And the negative impact on the High Road could be devastating.

The closure of 6 of the borough’s libraries has meant that may people have to travel considerable distances to get access to a library. The loss of the car parking facility will hit the elderly and people bringing young children to the library to enjoy the under5s sessions, etc. These sessions are an important way of developing a love of books and a confidence in using libraries. The closure of the car park could be argued as discrimination as it will impact on some sections of the population more than others

3. The loss of the open space at the front of the library centre will be a shame, especially as there is beginning to be a real effort to use the space more frequently and imaginatively. There is an ongoing attempt to establish a regular market there that has the potential to become successful, there things take time, and the current sculptural art work is a delight.  The High Road is mainly narrow and quite dark, the open space around the library is a welcome break of light and air.

4. What is wrong with the current building? I read in the proposal document that it is expensive and not fit for purpose. In what way is it not fit for purpose? Everything that seems to be being proposed could go on in the existing centre if it was properly managed. Currently many of the features of the current building are idle. Why? How come people have been able to establish a successful cinema in most unlikely premises in Kensal Rise, (The Lexi) while the purpose built cinema with a car park is unused? Good management should have dealt with that in a way that could have been profitable to the council. Likewise the bar/cafe area.  Cafe culture is rapidly growing all round the borough and that cafe should have been a successful and profitable business, bringing rent revenue in for years. A recent successful art/craft project showed the real potential of the space. The underused upstairs spaces could have been utilised in ways envisaged in the proposals for redevelopment.  The current centre is expensive because it is underused and little imagination has been shown both to exploit the space and make money out of it. If a new centre is built what guarantee is there that it won’t be poorly, expensively and unimaginatively managed.

5. The loss of the bookshop. Bookshops are struggling across the country and having one still surviving on the High Road is to be applauded. The High Road is increasingly reducing to pound shops, all hours’ grocers and fast food outlets. Any shops that provide variety and in the case of the bookshop, culture should be encouraged and supported. While attempts to get current unused shops available at reduced rents, there are only to be for a limited period and this proposal is not a permanent solution for a shop such as the bookshop. The shop provides an invaluable service to many local schools as it deals with their book orders. The schools will struggle if the shop goes.

6. I fear for the future of the library aspect of the proposed centre when I see the current provision described as “warehousing books”. What is being proposed, a library without books? Already much of the library space is taken up with the provision of a free internet cafe. While I think the provision for study space, including internet provision is invaluable, much of the current space is not used for that, but by people sending emails. Moreover student study space is not the only use of the library and despite the increasing use of eBooks; hard copy books are still the central purpose for libraries and will be for many years to come. If in the future technology proves me wrong, it will require a small investment to upgrade the provision.

7. I worry about the council’s belief in the value of public/ private partnerships. Is there a real guarantee that the Brent citizens and ratepayers will get as much out of this proposed development as the developers will or will they at the end not quite be able to deliver the state of the Art space that was envisaged in the original proposal? The disruption and poor provision that will last for months if not years may at the end mean that we land up with something not much better than we have now, while losing valuable local assets.

Note: More than 250 people have now signed the epetition asking the Council to allocate space in the new Cultural Centre (if it goes ahead) for the Willesden Bookshop. Please encourage friends and contacts to sign. LINK

A campaign is also emerging to preserve the old Willesden Library building which is locally listed.


Jane said...

Excellent article! Most people in Willesden have no idea that their library is about to be demolished. And the old library is a wonderful local landmark. It'll be a tragedy to demolish it and have a new building occupying the current open space.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Jane. The library should remain. It is of historic interest and is fit for purpose. Why waste money changing something that works and is attractive? The new library plans are horrible- a multicoloured building that will look even uglier in 2-3 years time when it gets dirty. Brent Council have already destroyed our history and heritage by bulldozing Dollis Hill House in Gladstone Park- a beautiful building that Prime Minister Gladstone frequented. Let's not Brent Council destroy the library too!!