Wirral inquiry – it’s happened at last! A formal public inquiry into a local council’s plans for drastic library closures. Local people – as often before – fought and fought. But this time, the government at last agreed to use powers it has had since the 1964 Act that governs public libraries – and has never used before!

Laura Swaffield attended the two-day inquiry, held in New Brighton on the Mersey. Wirral people, and library experts, pulled the plans to pieces. Wirral Borough Council’s defence looked pretty poor. But we’ll have to wait til July to see who won. Meanwhile, here is Laura’s diary…

Monday 8 June, 2009

Here I am in gorgeous Liverpool, all set to cross the Mersey first thing tomorrow and reach the heart of the Wirral…

Yes, it’s time – first time in 45 years, in fact, that the 1964 Act governing public libraries has actually led to an inquiry into a mass closure plan.

People have asked for this kind of help for years and years. Why Andy Burnham (the Sec of State at DCMS – Department for Culture, Media & Sport), finally gave in in April and said yes, we will never know. Perhaps he always knew that by the time the thing started, he’d have hopped off to become Sec of State for Health…

The new SoS is one Ben Bradshaw MP for Exeter. Who he? Well, when he was still living in the real world he was a print & radio journalist. So I guess he may join the long line of Secs who get most excited about the ‘media’ bit of their job…

He’s also done brilliant stuff for whales. So maybe he’s attuned to endangered species, like public libraries.

Mind you, whales are at least capable of whistling to tell you they are there. Which is more than you can say for the library sector. In the Wirral, as elsewhere, it is ordinary people who are making the biggest fuss about libraries, and painstakingly trying to explain to the decision-makers that they are,,, er… important community resources.

There’s quite a lot riding on the inquiry (tomorrow & Wednesday). Whatever it decides about the Wirral’s library plans, the thinking it uses will create precedents for the future. The law that governs libraries has never been tested in this way.

And DCMS has already undertaken to use the Wirral findings in its own ‘ modernisation review’ on libraries, due in July. (That’s another big project Andy committed to, and has now dumped on Ben!) I wonder if Ben knows what he’s in for…

Meanwhile, a lot of folk will be watching what happens tomorrow. The Wirral Borough Council (WBC) press lady assures me there is space for 500 people in the room where the public library inquiry is to be held. AND a side room with video screens that takes another 700. Blimey – what are they expecting? One answer might be: ‘Crowds of furious locals with pitchforks & flaming torches.’ The thing isn’t getting off to an auspicious start.

Remember, local residents’ big complaint from the beginning has been that they haven’t been properly consulted. Even when they objected to the plans – rather loudly.

So, it went down like a dead squirrel when the DCMS declared that consultation isn’t mentioned in the 1964 Act. So the inquiry won’t be looking at that.

This, obviously, is technically correct. But you can see why it’s not going down well. It is, in effect, saying: ‘This local service is none of your business. We are sending in an expert to tell you whether it is good enough for you.’

Now, fuming locals are becoming incandescent. Wirral Council emailed out its case documents at – wait for it – TEN minutes to five last Friday. It’s a hefty wadge of paper too. Are they expected to drop everything, read, digest and discuss it in time for a 9.30am start Tuesday morning?

What’s more, locals have had a chance to look through the schedule of appearances. Loadsa people are slotted into the inquiry timetable. Each has a following slot to be cross-examined by the inquiry team. But NOT by the locals.

First thing this morning a furious email was going round all the (many) local groups that don’t like Wirral’s plans – asking them to join together to protest against both these annoyances. All this before a word has been spoken aloud in the inquiry.

Tuesday 10 June 2009

I have to reflect on the old standby criticism that people who campaign against library closures are ‘middle-class’, unrepresentative and so on.

Here we are in the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton – nice place, but perched at the very tip of the Wirral peninsula, so not all that accessible. If I’ve learned one thing since I got here, it’s that the Wirral is a big scatter of entirely separate villages, with an unloved and expensive bus service connecting them… oh, and it’s a working day.

On top of that it’s a big hall, the audience is 200+, you have to handle a mike, you have to give a short, crisp speech within very strict guidelines. And you also need to have developed a whole new set of points over the weekend, to counter the revised document that WBC (Wirral Borough Council) put out last thing on Friday.

WBC has even brought in a QC to cross-examine everyone who speak ! A perfectly nice & courteous man, but all the same…

Who do you think has the flexible time, skills, confidence – and email – to deal with all this? The primary schoolkids and old ladies whose case is being argued?

To be fair, today was almost designed to make WBC look its worst. All the opponents spoke today. WBC gets its turn to make its case tomorrow. But don’t tell me the middle classes are irrelevant – or haven’t got the sense to represent people who aren’t quite like themselves. The system makes them absolutely essential. Unfortunately. You can’t fault Sue Charteris, who has been appointed to ‘do’ the inquiry. She is courteous, friendly, even puts in the odd flash of humour. And she is absa-lute-ly consistent and resolute in sticking exactly to her remit.

That’s the trouble. It immediately rules out people talking about some of the things that bother them most. Top of the list is criticism of Wirral Borough Council (WBC)’s way of consulting them (or not). Going by who gets clapped most, and hardest, for saying what, when the audience gets half a chance, that’s what really makes them angry.

Personal references to individuals are also ruled out, quite rightly. But there are accusations of bullying, ignorance, bias or suppression of protests that resonate locally – and, true or not, doubtless contribute to the way things have happened here…

And there’s other, more general, worries. Sue has to rule out any references to the contribution local libraries make to footfall in local shops, or the general viability of community spaces. The Act is not about that. But current library/ local authority thinking is! And what about “partnership” working with local schools, libraries as a meeting place, a community space for lots of different activities? Witnesses today made it very clear that their small local libraries do a lot of that. Again, this is the core of current thinking in this area. But the Act doesn’t really talk about this kind of thing. It’s clear the whole Act needs a revamp.

At least the professionals have backed up the case of local people. Not the culture or library staff of the Wirral itself – they are saying not a word in this wretched inquiry. It’s reasonable to guess that they are not wildly supportive of WBC’s master-plan.

A great job was done by Bob McKee, Chief Exec of CILIP, the library professional association. All the library users I talked to said what a good job he did.

He explained that CILIP’s brief is the public interest. That’s why it asked for DCMS intervention way back in January. He had read WBC’s by-now-notorious ‘late submission’ that everyone had been scrabbling to deal with since Friday (several witnesses hadn’t even heard about it, let alone read it…)

‘None of its points were in response to the concerns CILIP had stated,’ said Bob. Cue loud applause. ‘It feels like a statement written for the inquiry.’ More loud applause.

Bob regretted that the inquiry had had to rule out WBC’s the flaws in “consultation” and the weakness of the Act. He hoped this would be taken up ‘elsewhere’.

CILIP isn’t automatically against all library closures, he explained. But these ones aren’t backed by any review of the service. There’s no logic about which is to close and which isn’t. And the super-centres that are supposed to replace the closed libraries haven’t been built yet. There’s no certainty that they ever will.

WBC, said Bob, doesn’t seem to understand the needs of old, young (etc) people, or deprived communities. It doesn’t get it that libraries can contribute to WBC’s agendas for all these groups. And there’s nothing in WBC’s new statement that changes any of that. Short, sharp, clear. The applause was so thunderous that Sue Charteris, the chair, had to tell people to stop. It’s the only time that happened all day.

Bob’s points were the foundation of everything that was said, all that day, by different people defending different individual libraries. Local people added many telling details. But the basic case was right there.

Wednesday 11 June

Day 2 (WBC’s day to make its case) was a big surprise. Sue Charteris had ruled out discussion of WBC’s consultation methods. Not mentioned in the 1964 Act. A shame, many agreed.

But when Sue took WBC through its evidence, she asked about consultation, in effect, again and again.

She was simply asking WBC to explain its plans.

She seemed to think you can’t plan a service without asking people what they want. And you can’t plan to change it without finding out what effect those changes might have.

WBC, it became clear, had done neither. WBC didn’t seem to have considered such ideas. Not even by the time of this inquiry. Their spokesman failed altogether to impress.

And it became clear that WBC’s last-minute extra document – which talked about all the lovely outreach work WBC would do to make up for the closures – was a bit of a panic job, done by people who hadn’t thought of it before.

