Stopping the cuts in Camden

March 8, 2011 at 6:39 pm / by

Here’s an article I wrote recently which was published on the Liberal Conspiracy website:

I very rarely cry. It’s just not me. But attending the ‘We Love Highgate Library’ day and being greeted by children standing in the cold with banners proclaiming their love for their local library made me feel a bit teary.

But that wasn’t where it ended. Julian Barnes dramatically declared that he would go down on one knee to stop me from making cuts. Roger Lloyd Pack made a passionate plea about the library. I tried to explain the funding fallout but couldn’t finish my now well-rehearsed spiel before Danny Scheinmann interrupted to present me with a copy of his book ‘Random Acts of Heroic Love’. ‘I’ve inscribed it for you Councillor Siddiq’ he said. With a heavy heart, I opened the book which stated ‘Always do the right thing’ in a lopsided scrawl.

What is the right thing? Don’t all elected representatives want to do the right thing? Are we always equipped with tools to do the right thing?

On the way home I wondered if the three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize author, the Only Fools and Horses actor and the hundreds of little children knew the scale of the dilemma this situation presented for me and my Labour colleagues.

After I was elected last year and put in the cabinet in Camden, I was told immediately that there was a £80 – £100 million funding shortfall in the council budget due to cuts from national government. I was instructed to model a 20 – 25% cut over the next three years across my culture budget of 14 million pounds. This included the libraries budget where 13 libraries cost me £8 million. Over the next three years, I had to take out £2 million but continue to provide an efficient library service.

The initial recommendation from the officers was to go from 13 libraries in Camden down to 4. I rejected that proposal immediately. It wasn’t an option to close down 9 libraries – age of austerity or not. Libraries are the cornerstones of our community – people I have met have told me how their library helped them educate themselves, provided them with a quiet space to do their homework, access books they’d not otherwise be able to afford. All this made me determined to protect our libraries as much as possible. In the first financial year, I managed to take out £400,000 by making backroom efficiencies such as cutting management costs, reducing stock purchases and lowering transport costs.

After much deliberation, I decided to launch a consultation to gather the views of library users themselves. Never mind the politicians and officers sitting in dark rooms in the Town Hall. If we’re all in this together, we need to make collective decisions. The survey in the consultation has had nearly 3000 responses in three weeks. Of course people are hostile to the consultation – most don’t believe the libraries fund should be touched. It’s not ‘the right thing to do’. But what is the right thing to do? If we lessen the cuts to libraries, we’ll need to increase cuts to the education unit, to the adult social care budget or to the childcare budget in order to make up the deficit.

However, Labour councillors like me will not take the easy option when making cuts. Yes we’re in tough economic times and local library provision will change but we will make the best use of our limited resources.

Alongside ideas like charging for wi-fi and increasing fines on late book returns, I’m thinking more creatively about generating revenue. I’ve done a property assessment of the libraries to see if we have any land that can be outsourced to coffee shops. One of our libraries has an exhibition area which I’m hoping to derive income from. I’ve also looked at sharing management costs with neighbouring boroughs. Furthermore, I’m examining the actions of other boroughs and it looks like one local authority has transferred their libraries to a social enterprise which has reduced its costs. While this is not wholly appropriate for Camden’s libraries, it is an option that the borough has used for its sports centres.

Another option I’m exploring is that of a community asset transfer. The idea is to empower Camden’s communities by transferring the management and /or the ownership of a library (i.e. a publically owned asset) to a community group. There’s one particular group of library users who are keen on this idea. Although this is very much a work in progress and no decisions will be made until the consultation is completed, I am exploring potential models with the interested library users.

The options range between allowing the asset i.e. the library to be transferred on a short lease so that the library is given to the community organisation on a lease for a fixed period of years or at an annual rent. This means the community organisation will manage and staff the asset but Camden could still share the maintenance costs with the community organisation.

However, another option is that the library is transferred to a community organisation on a long lease. In this instance, the community organisation buys a lease of more than 22 years on the asset and pays the council a low annual ground rent. In this arrangement, the lessee will take on all the responsibilities of a freehold owner. In practical terms, this will mean that the community organisation will have security of ownership of the library and the community organisation can apply for grant funding that we, as a council, would not be eligible for. There might be an option of selling a long leasehold to a community organisation below market value which would make this model feasible.

However, even these “big society” solutions do not amount to a panacea. Coalition ministers think councils can just offload libraries, community centres and even schools onto communities and let them get on with it, but building a stronger society means working in partnership with local people to protect services.

As a Labour council, it is our responsibility to ensure that a community organisation taking over an asset is provided with training. Frontloading these cuts will get in the way of local councillors who are trying ‘to do the right thing’. I believe in transferring the power from local authorities to the community but I don’t believe in simply transferring the burden. I wish our libraries; our older people’s services and our children’s centres could be saved by a “random act of heroic love”. Last week the opposition parties ‘alternative budgets’ comprised sacking union reps and diverting funds away from school repairs. In the face of the Conservative-Lib Dem cuts, the Labour way forward is to get as close as we can to doing the right thing. To me, this is through consultation, creative thinking and tireless examination of all available options to deliver for the people who elected me.