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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Libraries - hope amongst the mixed messages

What's going on?

I've been struggling to make sense of the Mayor's position on the 11 "at risk" libraries.  The story (opposite) going out from Labour in the Greenbank ward adds to the confusion.  I have checked the facts and I've written to Cllr Roberstson-Collins (pictured) asking for a retraction: she has not "saved" Sefton Park Library.

The Library is in the Green-voting St Michaels ward and its three Green councillors have been closely involved in two aspects of the campaign to save it.

Firstly we have supported campaigns, petitions and demonstrations against the Mayor's plans to make cuts to the libraries.  But secondly we have supported, and indeed led, the formation of The Friends of Sefton Park Library which has put forward a "Plan B" in response to the Mayor's challenge to the community to show how volunteers and other organisations could find other ways to retain library services when revenue from the City Council was withdrawn.

The Mayor's BBC announcement on Monday10th November came as a surprise.  We were expecting a report to be published for Cabinet on 21st November, so no announcement was needed.  It's been suggested to me that the reason the Mayor made his surprise announcement was to head off the demonstration planned two days later at the City Council meeting.
The positive and important thing is the new commitment to save all of the "at risk" libraries.  But we did not know if that depended on continuing our "Plan B" for Sefton Park Library.

Having checked with the Head of Libraries, it is confirmed that the partnership proposal involving the Friends and a not-for-profit training organisation continues to be the only proposal on the table for retaining some kind of public library service from the Library building.  There is more work to do on that proposal, as part of the overall libraries continuation plan to go the the City Council's Cabinet next month for decision.

Failure to build bridges

The campaign to save the libraries has been vigorous and diverse, involving notable local writers as well as large numbers of library users.  It has achieved a change of mind on, at least, restoring part of the funding for the "at risk" community libraries.  It's very odd that the Mayor continued to attack the campaigners rather than acknowledge the sincerity of their cause and celebrate a reconciliation.

It's also odd that he praises the good people who have worked on volunteer-led solutions and condemns people campaigning to keep all libraries open.  In practice we know that in many cases it is the same people who have been active in both roles.

Who knows, maybe we will see another change of the Mayoral mind on that, but in the meantime his choice to make enemies of Liverpool citizens helps weaken his political base - which may be no bad thing for democracy hereabouts.

Here is the time line, with special reference to Sefton Park Library

  • Wednesday 10th September a special meeting of the Council's culture committee approved of the decision to put 11 libraries at risk.  At that meeting a Green Party motion asked the committee to support the idea of reallocating approximately £1.6m from the mayoral and councillors' discretionary funds to save the libraries (first put forward at the Council's Budget meeting on 5th March).
  • After that meeting, the Council was stated to be consulting on ways to save some of the 11 "at risk" libraries for which budget support had been deleted.
  • On 6th October all four Green Party councillors attended the public meeting organised by the Council to discuss Wavertree and Sefton Park libraries.  (I did not see the two Labour Party councillors for Greenbank ward attend that meeting - perhaps they were working "behind the scenes"?.)  I spoke about our intention to look for partners to work with volunteers to keep Sefton Park Library open.  This was acknowledged by the Council officers present.
  • On Thursday 23rd October, the first meeting of the Friends of Sefton Park Library took place; a simple constitution was adopted.
  •  On Wednesday 29th October, Green councillor Tom Crone challenged the Mayor to help the libraries by using some of the money saved from ending the Liverpool Direct contract  The Mayor said "no".  (But 10 days later the Liverpool Direct savings were part of his libraries funding plan!) 
  • On Monday 3rd November we held a public meeting to report and agree an outline for a provisional joint "Plan B", working with Riverside Learning and Education Centre.
  • On Thursday 6th November a working party from the Friends and Riverside LEC agreed a letter of intent to be sent to the Head of Libraries which was promptly acknowledged as fit for purpose.
  • On Monday 10th November the Mayor made his surprise announcement.
The Friends of Sefton Park Library will hold its Inaugural General Meeting on Wednesday 3rd December at 7.30pm in the cricket club, Southwood Road.  Although Green Party members have been instrumental in setting up the Friends group, it is open to any supporter of the Library to join, regardless of political affiliation.

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