The basic dialogue, throughout the session went – WBC: “Strategic… blah blah… the right fit for the borough…”. Sue: “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to clarify.. bla bla… how do you know that?…”

She was constantly asking for evidence that WBC had done its background research. And mostly, they just hadn’t.

There seems some realism in Sue’s on-the-hoof definition of what a service is all about. Maybe, just maybe, this inquiry will be effective where the Local Government Act – and all the other recent waffle about “community engagement” – never has been.

“Accessibility is the key to ‘comprehensive & efficient’,” said one Wirral witness. That makes sense to me. But how will Sue Charteris define the words?

It seems that her take on these words – and certain others – must strongly influence the final judgement on Wirral Borough Council (WBC). And thus, maybe, policy on public libraries for years to come. WBC concluded the inquiry with their QC chappie. His speech boiled down to: “You may think WBC’s plan is rubbish, but it’s not illegal.” He was doing his job, so what else could he say?

“C & E” popped up in my notes all the time. What do “comprehensive and efficient” mean? You could weep for the Public Library Standards, which were devised to give some idea of what’s needed. Some campaigners had looked them up, and used them in their arguments. Nobody had told them the PLSs became toothless after a few years when everyone realised the DCMS was going to do nothing to enforce them. Or that the whole idea has now been junked.

But even with the clearly threadbare 1964 Act, other words need defining. What’s a service? What does making it available mean? What does encouraging people to use it mean?

Good councils know. Bad councils need telling. And, let’s face it, public libraries have made a lousy job of explaining the potential of libraries to the laymen who run them.

I’m not impressed by WBC’s understanding of libraries. But I’m not impressed, either, by the lack of tools, and support, from national bodies to library managers who must try to get the message across. Funny that people who actually use libraries understand their value very well…

You have to make allowance for a certain amount of shroud-waving. All the same, it was ironic to note how Wirral’s library users seemed to paint a picture of up-to-date good practice.

All but one of the buildings under threat are modern. All look DDA-compliant. Some have been refurbished quite recently. Most are small; all are unintimidating. They don’t look like “official” buildings. Several are sited bang in the middle of the shops, or co-sited with schools or children’s centres. One or two are the only remaining public building in the area. Several are in deprived areas, by any
score. Several boast rising visit/issue figures (and no, not just in the last couple of months!)

All, I think, can boast a long list of partnerships – with playgroups, schools, Scouts and other youth groups, mums, older people etc. All, I think, host activities, from coffee mornings to baby bouncing, homework clubs to ICT classes, councillors’ surgeries to council information points. All this has taken years to build up, one witness pointed out.

Heart of the community? Safe public space? Meeting place? Access for all? You’ve got it.

I think it’s clear that the planned pattern of closures is not what you’d come up with, if developing the library service was your focus. “Strategic” is one of those words that always make me reach for my gun. Wirral Borough Council’s love of the word makes me worry about its view of . . . well, the Wirral.

I was sad to leave the Wirral. I met some smashing people. I started to get a picture of this very distinctive area, and soaked up a lot of (their) affection for the place.

As always, I was impressed by the way ordinary people grasp what a library service is all about, while the ‘ experts’ don’t get it at all. WBC’s starting point had been that ‘ delivering a library service’ through multiple outlets is by definition inefficient.

Locals pointed out that many people need to walk to their library – especially in the deprived communities where the closures are bizarrely focused.

Taking a couple of kids by bus to the next library – which may be “only” a mile and a half away – will set you back six or eight quid. Wheelchair/buggy batteries won’t make it up the hill in between. You can ferry an infants class across the road – but into the next village? Get real.

It helped to be in the audience, too, to get feedback beyond the laughs, mutters and claps that constantly informed the proceedings.

WBC had consulted on its plans, we were told. “Yeah,” said my neighbour. “They came & told us what they were going to do. 100% were against. And they didn’t listen.”

WBC is working closely with communities on the design of their shiny new neighbourhood centres, we were told, via the neighbourhood forums. “That’s news to me,” said my neighbour. “And I’m the chair of
ours!”

There were many ideas about ways to save money without closing libraries. A popular one, of course, was recycling the salary of the WBC witness. All the same, you do wonder what might emerge if you
asked for constructive ideas before making drastic decisions. Consultation emerged as a key theme – to me, anyway. Let’s see what happens.

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