Tuesday 23 July 2013

Localism and Libraries

According to research undertaken by the Arts Council England there are 425, either already in operation or planned, "community supported or managed" public libraries in England, this equates to 12% of the service. 
CILIP estimated that in 2010/11 that there where 21,000 volunteers working in England's 3,300 public libraries. The creation of 'Community Libraries', the controversial term used to describe those that are volunteer run, has developed at an alarming rate from a few communities with guns to their heads to a multi-million pound ideological agenda supported and bankrolled by the government.
Before we look at the specific agenda surrounding 'community libraries' themselves maybe it would be worthwhile giving some background to 'localism'.

In 2011 the 'Localism Act' was introduced with an aim, according to the government, of devolving more decision making powers into the hands of local communities and councils.
The key measures of the act were grouped under four main headings;    

  • new freedoms and flexibilities for local government
  • new rights and powers for communities and individuals
  • reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective
  • reform to ensure decisions about housing are taken locally

the one that has had a major impact on Public Libraries is 'Community Rights' which can be broken down into:

·  Community right to challenge
·  Community right-to-bid.
·  Community right to build

The Community right to challenge came into force in June 2012. This allows voluntary and community groups, parish councils or two or more members of local authority staff to express an interest in running a service currently commissioned or delivered by a local authority. Where the expressions of interest are accepted, the local authority must run a competitive procurement.
The Community Right to Bid came into force in September 2012. The Community right-to-bid allows communities to nominate buildings and land that they consider to be of value to the community, to be included on a local authority maintained list. If any of the assets on the register are put up for sale, the community is given a window of opportunity to express an interest in purchasing the asset, and another window of opportunity to bid.
The whole 'localism agenda' has come under fierce criticism and is seen by many "as a smokescreen for cuts" as highlighted in this article from the journal 'Public Finance' dated 27/01/11

"shadow local government secretary Caroline Flint said the changes were masking the government’s unprecedented spending cuts.
She said: ‘It’s a smokescreen for these cuts and particularly the frontloaded element, which is not giving councils enough time to think and plan and look for different ways to provide services. My big concern about this Bill is that what is shaping local government at the moment isn’t localism, it’s the cuts."

It even drew criticism from the LGA;

“The Bill also came under fire from the Local Government Association, which said the notion of localism was ‘undermined’ by the fact that it handed more than 100 new powers to ministers, such as the right to decide what would constitute an excessive rise in council tax.

In 2012 the TUC published the report 'Localism; threat or opportunity?' which asked several respected figures from the charitable and voluntary sector, as well as the IPPR and the TUC themselves, too comment on specific aspects of the legislation and agenda.
In the opening section, Brendan Barber, then TUC General Secretary, raises some major concerns;

“Given the wide scope of the legislation, we invited a number of different community and voluntary sector groups, along with the TUC, to offer their perspectives. This booklet therefore provides a range of views on the Act. But a unifying theme that comes through is a shared concern about the government’s ‘big society’ and ‘open public services’ agenda and how the creation of public service markets and an individualist and consumer-led approach to public service reform might lead to growing inequality within and between communities, markets that exclude community participation, competition at the expense of collaboration and localism that devolves responsibility and blame but not resources or power.”

Continuing on from this opening gambit Matt Dykes, TUC Policy Officer, raises some very specific concerns about the ‘Community Right to Challenge’;

“The Community Right to Challenge is a key component of the government’s Open Public Services agenda which aims to open up local public services to a competitive market. While couched in terms of shifting power to local community and voluntary organisations, at best it is simply a mechanism for subjecting services to competitive tender in an open market in which national voluntary organisations and large private providers will also compete. Recent experience of outsourcing under this government in the health service and through the Work Programme suggests that private sector interests will dominate.”

And in the section ‘Unpacking localism in voluntary action; the wider context’, Adrian Barritt, Chief Officer, Adur Voluntary Action, raises some major moral and ethical issues, some of which are very topical and relevant to the ‘community libraries’ debate.

“Overall, localism is likely to result in an invidious moral dilemma for voluntary action: to connive in the destruction of local public sector jobs by helping to engage volunteers in provision of erstwhile public services, or to stand by and see services vanish whilst needs remain. Another dilemma might be whether to support a localism initiative which is under-resourced, perhaps not equitable or sustainable, and possibly offering a lower quality of service”

Out of this legislation and the Big Society agenda that it’s linked to comes a host of quango-style organisations such as ‘Locality’, ‘The Asset Transfer Unit’, The Place Station’, ‘Big Society Capital’ et al, some supported by the DCLG,  whose main purpose is to facilitate the wholesale transfer of publicly funded, council managed services to community groups, Social Enterprises and to those who have the time, resources and vocal dexterity to shout the loudest.

The ‘quango’ directly responsible for pushing the agenda in respect of Public Libraries is ‘The Libraries Community Knowledge Hub’ - http://libraries.communityknowledgehub.org.uk/LCKH is an offshoot of 'Locality' and the 'Asset Transfer Unit'. Membership of LCKH starts at £75.

"This Community Knowledge Hub for Libraries brings expert guidance and resources together with an interactive community of organisations and local authorities involved with community managed and supported libraries. In this way, the Hub provides an invaluable source of high quality information, along with the latest news from communities on the ground."
"We believe that library services and buildings play a vitally important role at the very heart of our communities, and that ‘doing nothing’ would come at a considerable cost. However, documented good practice and specialist support for those taking their first steps towards development of a community managed library service is in short supply.
Locality is keen to work with prospective as well as existing community enterprises to evolve high quality community-led library services through the development its first Community Knowledge Hub network."

