Help save Upper Norwood Library from cuts

We fully support the campaign to get Lambeth and Croydon Councils to fund the Upper Norwood library properly. Community trusts can bring energy and innovation to libraries, but they need the backing of councils to ensure they can provide a full, professional service. In this blog, local member Rachel sets out her reasons for supporting the library.

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Some of my earliest memories are of going to the library in Shrewsbury, where I grew up, with my Mum and my little sister. The hush, with occasional bleeps and shuffles. The soft, papery smell. Going round to the kids area with the comfortable, child-sized squidgy seats. Wondering which books I should choose this week.

Of course this wasn’t a problem for my sister who asked for the same book every week (Pigwig and the Crusty Diamonds), until my Mum asked the librarian to hide it!

Nowadays it brings me great pleasure to join in making similar happy memories with my nephew George, choosing his books and DVD for the week, or singing songs at Waggle and Hum from the Upper Norwood Library in Crystal Palace. This is part of the week that is all about coming together as a family and choosing a portal to another, rich, imaginary world.

A library, a park, a public meeting square. A community needs spaces to meet, to share time with each other, and spaces that do not cost money to enter. These are aspects of civic life that are increasingly under threat from a prevailing culture that is prioritising developers, the private sector and their profits over a thriving, diverse community.

Labour’s promises

That’s why in October I was so pleased to hear that Croydon’s Labour Councillors were making true on their election promise to match fund Lambeth Councils funding for Upper Norwood Library.

At the time, Timothy Godfrey said:  “We are passionate about ensuring Upper Norwood Library is a vibrant community hub which clearly has the popular support of many residents in that area. By increasing the funding Croydon provides we can help to breathe new life into the library and secure its long-term future.”

Crystal Palace Greens attended a public meeting held by the Trustees of Upper Norwood in which Cllr Matthew Bennett and Cllr Tim Godfrey attended to confirm their election pledges. Cllr Godfrey was met with sustained applause when confirming the £47.5K that would see the library through to March 2015.

The meeting was also outlining the vision of the Trust to gradually take on more of the responsibilities of running libraries. Funding models were discussed which involved diversifying the activities in the library such as meeting room hire and increased provision of computers.

Hearing this all outlined several niggling worries crept up and I started to try and compose a question that would encapsulate all of this. I failed! I did manage to get the mircophone and quizzed the panel of the following series of many questions, with an introduction for context of course (from memory!):

“I am a local resident. In a former job I ran a social enterprise, which involved paper recycling as part of a sustainability charity. When plentiful, the grants and funding from central government were an excellent way of kickstarting the enterprise and allowed us to experiment with alternative models such a green supply chain, local sourcing. However a materials price crash and subsequent loss of income meant that all but our core mission of recycling was stripped away in order to compete with other less scrupulous competitors. If our library needs to be financially self sustaining, how will you, Trustees, ensure that more profitable activities such as meeting room hire or cafe space do not come to dominate the service, with the books, a side line? How is the Trust going to be publically accountable, ensuring that our library remains a library?

“To the Councillors, we are pleased tonight to see that Croyden have honoured their election pledge to match fund Lambeth. But we have been given no further information or guarantees  on what will happen after March 2015. You have not set out which council will go first in their spending plans, so we have a potential race to the bottom where each of you could put in a £1 and still be honouring your election pledges.

“I know that you have been under great financial pressure from the cuts in the central government grants, but I note that unlike the Tory council Bromley, you at Lambeth, a labour council, have chosen not to raise council tax. Would you be willing to do that next year?

“Also with house prices in Crystal Palace sky-rocketing isn’t it high time that we reassess the housing stock which has not been done since 1992. As I feel that the people now moving into Crystal Palace could well afford to pay a bit more towards essential services like our library”.

Yes I know, I asked about 17 questions, but I had a lot to say! Perhap I should not have been surprised that I didn’t get a satisfactory answer.

From memory this was something along the lines of…

Trustees: “Yes we want to keep the lending library at the core of what we do, we will have public meetings like this one and now that we are established will want to have more interaction with the public.”

Cllr Bennett “You’ve hit on quite a technical area there. I think that probably the council bands are overdue to be updated. On council tax, we feel that we have to think very carefully before putting up tax at such a difficult time for our residents. Because of complicated funding arrangements across London if we put up council tax by the 2% we are allowed to, we’d only be about to bring in around £850K. We couldn’t justify it when we are having to cut back on essential services like adult social care. We cannot discuss the budget for next year as the talks are still taking place but we are keen to see the library funded sustainably”.

Ah, so not directly answering my question about the match funding – damn me and my multi-faceted questions!

All I remember is thinking, I bet they have soaked up the applause and are going to make the cuts anyways.

This brings us up to Lambeth’s current plans and I’m really really sad to say that I was right.

Lambeth has brought out plans for cultural services across the borough to 2020. The proposals – currently out for consultation – would see Upper Norwood, along with the Carnegie library in Herne Hill Road and the Durning library in Kennington Lane becoming community libraries funded by the sales of the Minet library at Brixton and the Waterloo library.

But the proposal includes a massive proposed cut in funding from next year for Upper Norwood library and removing it from Lambeth’s statutory library provision service. Croydon council’s election pledge was only to match fund Lambeth’s funding, so they are also proposing massive cuts to the Library. They only plan to fund £50K each, a huge cut.

We have been told that Upper Norwood library “will not survive” on funding of £100,000 a year, according to Norwood Society chairman Richard Lines.

Trusts need council support

Having worked for a voluntary organisations such as Crystal Palace Transition Town, I know full well that people power can only go so far and that if you want a quality service you need to do everything you can to fund paid positions.

Librarianship is a professional job, which should be done by professional staff. Even if the Trust were to work long term, starting them out on such a tough challenge seems like a difficult road ahead.

Just review Cllr Godfrey’s quote at the top of the story and see if you feel that what has happened now reflects his wishes. Should the councillors have soaked up the applause, or should they have interrupted saying, guys we have some bad news…? It’s promises like these that turn the public against politicians, when they carry out the letter but not the spirit of their promises, they break people’s trust.

The Green Vision

How could we address the funding gap?

Personally, I think we should look again at council tax. Lambeth Green Party doesn’t hold this position, necessarily, this is just my musing! If we think about what could be achieved today under current arrangements, by my calculations if Lambeth had followed Bromley and raised it’s portion of council tax by 2% and it would raise an extra £1.4M a year and would cost a band D household 30p a week more, which could have avoided all these library cuts across the borough. Think of that as 30p a week for 10 books  – bargain!

With the General Election coming up, let’s look at the Green Party manifesto.

The Green Party believes that as many decisions as possible should be taken on a local level, giving people more direct access to decision making for their local services. We also believe that public services should be run by the public sector, it’s wasteful to spend time bidding, competing, marketing. That’s why £10 billion a year across the UK would be restored to local government making cuts like this unnecessary.

The Green Party advocate recalculating the council tax bands; we think in areas such as Crystal Palace that have a big influx of wealthier households, that they can afford to put something back into their new community.

Moreover the vision for a Green society is one where the most prized assets are ones we all own.

Increasingly I feel like on the issues I really care about, Labour (whether locally or nationally) has lost it’s way. In my early twenties I was a Labour supporter, but it’s policies like these that have made me turn Green.

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