Would the Suffolk model for libraries in a time austerity work for others?

Public Libraries News marks the signing of the contract which will pass Suffolk libraries to an Industrial and Provident Society, writing it is “unsurprising that radical solutions are being sought”.

At a party to mark the agreement to transfer running of the libraries on August 1, we were reminded that it was “not the end, only the end of the beginning”. There is a lot to be done and everyone involved recognises there will be very difficult periods ahead.

The IPS approach has only been taken in Suffolk. It was brave of the County Council to enter into the unknown in this way. It is a tribute to the extremely hard work put in by unpaid directors and the compromises made by the council that it has got to this stage.

Especially that it has got to this stage with a high degree of optimism that even with their reduced budget libraries can continue to develop and improve.

I suspect that several things have not gone quite the way the council expected. The IPS has bargained hard and has gained wide support among library campaigners. All 44 libraries in the county remain open lending books from a centrally managed stock.

For small libraries, like Debenham where about half the loans are ordered from other libraries, fear of fragmentation was a big threat.

As James Hargrave points out the resignation last year of council leader Jeremy Pembroke, and chief executive Andrea Hill, was a pivotal moment. They were behind the New Strategic Direction which was intended to leave the council as an enabler that did not directly run services.

Mark Bee, the affable new leader, promised a different approach. It can be argues that while the tone has changed the libraries are still being outsourced. But the approach has been less rigid than it was in Suffolk and still is in other parts of the country.

Next year local libraries groups, or parish/town councils in some places, will become the owners of the IPS, selecting directors from among themselves. The idea is that eventually all 44 libraries will be members of the IPS.

This puts a lot of power and influence in the hands of people who are committed to libraries and ready to fight for them. There will be more volunteers and fund raising, but the front line paid staff will remain much the same as it is at the moment.

There is huge work to be done after the IPS takes over running libraries, still funded by the county council but on a much reduced budget. Having got so far the IPS model is promising, far better than boarded-up libraries, outsourcing to a commercial library company, or a community interest company run by a “social entrepreneur”.

It may be that others will want to look at the Suffolk Solution. I would be if I lived in Wakefield where the Yorkshire Post reported last week:

Almost half of Wakefield district’s 26 libraries look set to be axed unless community groups step in to take them over.

Council chiefs are seeking to save £800,000 a year by off-loading 12 libraries to voluntary organisations in the biggest shake-up of the service for 30 years.

That sounds very familiar to people in Suffolk who were faced with a similar situation 18 months ago.

(The author is chairman of Debenham Library Working Group, which will soon be adopting a constitution which will enable it to work with the IPS in running the village library.)

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