I also recently found out that Jim Brooks, Little Chalfont Community Library, is receiving funding from Nick Hurd, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, to advise other communities on how to set up volunteer run libraries!
Now I’m not going to get bogged down in the rights and wrongs and successes and failures of volunteer run ‘community libraries’ for that I suggest you look at the following sites;



but what I will say is that something that started with a few communities with a gun to their heads and told “run your libraries or we’ll close them” has turned into a multi-million pound initiative with a highly organised support network and publicity machine behind it.
‘Community Libraries’ also have the general backing of the Arts Council, research carried out by Locality on behalf of them clearly outlines the guiding principles;

Community libraries can be statutory.

There is no single model of community
involvement in libraries.

Most community libraries are not
independent, they are partnerships
with their local council.

Community libraries are testing new
approaches to library service delivery.

Communities often want to
be involved in their libraries
(but not always).

Community libraries are often more
than ‘just volunteers’.

Library buildings and assets can be
transferred into community ownership.

“Library services are changing rapidly at the moment. Communities have
always been involved in their local libraries but current social trends and
the scale of financial reductions in local government are prompting the
significant reshaping of services and accelerating discussions about what role
communities might be able to play. The emerging picture is diverse but has
revealed a strong interest from many communities in getting involved in their
local libraries. We make no judgements about how we ended up here, but
simply acknowledge that change is underway.”

The Society of Chief Librarians in their 2012/13 Annual Report mention the ACE research and the growing trend towards ‘community libraries’ but strangely don’t include it in their list of things they have engaged with or responded to, they also don’t mention it in their key areas of discussion!
The LGA published in June 2012 the report ‘Local solutions for future local library services’, which clearly outlines their support for the model by stating that it is “empowering communities to do things their way” not that it’s a desperate attempt by communities to maintain services under severe pressure from savage cuts to local government and the public sector. In the report they also peddle the myths of ‘assisting not substituting’ and that ‘self-serve frees up staff time’, in fact peddling myths is what the LGA excels in, they often state that public libraries are not a statutory service!
Some of the groundwork for this was laid down by the MLA in a DCMS commissioned report ‘Community managed libraries’ published in June 2011, which to me clearly expresses the ideological dimension of the agenda.

“Perhaps most of all, because the threat of closure is only one of a number of catalysts or drivers
identified for this process to succeed, the threat of closure is not essential. The benefits (and issues)
inherent in community management and support of libraries are clear from the evidence; the door is
open for local authorities not simply to transfer libraries to community management to ensure
efficiencies, but to work with communities to transition the process in a thoughtful and strategic manner
to create shared benefits for local government, but also local community, and local user.”

I’ll finish with a quote from Alan Gibbons, Author and Library Campaigner;

“Quite simply, there is no need to abandon the ideal of a public library service, free at the point of use and run by paid staff. Anything less is an insult to users. Yes, there are successful volunteer libraries around the country, but fewer than politicians in search of a Big Society might imagine. The experience of those that run them is instructive. It is not easy and cannot be done on a wing and a prayer.”


  1. Good post Alan, what is going on is a insidious, cack handed and devious agenda to cull the size of the state. I pay for services via taxation and if a vital service isn't available via the market then this is where the state should be stepping in. It isn't the responsibility of communities to pay for statutory services and then have to provide them to themselves. The sad thing is, the rush to the big society doesn't even save any money and they know this. I didn't think so a couple of years ago but library closures is purely a ideological attack from the government and clueless councillors who don't even question the party line. We need better politicians and we need courage from public servants who should speak out where they can to try and put a stop to this unmitigated calamity.

  2. 1. Public libraries are already owned by the community - the entire local tax-paying electorate.
    2. The unspoken assumption is that libraries = buildings (including, in some but not all cases, equipment and stock). But a library service is run by librarians, or it is not a library service.
    3. Since local authorities retain the statutory obligation to provide a library service to all who wish to use it, free of charge apart from some minor exceptions, devolved libraries are all effectively "partnerships with their local council" or else they cannot be counted as part of the council's statutory service.
    4. If I want to use my local library service, why would I want to contribute time or money to a service I am entitled to free of charge?
    5. Isn't it about time people started asserting their legal rights through the courts? I don't mean cases like Glos & Brent; I mean hundreds and thousands of individuals taking to the courts to claim their legal entitlement, thereby inflicting legal costs on dozens of councils across the country and clogging up the justice system? Can we do anything to make it easy for them to do so?


  3. "In 2011 the 'Localism Act' was introduced with an aim, according to the government, of devolving more decision making powers into the hands of local communities and councils. "
    My experience of Localism is that its effect on local government is the opposite of this stated aim. Local councils have their hands tied in ways they didn't before, and it's not merely a matter of budget cuts, although they play a part.

    For instance, there are ways local councillors have to conduct themselves that a lot of people might find baffling. I've sat in council meetings where councillors have had to walk out when certain debates were held, because their interpretation of the rules meant that they weren't allowed to hear anything that would cause them to be pre-determined on a vote (usually a later vote in a higher council). Many councillors are effectively gagged by these rules on pre-determination. To me, it seems undemocratic that there are instances when councillors we've elected to speak for us aren't able to vote in council, or aren't allowed to communicate their opinions. Now, I can't say whether or not these councillors' interpretations of the arcane regulations are correct, but the end result of the new guidelines they are meant to abide by has been confusion.

    This is one aspect of recent local government reform that doesn't seem right, but there are plenty of other examples I could trot out if I had all day. I don't see Localism, I see Centralism.

    1. Thanks very much Ross for this valuable insight into the local democratic, or undemocratic, process and i totally agree with your assertion that it's Centralism not Localism.