Thursday 12 January 2023

Brent Libraries - closure or 'transformation'? Putting the record straight


Mike Phipps reviews Transforming Brent Libraries, by James Powney, published by AuthorHouse, and sets the record straight on an important local struggle. Reprduced on Wembley Matters with the permission of the author. Furst published on Labour Hub.

Some years ago I was involved in a small way in the campaign to prevent the closure of a local library. Frustrated at the fact that the Chair of my Constituency Labour Party repeatedly and on specious grounds kept ruling out of order my branch’s motion opposing the Council’s cuts to local libraries – the CLP Chair was himself a Councillor, never a good idea – I gave an interview to the local paper.

I said there was real anger about the library closures and it was proving to be the most toxic issue for the Party locally since the war in Iraq. I added: “I think it is inevitable that James Powney will be held personally responsible for the way he has handled these closures.”


Naming this local Councillor, the lead member responsible for the closures, was not mischief-making on my part. It was intended to protect the local Party from a wrong, vote-losing policy, which was allowing local Lib Dem activists to grandstand over the issue – the same party in government that was cutting local authority grants which put councils in such a desperate financial plight. “The tragedy would be that the Liberal Democrats would benefit when it is their government pushing through these cuts,” I pointed out.


It must have been a quiet week in Brent, which is in northwest London, because the interview was put on the front page. It elicited a phone call from the Chair of the CLP, who had never contacted me before (or since), saying how much he admired all the work I did for the Party, etc., etc., but couldn’t I just drop this issue and move on?


That would have been difficult. The whole library closure programme felt like a great injustice locally, given that 82 per cent of residents who took part in the consultation said they didn’t want the libraries to close. In the interview, I said: “I don’t think the consultation was undertaken seriously and I don’t think that the process whereby local groups were invited to put their ideas forward to rescue the library was taken seriously either.”


The contempt with which campaigners’ alternative proposals were met by Councillors responsible now seems undeniable from the latest evidence – an account by the key perpetrator of the closure programme.


I didn’t know James Powney had written a book about all this until I saw a letter he wrote to the Guardian last December publicising it. Transforming Brent Libraries is mercifully short at 71 pages, and self-published, for good reason. It would be hard to see this making the best-seller list.


As Lead Member for Environment and Neighbourhood Services in the London Borough of Brent, Powney “oversaw the successful transformation of Brent Library service in raising both the total number of loans and visitors to become one of the most successful public library services in the UK,” trumpets the opening line of his biographical note.


But this doesn’t tell the full story. He also presided over the closure of half of the Borough’s libraries. The scale of protests – meetings, demonstrations, media activity, celebrity involvement – within and beyond Brent was immense. Powney later refers to protesters as a “baying mob”.


He claims the campaign was “principally led by a small number of single issue campaigners, many of whom were not from the area.” But the anger against the closures was very local and was reflected inside the local Labour Party where Powney was a Councillor.


 'Pop Up' Library outside the closed Kensal Rise Library


One of the most contested closures was that of Kensal Rise library, originally opened by Mark Twain over a century earlier. It was located in Kensal Green ward where I was Chair of the local Labour Party branch and which Powney represented as a Councillor. Meetings were poorly attended until the closures were announced. Then angry members began to turn up in droves. At the earliest opportunity, Party members voted to deselect him as their Council candidate.


In the Acknowledgements, Powney writes: “In writing this book, I should acknowledge some debts, possibly including the Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL) who through sheer determination and litigiousness stretched the whole saga out to make enough material for a book.” This mocking, supercilious tone towards campaigners, invariably disparaged as “litigants”, becomes increasingly wearing as the book drags on. The unfortunate Powney finds he has do a lot of ‘explaining’ of how things work to the ignorant activists, a “continuous barrage” of whom had the cheek to turn up to his Councillor surgeries.


Equally ignorant, in this version of events, were the celebrities that campaigners sought to “drag in” to promote their cause. They are treated with some contempt here – apparently, celebrities care about libraries only because they remind them of their childhood.


Creative ideas to take over the running of libraries that the Council was seeking to shed from its remit are dismissed as the interference of a “lumpenproletariat”, hopelessly tainted by association with Cameronian notions of a “Big Society”.


At the end of this tedious rant, Powney attempts to draw some lessons from the whole sorry experience. The main one seem to be: what a pain pressure groups are, and how unscrupulously they are prepared to exploit their celebrity backing to “magnify the noise made without any interest in truthfulness.”

But happily, “After the decision is done, those who opposed it are surprisingly forgetful of the position they took.” That can’t be right – if it were, Powney would not have been deselected as a Kensal Green Councillor by his own Party.


It would be unfair to blames James Powney solely for this debacle. As he rightly says, all members of the Council Executive voted the libraries project though unanimously, despite what he concedes was a “massive petition” in opposition.



Arguably the campaign against library closures and the publicity it generated contributed to the ousting of the then leader of Brent Council in May 2012. By then the issue had been in the local newspaper virtually every week for eighteen months, taking up quite a few front pages, as on November 18th 2010, when the Willesden and Brent Times opened, under a banner headline “IT’S OUTRAGEOUS” with “Council chiefs spent more than £600,000 on refurbishing two libraries – just months before announcing plans to close them.”


Editor's note.  Many thanks to Mike Phipps for permission to republish this article. Search Wembley Matters for further coverage of the issue.


Meg Howarth said...

