Colin Hart

Libraries: hopes of new meeting of community groups and Suffolk CC

On Wednesday I was a rather pessimistic (earlier post) about the previous day’s Suffolk County Council scrutiny committee where I feared the opportunity of opening further constructive talks on libraries had somehow slipped away.

Today things are looking more hopeful following a press release from the council and the reaction of one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee.

The press release, issued quickly and before formal minutes are available, clarifies the committee’s recommendations.

Colin Hart, who chairs the committee thanked those who had given evidence and said:

This was a valuable exercise in scrutinising an issue before decisions are taken and I hope and expect our recommendations will make a positive contribution to the new policy that is being developed.

The release which includes the valuable recommendations of the committee has not yet appeared on the county council website, but my copy is here.

James Hargrave, one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee, reacted on his blog saying:

I am hopeful that there is now an opportunity for all sides to sit down and discuss the situation and work together for the good of the counties libraries.

During the meeting on Tuesday a meeting was suggested, but it seemed to me that the opportunity faded away. Now, I hope it is back on track.

The press release quotes Judy Terry the council cabinet member responsible for libraries saying:

I am extremely grateful for the comments from committee members, representatives of various campaign groups and those who have submitted bids. We’re continuing to listen and will base future policy on exhaustive consultation with the people of Suffolk.

The scrutiny committee recommendations are:

  • the classification of County Libraries and Community Libraries referred to in the Consultation document is not a reasonable basis for a policy;
  • the potential community interest company agrees individual budgets for each library;
  • the business case considered by Cabinet should clearly demonstrate how the community interest company service would operate across the whole of Suffolk;
  • that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service;
  • any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk;
  • due consideration be given to innovative ideas that have already come forward and any others that are received  from communities on how their services might be run;
  • the policy on mobile libraries be clearly stated in the report to Cabinet;
  • the Council provide absolute clarity to communities interested in running their libraries on issues they were likely to raise such as finance, staffing and legal issues;

Would a loo break have given a little more hope over future of Suffolk libraries?

After more than three hours of a council meeting about libraries yesterday afternoon, I wake up this morning still wondering whether the outcome might have been different if a loo break had been called.

The scrutiny committee of Suffolk County Council was breaking new ground by examining the issue before the cabinet makes a decision.

Colin Hart, who chairs the committee with flexibility and humour, said beforehand: “I’ve long called for the Scrutiny Committee to be given the opportunity to have a say on key issues before they are decided on by Cabinet.”

At a crucial moment yesterday he said to the non-council people called to give evidence (I was not taking a note but believe this is a fair summary): “We [the council] have got ourselves in a hole. Will you help us get out of it?”

The suggestion was for all those with an interest in the issue to sit town together and try to find a solution, but it got lost in the surprised and equivocal responses. Quickly, the momentum was lost.

If there had been a short break in the meeting at that point the idea of talks before the cabinet decision is made might have got somewhere during the meeting. It is not too late now to open a dialogue.

One concern among campaigners is that Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries sometimes gives the impression that she wants to get through a policy as close as it can be to the old New Strategic Direction idea.

In fact she made a significant change in the amended version of the policy which was announced after Mark Bee became leader of the council.

She avoided saying they intended to set up a Community Interest Company to provide core services and instead talked about a “social enterprise”. A CIC would be a social enterprise, but so are other models of organisation and governance.

But this significant change in her position seemed to pass unnoticed by members of the committee who continued to talk about the Community Interest Company.

Sometimes Ms Terry’s use of language does not help. Many of the councillors seemed surprised to learn that the differentiation between “county” and “community” libraries had been dropped.

Library campaigners had learned this more than three months ago during a meeting at Endeavour House, but it had never been unequivocally announced. Probably there was a fear that it would make the drive a fatal nail into the consultation.

And yesterday, Ms Terry stuck to her formula that she had always made it clear that all libraries were subject to the consultation. The problem is that the consultation documents led most people to believe otherwise and that the bigger libraries were outside the consultation.

There does seem to be a basis for talks which just might result in a cabinet decision which is more widely acceptable.

This is a very subjective look at the meeting. For a traditional report (as a journalist, I would have written much the same), read Paul Geater in the East Anglian Daily Times.

Further links since this post was published: James Hargrave, from Stradbroke who gave evidence at the meeting, blogs about it. Alasdair Ross, an Ipswich labour blogger sees no change. And Andrew Coates, also sees a continuation of the New Strategic Direction.

 

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