There was a twitter of excitement when Rishi Sunak tweeted the word ‘libraries’ in his spending review news.
Give him credit. It is, we think, unprecedented for a Chancellor to show any awareness of libraries when in full budget-speak mode.
‘Today I’m announcing a new Levelling Up Fund worth £4bn,’ he said. ‘Any local area will be able to bid directly to fund local projects…
‘This is about funding the infrastructure of everyday life: a new bypass, upgraded railway stations, less traffic, more libraries, museums, and galleries… the things people want and places need.’
That’s nice. Unfortunately that’s the end of the good news.
‘Libraries’ will, in this context, necessarily mean fancy new buildings, competing for a very modest £4bn against a mass of other possibilities. And councils aren’t currently keen on capital investment that will have revenue implications…
Meanwhile, public libraries won’t be getting what they really need – proper day-to-day funding for local councils.
The Local Government Association has analysed Rishi’s deal and concludes it is not enough: ‘Councils will still have to find savings to already stretched budgets to plug funding gaps and meet their legal duty to set a balanced budget next year… this will be a blow to our communities and will hamper local and national recovery efforts.’
The small print shows that the government has abandoned its election pledge to give all homes superfast broadband by 2025. The target falls to 85%; the budget falls from £5bn to £1.25bn. This when lockdown has shown as never before how essential it is to be online.
Helen Milner of Good Things Foundation sees hope in plans for a £3bn training scheme for jobs. This, she argues, surely must include basic digital skills. But we don’t know yet.
‘Let’s invest so we all have brilliant broadband, but there’s no investment to help the nine million people who can’t use it – I didn’t see that investment in the plans.’
Finally Nick Poole of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals) foresees that the economic downturn will mean more redundancies for librarians – they are starting already. The public sector pay freeze will obviously hurt many.
That £4bn ‘levelling up’ fund is, he adds, an example of ‘the “Big Fund” approach to policy… while it plays well in the press, the Big Fund is a short-term measure in a world crying out for long-term answers’.
‘In all,’ Nick concludes, ‘you can see what the Chancellor is trying to do, but there is a real sense that this government will struggle to move forward until it acknowledges and makes good on the damage wrought by austerity.
‘This is not a level playing field. Our public services are not healthy and robust. Our infrastructure is not ready. Economic inequality is still growing, as is the number of “left behind” communities.’