Month: October 2018
#lovelibraries ‘A seven and a half per cent annual reduction in book issues – if we carry on like this, libraries won’t be dusty, they’ll be gone’, Devon Scrutiny Chair tells library chiefs and @LibrariesUnLtd
In a far-reaching discussion of the state of Devon’s libraries on 25 September (minute and webcast at item 83), the County Council’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee – which looks at services like libraries which have been outsourced, in this case to the mutual Libraries Unlimited – considered a continuing decline of book issues which, as this comment of our chair, Cllr Alastair Dewhirst, suggests, could soon threaten the very existence of many of the county’s 50 libraries.
I was unable to attend, but had played a part in preparing the discussion. In this post I try to take stock of where we are now. Cllr Dewhirst’s comments referred to a remark by Cllr Roger Croad, Cabinet member for libraries, at the previous meeting in June, when he talked about the image of libraries as places full of dusty books. Cllr Croad, Ciara Eastell (LU chief executive) and other officers had lauded the work LU had done in making libraries more attractive places through refurbishments, ‘fab labs’ in major libraries, arts activities, friends groups, and functioning as local community centres in towns and villages.
LU also emphasised the increasing numbers of e-book issues, but the modest rise in these has been tiny compared to the loss of book issues. Nationally and internationally, the traditional book remains strong, with rising sales. The idea that it would be replaced by e-books has proved misleading. We need libraries to be full of the many great new books for adults and children alike which are appearing every year.
The relentless decline of book issues
The Committee clearly appreciated LU’s efforts to expand Devon libraries’ impact, and the commitment of the Council, guided by Cllr Croad, to maintain the service despite its diminishing funds (not one library has been closed). Nevertheless the Committee had to address the relentless decline of issues (halved over the last decade), the underlying weakening of the quality and quantity of the book stock, and the diminishing role of librarians.
On present trends, it seems almost certain that some time in the next few years, libraries in some Devon towns and villages will face a moment of truth. ‘The concern is‘, Cllr Jackie Hook said, ‘that the library is losing what makes it a library and not having the the quality of books and professional staff.‘
The Committee recognised these issues by recommending that LU add two new Key Performance Indicators for its work: Stock issues to children [since children’s reading is clearly at the heart of a library service], and Professional hours worked by library staff. The Committee will receive a further report in 12 months time.
A major challenge – and a radical reorientation needed
Ciara Eastell told the Committee: ‘Books and reading are absolutely at the heart of our mission’, and I think the discussion is a real step forward in acknowledging the major challenge which Devon’s library service faces to its core role. However it often sounds as though LU and County Council chiefs believe that expanding other activities can compensate for the failure to address the service’s central decline, which began before LU was established but which LU’s current policies are failing to stem.
Now that the issue has been brought so clearly to their and the Council’s attention, I hope they will address it head-on. Let us see a real reorientation of policies and funding priorities to address it. Let us hope that in 12 months time, they will be able to report a different picture.
The task is especially urgent because of the unremittingly gloomy outlook for public services and local government. Although Theresa May says that ‘austerity is over’, county councils like Somerset and Northamptonshire are going bust, Brexit is leaving a big hole in the government’s tax base, and Devon faces a further big withdrawal of government funding next year. To defend the level of library funding, we need to show that it is being used to maintain a well-stocked library system which can attract and keep new readers.
I make the case for a Dorset and East Devon National Park at the County Council, who will invite national review panel to visit
Yesterday Devon County Council agreed a recommendation to invite the review panel on national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, recently established by the government, to visit Devon. This was in response to a motion I proposed supporting the idea of a Dorset and East Devon National Park. I explained my support in a speech which you can see on the webcast.
Red faces at County Council as Leader’s reply shows someone doesn’t know what a no-deal Brexit means
At yesterday’s Council I asked what preparations Devon had made for the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March 2019. The written answer provided talked about would happen at the end of a ‘transition period’ in December 2020. It was obvious that whoever wrote the reply didn’t realise that without a deal, there will be no transition period! The Leader, Cllr John Hart, in whose name this reply went, did make it clear when I challenged him that he understood the risks. But the fact remains that the County Council, which is the emergency planning authority, has made no significant preparations for a potentially serious disaster – caused by the policies being pursued by the Conservative government.
