To get information, or to contribute your views, the first step is to ask staff at your library. Or contact the head of library services direct. The council website is well worth exploring (it will have potentially useful buried information that many people can’t find, so seek out someone experienced in finding information -such as a librarian!).
Whatever the current situation, there is no reason why you can’t be supplied with factual information such as how many people use the service, its cost, whether usage is increasing, which services are most popular or most relevant to the council’s goals, which libraries are in the most deprived wards, which are used most, etc. Some of this information will be publicly available already. If you need to dig deeper, use your right to Freedom of Information. But if the council is proposing plans that damage the library service, all staff will be heavily discouraged from speaking against them. However, they may well be willing to give you inside information or advice in private. They may well be very happy to have you to speak for them. Be very careful not to betray their trust. Their trade union (probably UNISON or UNITE) should also able to help.
Don’t assume that everyone understands why libraries matter. Be ready to explain. One useful tool: every council will have a slogan and a declared set of priorities (or ambitions, or goals, or similar words). They may take some finding. Try the website under a heading such as ‘Borough Plan’. They will cover things like transparency, equality, opportunity, prosperity, wellbeing, value for money. Whatever they are, it is certain that you will be able to show that public libraries make a major contribution.
- The councillor whose ward contains your library, or your own ward councillor (if different).
- the ‘lead’ member for libraries.
- the council’s Chief Executive.
- your MP.
- local press.
Some councils have bodies with names such as ‘area forums’. They usually have no power at all, but can speak for you and gather support. There will also be local tenants or residents associations, local newsletters, community groups of all kinds.
CONSULTATION – LEGAL PRINCIPLES
Consultations have become an increasingly important feature of the decision-making process in both central and local government. However, they have acquired a reputation for being designed to give cover for decisions which have already been made. Perhaps with this in mind, the courts have set out rules for the conduct of consultations which are intended to ensure that the process is a genuine attempt to obtain the opinions of those affected by the subject matter of the consultation and reflects a willingness to be influenced by the input from consultees in reaching a final decision.
The rules, often referred to as the Gunning or Sedley criteria after the case in which they were first formulated, received the endorsement of the UK Supreme Court in R(Moseley) -v- Haringey LBC in 2014 and are as follows:
- The consultation must take place at a time when the proposals are still at a formative stage;
- Sufficient reasons must be given for the proposal to permit intelligent consideration and response;
- Adequate time must be given for consideration and response, and
- The responses to the consultation must be conscientiously taken into account in finalising the proposal.
These criteria give the courts considerable control over how consultations are carried out and it’s often worth ascertaining whether a local authority in particular has published a code of practice adopting them. It’s also worth looking at the UK government principles of consultation issued in 2018 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/consultation-principles-guidance
One aspect of consultation not resolved by the Moseley decision is whether the proposer has to consult on alternatives to the proposal which have been considered but rejected. Sometimes, fairness will require that it must do so but it’s not clear when. In practice, when a consultation presents a preferred option, it will probably be sufficient for reasonable detail as to realistic alternatives and the reasoning behind the choice of the preferred option to be given in order to satisfy the requirement for sufficient information to make an informed response.