Friday, 4 March 2011

Overview and Scrutiny Committee - What you can do for your library

Shire Hall, Warwick

On the 1 March 2011, I attended the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee in Committee Room 2, Shire Hall, Warwick. This was a public meeting . There were 18 people in the room: County Councillors, some employees and me. But, not one member of the public. Was the meeting not publicised enough or perhaps people were at work or busy at it was a weekday Tuesday morning?

When the troops marched through Kenilworth last August – the streets were full. When The Queen was in Leamington earlier today – the streets were full. So, why do people not go to Council meetings? Yes I know, the draw is not the same – but not even one person? I was later told it was not a decision making meeting. 

Maybe, the simple fact is having no interest in an event like this. The reason I went along was to find out about our County and report back like this – but more than that, it was to see how a Council meeting works, what councillors say, how they look and more importantly – how they think and form opinions. From the initial glances (not from everyone), I felt like I was the imposing on a private space and shouldn’t be there. Let me say, it can be intimidating, but the clerks were very welcoming and helpful.
Committee Room 2, Shire Hall

I’m going to paint a picture, not list names of who said what, but just look at my notes and join the dots. So the first thing is there is lots of seat swopping and people coming and going as the topic changes. From the photo on the right, you can see the room has a top table seating up seven. Nine Councillors sat in the first area with another four plus me at the back.

Prior to the meeting, an Agenda document (some 30, A4 pages) and further detailed documents are available – so there is a running order. This meeting started the opportunity for the public to speak for up to 30 minutes…of course there weren’t any.  

Next, a report back from the High Speed 2 consultation launch that took place the day before.  After that, (and missing a few things out) came some questions to the Portfolio Holders about a police report. Usual comments like the Public’s perception to the Police. How funding has been lost, investing in People not Buildings, shift changes, reduction in paperwork and the new Mobile Data Terminal.


The Chamber, Shire Hall
This was the item that I was really interested in. WCC are considering closing 16 out of 34 libraries and will present to Cabinet on 17 March 2011. The discussion starts with talk of £1million here and another £1m on management services and network. Costs of staffing and premises, closure and the odd village hall mentioned.

It was made clear that the attention and focus is on Savings first and Modernisation second. Then came some explanation of how a £1m was carried as a deficit and now there is another £1m needed which, I guess makes the £2m that has to be cut. It was at this point that it really hit home that I was just an observer and could not say things like, ‘what are you talking about – please explain that more clearly.’ 

While all of this was going on – it occurred to most of the councillors that the detailed document had not been copied (or councillors had not read and printed it from the web before the meeting), so the debate was going on without any data facts. Eventually, enough copies arrived and it seemed I was the only one who was not given a copy (yes I know I had one tucked away on my netbook).

Kenilworth Library
So the declaration: We are Open Minded on Working with Anyone. The people get the books and the buildings – there is potential. What potential? Oh, the chance for the People to make a business plan (great ideas plus a financial proposal) and submit it to the WCC – case by case for consideration. 

It seems customers accessing libraries is falling – you know lots of digital access and ebooks these days. The CC will be holding local initiatives meetings and offering constructive advice (this will all be post 17 March).  The cynic in me may say – hold on a moment, does this sound like the WCC have lost £2m and they are asking the people to think creatively to bail them out and if they can’t, they we’ll sell most of it? But the patience in me knows these are just ideas and creative thoughts to solve a problem.

Enter the cost sharing idea. Seems each library has different departments within it i.e. library, Warwickshire Direct and other services (more on this later). Then comes the talk of rejigging mobile library routes, maybe Mon to Fri only, talk of bigger vehicles, demand analysis and time spent per location like 10 mins versus half a day.

Then the meeting is told how the people will be provided with a template to complete if they have some robust ideas to save their local library. Buzz words here are: Viable Sustainable Solutions which will not equal a library closing, local service agreement , whatever that means - something to do with sharing?

