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.
New plans for libraries will invariably be put out to consultation.
1. Ensure that as many people as possible take part. Public meetings may be poorly advertised, or in inconvenient places. A questionnaire may be online, but little publicised. Many people need a paper version (it is also useful to hand them out at meetings). It is not unknown for paper versions to be ‘available’ – but stowed away, so you have to know about them and ask.
2. Look at the wording carefully. It may ask ‘leading questions’ that encourage the answers the council wants. It may not allow any way for consultees to say they completely disagree with what is proposed.
Consultations have to meet a standard called the Gunning principles*.
- Consultation must be at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage.
- The proposer must give sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response.
- Adequate time must be given for consideration and response.
- The product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account in finalising any proposals.
* These were established in a court case in 1985 (R (Gunning) v Brent London Borough Council) and endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2014 (R (Moseley) v LB Haringey). The latter also established that:
Fairness may require that consultees are given information on possible alternative plans, even when a council does not favour them, ‘to enable the consultees to make an intelligent response in respect of the scheme on which their views are sought’.
It is also widely accepted in law that a council should carry out an equality impact assessment to ensure any plans protect vulnerable people as defined by the Equality Act 2010. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance