Wednesday 15 February 2012

Barry Gardiner: The case against Brent's library closures

This is the evidence submitted by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Inquiry into library closures.

As you will be aware my constituency Brent North has suffered significant library closures with the closure of two libraries (Preston Library and Barham Park Library) in my constituency alone and an overall 50% reduction of the total library provision across the Borough of Brent. 

I have made it clear to the local Council that I do not support their decision to close the libraries in the borough and remain very concerned about the impact that these closures will have on my constituents. I have stressed to the Council that whilst everyone will understand that libraries should not take priority at the expense of elders’ care or child protection they should be prioritised over many other areas of the Council’s work. It is my concern that this reasoning has not been applied in the case of Brent Council. 

I have made representations to the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries Ed Vaizey MP asking for his intervention in this matter. I asked that the Minister consider specifically whether Brent Council’s decision to reduce the boroughs’ library provision by such an extent constitutes a failure in their duty " provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof.." under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museum Act. 

I am therefore pleased to see that the issue of library closures and the appropriateness of the current legislation about the provision of library services are to be given attention by the Committee. 

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century? 

I consider this to be an integral point of review by the Committee and one that has direct implications for the Committee’s other point of consideration – the Secretary of State's powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964.

I believe that the vagueness surrounding the definition of what is considered a comprehensive and efficient library service has weakened the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene and overturn a local authority’s decision to close libraries. 

It would be helpful for the Committee to suggest criteria against which comprehensiveness and efficiency could be judged for both rural and urban areas. By setting various standards and defined criteria this will better inform the Secretary of State’s decision when making a judgement on whether the service is inadequate. In this respect I wish to focus my remarks only on proximity and demography. 

Proximity and Usage 

In Brent the Council has set out its intention to improve the service that is offered at the six remaining libraries. Their hope is that by improving the service in a reduced number of outlets, more people will be encouraged to use the service overall. In this regard I think Brent is an interesting case study in the review of what should be considered comprehensive and efficient. In particular does the service in the remaining six have to be improved before the other six cease operating? 

What has been overwhelming in my constituents’ response is the value they put on the locality of library provision and how if you remove the local element this disadvantages certain communities, irrelevant of whether the service at a library located further away is being improved. I would argue that this should be a central component of what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service. In rural communities this may be replicated by regular visits of mobile libraries to small local communities. 

The libraries closing in Brent serve a highly dense and often multiply disadvantaged population for whom ease of walking access is economically vital. This factor is particularly poignant for the most vulnerable library user groups such as the children and the elderly. It is these groups that are unable to make the journey to a library that is further away either as a result of the added costs or because they are physically unable to make such a journey. By removing local libraries there is an unfair impact on these vulnerable users. As such it is important that when redefining a comprehensive and efficient library provision that the ease of access for vulnerable communities should be a key criterion. 

There is a sad trend in councils up and down the country to run down service provision in what are seen as non-revenue raising areas such as libraries and allotment gardens. The argument is then adduced that the service is under-used or costs too much per capita and the case is made by Council officials to sell off the buildings or the land. This is what appears to have happened in Brent. 

The six libraries put forward for closure are said to be "poorly located and have low usage". It is clear to me that people living in Preston, Sudbury, Northwick Park and Kenton do not regard Preston or Barham Park Library to be nearly as poorly located for them as the closest alternative. Where there really is under-usage the solution should be to invest in improving the service on offer so that the locality aspect is maintained as much as possible.

A comprehensive library service must also reflect the needs of modern communications with a minimum number of computer terminals with full fast internet access where students of all ages can conduct research. The number of terminals should reflect demographic factors that will influence community demand such as age profile and household wealth. 

Poorer areas with a high school age population should be required to have a far greater number of terminals than wealthier areas with a low number of school children. 

Areas of high immigration should reflect the indigenous languages of significant local communities in their stock of books.

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