How was the list compiled, where did you get the 16 libraries earmarked for closure? We looked at which libraries are stand alone i.e. they offer a single service (like being a library and nothing else). So if a library offers: library and Police, then it’s not on the closure list? Yep (just like Bulkington to close, see Nuneaton News and Wolston stays open). Buzz word concept – cost sharing partnership.

Paying staff to work in a library costs the most money. Take the staff out, put in automated machine, then maybe hours can be extended? Correct – less staff, more machines. 

From the public’s point of view are they really expected to know the difference between Warwickshire District versus Warwickshire County and Warwickshire Direct? I think not. But, the more people who are within the council seem to know the difference between WCC and WDC, Shire Hall versus Riverside House. In my view, the people see a pothole and want it fixed, not stutter to report it as they wrestle with the County versus District Issue (potholes are County by the way).

Let’s play a game called: The opening hours go down and the saving go…Up! No, it’s not a Brucey Saturday Night, it’s the serious business of evaluating case by case what happens with libraries that stay open, but have to lose 16 or so hours a week. What does Mix n Match make…value4money!

Pulling in the options, everyone is reminded that this process is a genuine consultation with no predetermined solutions. No plans are to go ahead. The councillors are expected to work with the community. Buzz word: transparent information, mindful of costs, for a community to almost guarantee a solution. Cynic once more may say…wait we didn’t lose that £2m – why is it us who has to be become a rainmaker and bail you out? 

The reply comes back: we are giving the communities’ time to collate all the ideas and provide a longer time before the 14 July cabinet meeting and then action the changes from October 2011. 

Thank goodness its lunch - half an hour later, we are back.

A few phrases are bandied about like: hubs, locals, spokes and understanding customer needs. I could almost hear someone say, it’s not what the community could do for your library - but what the library could do for your community. But, no one said it. On a fractions note, it appears the reason people go to the library is for a third of the time for information and two thirds for books.

More comments like: this is an opportunity to remodel the library service, especially with the advent of electronic services and the eBook. And visions like this continued with examples of the library as a convenience to meet, to discuss and form a reading group, a coming together and meeting the needs of the vulnerable. It appears, the lowest location visitor numbers are at the places where libraries are needed the most. Alarming fact.

Then the question came, is the cost driven review the correct approach? Answer seemed to be SAVINGS first, OPPORTUNITIES second. Finally, live music in libraries was mentioned not with out the hesitant comment of, can you allow Gig and Library in the same sentence? You better –it’s 2011.

Inspirational words came in next in the shape of pull together, forward facing provision, maybe name  it a Community Hub. Someone else mentions children doing their homework and how 50 kids may turn up to Rhyme time. It’s back to eBooks again with a few points about raising revenue by charging for them and how the online payment system at WCC is very unfriendly. Remember, I cannot raise my hand to say anything. 

The whole one eBook loan at a time is awful, but it’s linked with copyright and commercial restrictions. I could not say anything – especially about  the recent Harper Collins issue that eBooks license may expire after 26 loans.

What seemed to be valuable was a comment made to say: this was a time for the mood and appetite for change…although uncomfortable – let’s see this through and change.  How about working with commercial companies like Starbucks? Answer came back: if a big picture issue, then it may change the service, but on an individual case by case – it may work. Interesting that view was one that when a commercial company trades in a library – it’s no longer a library, focus or service changes. Apparently, Rugby has some vending machines. 

WCC/WDC want to ask What have we missed? Loads, I’m betting. The group were then told many emails have been coming in suggesting many options and ideas like Sainsbury sponsoring Dunchurch library (somehow). No list was available though (that I saw). 

Bottom line, get given a blank sheet of paper or take a template and fill it in with lashings of creativity but a large weighting on packing and setting the slide rule correctly (the financials must make sense) and who knows – we could all be proud library owners come October.

If you have views on any content in this post, leave a comment. It’s written as a narrative – not a reference report, but if my note book is correct then let it act as evidence. The next public meeting for this issue is 17 March 2011 at Shire Hall, Warwick – please come along, I’m lonely at the back on my own.

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