Thanks to both WM for publishing and Mike Phipps for penning this excellent review. I was among 'campaigners' James Powney complained 'were not from the area'😉 . After reading a report to save Kensal Rise Library in the Guardian, and with family connections to the area, I made contact with the campaigners. My contribution was largely confined to writing letters to the BKT (now Kilburn Times). I'm guessing Mr Powney he's no longer a cllr - in which case he needs to update his Twitter handle which currently carries some misinformation...😉

Philip Grant said...

Thank you for sharing this, Martin. It made very interesting reading!

To add insult to the injury of his words, James Powney has featured on the cover of his book a photograph of Willesden Green Library, with the original Victorian building standing proudly at the front of the modern 2015 addition.

I was one of the thousands of people who had to fight James Powney, and his Executive (Cabinet) and regeneration colleagues, who planned to demolish that locally listed building. The then Regeneration boss and Executive members lied to the public, saying that focus groups had agreed the demolition plans (I had been a member of one of those focus groups, and the late Martin Redston had been a member of the other one, so we could personally and honestly say it was a lie), and that the architects had said it was impossible to keep the original Victorian building.

I put that to the partner in the architects firm at a consultation event in March 2012, and he said it WAS possible to keep the Victorian frontage, but that was not what Brent had asked him to design!

In the end, Brent had to back down, and the photograph on the cover of James Powney's book shows what the architects were able to design, keeping the Victorian street scene of the Willesden Green Conservation Area intact.

Those Brent Council lies over Willesden Green Library have cost them in the long run. It made me active in local heritage and planning matters, and introduced me to "Wembley Matters", which was publicising the campaign to save the Victorian library building!

David Walton said...

Great local work at Willesden!

Regarding Brents Levelling Up Parks fund government grant of £100,000 made in 2022, where Bramshill Public Open Green Space in Harlesden was selected/ and South Kilburn Public Open Space in its regeneration year 21'considered'.

Strong green space protection for future generations? I note from the Mayor of Londons Public Land Registry Map that despite officer assurance, Brent has still not land Registry registered Bramshill green space as a public park land use. It is registered instead as 13 Victorian house plot instead long since demolished to create this Harlesden Town park.

Brent Kilburn Towns only park is at simillar weakest protection risk of being brownfield montised as it is likewise not Land Registry registered as its longstanding public park land use, but instead as 47 Victorian house plots long since demolished to create public park.

These build on risks are very real if park uses are not Land Registry registered, for example Granville Road Green Public Open Space mainly built on in 2010 with a small pocket park remaining (and that currently locked to exclude local residents use) is according to the LPLRM now private land?

Anonymous said...

No wonder powney was deselected. He is there to represent his community not steamroll over them with the most regressive policy ever

Anonymous said...

Dear 13 January 2023 at 23:37 - if that is the case, why is Butt still in power? Yes, I thnk we all know the answer to that.

Here cometh the hour, but who is the man who cometh, or perhaps woman? I wish they'd hurry up and arrive because we can't see any current councillor with the skill and tenacity to mend Brent, I mean, look at the pathetic Cabinet members and Committee Chairs, none of them inspire anything but do show how patronage works

Paul Lorber said...

Powney has gone and not many will shed a tear. Sadly Neasden and Tokyngton Libraries have closed for ever too.

It is not all bad news though as Preston, Kensal Rise, Cricklewood and Barham "Community Libraries", run by dedicated volunteers, continue to serve local people some 10 years after Powney and his Labour Cabinet colleagues voted to close half of Brent's libraries.

The Library Campaigners knew only too well that there was still a future and demand for Libraries in Brent and pleaded with the Labour Leadership to hand over the buildings to the volunteers for us to run in partnership with the Council. Of course Powney and the Cabinet - obsessed with their "transformation" project b- would not listen and all those libraries were initially closed - Kensal Rise after a 3a.m. Council raid to clear the building of its books.

As the saying goes Powney has been dispatched to the "dustbin of history".

It is not easy to run a successful Community Library but people in many parts of Brent a lucky that small groups of dedicated individuals did not give up and continue to work amazingly hard to provide a much needed service for their local community. So don't just sit there - go and support our Community Libraries by paying a visit and borrowing a book or two.

Anonymous said...

Are more or less people visiting libraries? Are more or less books in a variety or formats being taken out and read? Are more or less students spending time in libraries. You don’t address this because in Mikes fantasy land this doesn’t matter. All that matters is the struggle, not peoples lived experience and services.

Anonymous said...

Interesting choice for front cover - Massive local opposition saved that building in the forefront - which the transformation project was to remove.....

Peoples' lived experience is, continued reliance upon their local libraries - because they can walk there with their children in buggies; on scooters not crammed on to a bus to get stuck in traffic to borrow a book, learn a new language, get support with a CV, literacy support, Housing issues, GP registration - All provided by your local - ('rabble' running community libraries ?)

Same scenario for other boroughs too ! So, is there some widespread shared experience from people using their would-have-been-closed, local libraries then....? Seems that way...

Anonymous said...

I haven't lived-in the area since the late 1950's, but 75 years ago when we lived in Burrows Road, the library was a great inspiration to me and many others.
I spent many happy hours at the Kensal Green Library, and this man is nothing but a vandal, trying to justify his vandalism.
Shame on him.

Anonymous said...

Powney was TOXIC - No wonder Labour got rid of him - totally TOXIC