Rally to support Lambeth’s fantastic public libraries

By Laura Swaffield

Everyone loves a good mystery at Christmas. So here’s a real cracker – why is Lambeth council spending millions on wrecking its brilliant library service, when it could save millions by keeping it?

This mystery has baffled us for nearly three years. Time has only deepened it, as the overspending gets wilder, the damage more obvious.

It’s hard to get the latest info, but it now looks something like this: four libraries trashed in various ways; the bill maybe £7 million, with more to come.

This is funny, because the council’s story has always been that its bizarre libraries policy is forced on it by government cuts.

How did it get in such a mess?

Lambeth has just 10 libraries – one per 32,000 people. Once it had 15, but it keeps closing them – despite huge opposition, every time.

Libraries are uniquely trusted and loved. They are also a bargain. As an accessible frontline service meeting all kinds of needs, they underpin social services, education, youth services, the NHS and more.

It’s not just free books and free internet – more vital than ever now benefit claimants are forced to do it all online. There’s lots of activities, masses of information and staff to help you.  

They are a free space for everyone, from young families to businesses researching the market, from lonely old folk to school kids needing quiet, safe study space. In a borough like Lambeth, they are a lifeline.

Most people get this. The council doesn’t. It has starved its libraries for years. Amazingly, it spent less in cash terms in 2015 (£3.4 million) than it did in 1984-5 (£4.2 million – about £12-13 million in today’s money).

On this shoestring budget, the libraries provide a dazzling range of services. For example: e-books and journals; free wifi; free events; month-long free festivals on books, black history and more; trained advisers on money problems, mental health, dementia, literacy; a unique service enabling blind people to read; groups for mothers and toddlers, teens, school kids; English courses… there isn’t space to list it all. Nor to list the many awards it has won.

Here’s the clincher: Lambeth libraries have led the nation (alongside well-funded Manchester) in having increased visits and loans and memberships.

Something to boast about, you’d think. But no. The council’s riposte in January 2015 was to demand a whacking additional cut of £800,000.

The council knew how to do it. Close two more libraries. And dump another three on ‘the community’ to run. If the community said no, probably close them too. It consulted the public. Entirely predictably, there was massive opposition.

Much more surprisingly, the library manager came up with a way to save the whole £800,000 yet keep all 10 libraries running.

The council didn’t even look at it. Instead, it launched a bombshell in October 2015. With no publicity and absolutely no consultation, it rushed through a new plan it had developed in total secrecy.

No libraries would close after all. But instead, four would become ‘neighbourhood libraries’ – far less space, far less stock and no staff at all. Just a self-service machine.

The plan spelled out just who would be badly disadvantaged by having no staff to help them or ensure a safe environment. It included old people, disabled people, children, young people, people with poor English or low incomes or low IT skills or low literacy, women… pretty much all those who need libraries most.

And all this would save less than half the required £800,000.

But that’s not all. Three ‘neighbourhood libraries’ would be lumbered with – of all things – a pay-to-use gym. Useless to all those people losing their library service. Of interest to maybe 10% of adults – who have plenty of local gyms already.

Worst of all, this daft idea would cost the council at least £4 million – very likely more.

Lambeth people made it clear from the start what they think. They have written hundreds of letters, marched 400-strong (twice), held many protest events, used every democratic means to argue for common sense, collected a petition of over 10,000 and – most famously – occupied the Carnegie library last year, followed by a rally of 2,000 people (the largest seen since poll tax days).

But the council ploughs on. Much of the plan is in disarray. But it is spending wildly to prop up the remains.

For instance, at Carnegie it is now spending an extra £1.25 million to house a gym. The library has been closed for two years, paying all its former expenses such as rates, plus over £200,000 for security guards.

A special highlight is over £3 million handed to Cineworld – a very profitable business – to fit out a cinema at West Norwood library. Seems the council will splurge any amount – as long as it’s not on the proper libraries people want.

In last month’s issue of Lambeth Life, council leader Lib Peck defended library policy, saying, for instance, that Waterloo Library’s move to The Oasis Centre means it’s ‘welcoming… much brighter’ and can offer ‘much more engagement with lots of other groups and services’.

Waterloo is pleasant but cramped and noisy. Book issues are way down because of the limited stock. A bleak atmosphere is created by lack of staff, lack of activities, and it’s concerning that adults have unsupervised access to kids. Visits have plummeted. This is concealed because the entry gates count as library users the people who just use the cafe and toilets, plus the cafe staff bringing orders.
Upper Norwood has lost far less space and is busy. It has been ‘community managed’ for two years by a local trust. But Lambeth has so far paid the trust just as much as it paid before for proper library staffing – plus extra for a short-term librarian post, the cost of
setting up the trust and over £250,000 for repairs and refurbishment to give the trust the best possible start. It’s not known whether the trust can raise enough to compensate when all this extra funding stops.
Lambeth could stop haemorrhaging money by cancelling the unwanted gym at Carnegie. It’s still not installed, although the library has been pointlessly closed for two years. Then it should revert to having the whole service run by the expert library management, who have been completely ignored. The loss of money can’t be retrieved, but a proper service would benefit from public support. We’d love to use the time, ingenuity and resources we’ve wasted on fighting a council that just won’t listen.

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