Local Conservative councillors were scared to have their individual votes on community hospital closures recorded at yesterday’s County Council meeting
The big question about why the Tories were so determined to add ‘where appropriate‘ to my amendment that the County Council should work to save ALL Devon’s community hospitals is: Which hospital do they NOT think it is appropriate to keep as a community health and wellbeing centre?
I mentioned in my speech that East Devon councillors like Phil Twiss (Honiton) and Ian Hall (Axminster) had made it clear that their hospitals should be kept. And not one councillor popped up to make it clear that, yes, their hospital was the exception.
Tory leader John Hart told me that Teignmouth was a case, because the CCG was funding a new health centre there. But Teignmouth people are up in arms about the closure of their hospital and Teignmouth councillor Sylvia Russell was certainly not volunteering to support its closure.
Yet as far as I know all these councillors, and East Devon Conservatives like Stuart Hughes (Sidmouth), Richard Scott and Jeff Trail (Exmouth), Sara Randall Johnson and Ray Bloxham (Exmouth), voted to add the ‘where appropriate’ get-out (which presumably they think may be used for someone else’s hospital).
I say ‘as far as I know’ because the Tories also voted not to have their votes recorded on my amendment. As far as I know, all those mentioned also voted for this suppression of information, too! If I have inadvertently maligned anyone, in the absence of this information being recorded, please let me know.
The only Conservative who did not support the get-out was, as I said in my last post, Dartmouth councillor Jonathan Hawkins, who spoke movingly about the plight of his community since their hospital was closed.
Claire Wright and I win a commitment from the County Council to work to save ALL Devon’s community hospitals, although the Conservatives can’t stop themselves adding get-out clauses
In a hour-long debate in yesterday’s meeting, the Council adopted proposals which Cllr Claire Wright and I, the two Independent members from East Devon, put forward, in place of the original recommendation by the Cabinet.
The ruling Conservative group adopted (with a small addition) the wording of my amendment, which Claire seconded, which proposed to influence NHS decisions ‘in the direction of retaining all community hospitals to be used as health and wellbeing centres for their areas‘, in place of the original Cabinet recommendation to merely seek ‘decision making appropriate to individual circumstances, including population need and the quality of building.’
This is an important change in direction by the Council, which is now committed for the first time to work to retain ALL hospitals, as Claire (who proposed the original motion) had requested. The Conservative leader, Cllr John Hart, insisted on adding the words ‘where appropriate’ to my proposal, which we opposed because it provides the NHS with additional leeway to close hospitals. Cllr Hart’s addendum was too much for one Conservative Councillor, Jonathan Hawkins (Dartmouth), who voted with the opposition for my amendment without this addition, in the light of his community’s experience of the closure of Dartmouth Hospital.
The Devon Clinical Commissioning Groups could end this controversy with a clear policy statement that all remaining hospitals will stay open and will be supported as health and wellbeing centres for our communities. Until this happens, Claire and I, with the support of tens of thousands of people around Devon who are fighting for their local hospitals, will continue our campaign. On yesterday’s evidence, we are winning.
WATCH the debate online.
Health Secretary tells Conservative conference ‘the era of blindly, invariably closing community hospitals is over’ – we shall see if Devon Tories have got the message at this afternoon’s County Council meeting
In potentially game-changing comments for our hospitals in Seaton, Honiton, Axminster and Ottery St Mary, new Health Secretary, Matt Hancock said:
‘We’ve got to reform the system so we spend more time on prevention not cure, with more integration between health and social care, and more treatment closer to home.
‘What I mean by this is that the era of moving all activity into fewer, larger hospitals and blindly, invariably closing community hospitals is over. … I want more services closer to the communities they serve.’
Claire Wright has a motion on the hospitals at this afternoon’s County Council, which I am seconding and the Conservative Cabinet originally proposed to water down. We shall see if they have got the very welcome new message from their health secretary. It is certainly our job to make sure that they and the CCGs take note.