A co-operative vision for South London’s libraries

Community-owned libraries show that there's an alternative to the cuts and closures seen in Croydon

Cllr Timothy Godfrey


Labour & Co-operative councillor Timothy Godfrey, Secretary of the London Co-operative Party, contrasts the possibilities for library services offered by co-operative solutions and the cuts and closures threatened by Croydon’s Conservatives

In Croydon, local Labour & Co-operative Councillors have proposed to the ruling Conservative Council that instead of privatising the library service to a large scale private provider or another local authority under contract, the Council exploits an example of efficiency and popularity on its doorstep. The Upper Norwood Joint Library, is an independent library authority funded and run by two South London Councils, Croydon Council and Lambeth Council.

Croydon Council spends £8million running one central library and 12 branch libraries. If you allow a generous £1.2million to run the central library, and its £200,000 contribution to the Upper Norwood Library (Lambeth and Croydon both contribute half the budget), that leaves a cost per branch library in Croydon at a staggering £550,000 per year. That might be acceptable, if the branch libraries in Croydon were well staffed, open long hours and in large buildings. They are not. They are small, often only open 4 days a week. To add insult to injury, the Conservative run council cut half of all qualified librarians last year in a ‘cost cutting’ drive.

The solution to reducing budgets isn’t to do so on the backs of de-skilling the workforce. A newly qualified Librarian starts on just over £21,000: an investment that pays dividends in service and professionalism. The solution is to look at the back office and the huge costs loaded onto the humble local library.

Upper Norwood Library is fully transparent, its budget includes all the costs to run it. So within the envelope of £400,000 it provides the books, staff, computers, catalogue system, insurance, payroll etc. It employs more staff than any Croydon branch library and has a huge local following, including its own long standing campaign group: the appropriately named Upper Norwood Library Campaign.

  • Croydon branch libraries 12 x £400,000 = £4.8million
  • Croydon Central Library and home book service = £1.2million
  • Upper Norwood Library Contribution = £200,000
  • Total budget requirement = £6.2million
  • Budget surplus: £1.8million

The savings could be so much more than this, because many branch libraries are tiny in comparison with the Upper Norwood library example shown above.

The problem with Croydon’s hard Right Council is that they are also control freaks. They want one provider to contract with. They are unwilling to engage with local communities and have been spending the last year undermining the Upper Norwood Joint Library, so much so that they are now consulting on closing it and selling the lovely old building (it has amazing views over central London).

Yet a council with any nous would harness the huge public support for libraries – demonstrated in Croydon last year when the Tories proposed closing 6 libraries – by bringing local campaigners onto simple ‘stakeholder’ panels followed by a process of devolving budgets and responsibilities to those panels, just like how Local Management of Schools transformed the running of education. Over time, those panels could become proper Co-operative Trusts made up of local people, library users and staff. They could set priorities, assist in developing services to meet very local needs, provide valuable marketing support and help strengthen their local communities. At Upper Norwood Library, you already have the independent, self sufficient structure in place. Adding a Co-operative element would be so easy and so beneficial to the local community.

So what are the barriers to doing this? Lots of it comes down to existing council officers, wedded to the existing hierarchy of control. They brief councillors and often have the upper hand. Ironically, they see privatisation less of a threat than community control.

Contrast Croydon’s Tory Council with that of neighbouring Lambeth Council where you see one of London’s Leading Labour & Co-operative councillors, Councillor Florence Nosegbe, asking the difficult questions and pushing these very same issues to deliver a modernised library service, at lower cost, but involving local people in their own libraries. The contrast is striking: privatisation and closure plans from Croydon Tories and a community centred approach under the ‘Co-operative Council’ banner in Labour Lambeth.

Saving millions of pounds and engaging the community? That’s the Co-operative approach that could make all the difference in your local community too.

Links:

Upper Norwood Library Campaign http://www.unlc.org.uk/
Libraries Paper from Timothy Godfrey http://www.timothygodfrey.net/2011/06/protecting-and-developing-croydon.html
Lambeth Libraries Commission: http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/Services/CouncilDemocracy/MakingADifference/LibrariesCommission.htm
Lambeth Co-operative Libraries: http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/Services/CouncilDemocracy/Consultations/ACSConsultations/LibrariesConsultation.htm