Leader’s speech to the Local Government Association annual conference – Wednesday June 27, 2012
Good morning and thank you for joining us today.
Let me state up front, I am a passionate believer in public libraries being available to all.
I also strongly believe that councils must use their assets wisely for the long term benefit of their communities
Despite the huge financial challenges facing all of us in local government, I believe it is our responsibility to look beyond buildings that house libraries.
Let’s open our eyes; let’s think differently about our library buildings while safeguarding an important service for our residents’ future.
Of course we all know the press love a story about library closures or a council faced with harsh financial issues that starts to think differently about library services. We in Surrey are not immune to that focus.
This morning, I’m delighted to share Surrey’s learning and our experiences with you.
I’d like to outline Surrey’s approach to developing a new vision for our library service and how this is further commitment to our One Team approach.
As with all change it has been a difficult process that has involved us being subject to a judicial review.
Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught”, I can relate to that. I am always open to listening and learning how we in Surrey can do things differently and better.
Libraries are hugely important to communities. Members and residents will often have an emotional attachment to their local library and, yes, even those that never use them. That’s why our starting position was to try to keep all of our libraries open.
The library service in Surrey was on the whole, performing well. It was and is well regarded by residents but also faced significant challenges –which I suspect you may recognise.
• There was a huge difference in library usage across the county.
• One fifth of our libraries had fewer than 6%…5.8% to be exact….of the total visits.
• Many of them had very limited opening hours.
• New opportunities that have arisen through changes in technology have also enabled us to offer residents new ways of reading and learning.
• We have a really successful virtual library service and we wanted to continue to build on that success by using technology to create a better service for our residents.
Our vision was fundamentally about building on our strengths to keep our libraries open and maximising the use of buildings.
To achieve this, we undertook a public value review – part of our council-wide efficiency programme. We didn’t involve any consultants in this review, because I believe our staff have the right skills needed to do this.
We also formed a member reference group to challenge the process and make recommendations. Our One Team philosophy in Surrey is to involve members, residents and our staff, wherever possible, to make sure we get the big decisions right.
The review recommended that the council continue to operate the majority of libraries, but explore with residents how they could help us run the most underused ones. What we call community partnered libraries.
Let me share this short video with you so you can hear for yourselves what our residents’ think.
As I said, the model the review recommended was the introduction of community-partnered libraries. These offer local communities the opportunity to take over the day to day running of their library.
Each library is operated by a ‘community partner’, which could include a range of local community groups, businesses, parish councils or local charities. They then run the service with a combination of library staff and volunteers.
We spent months working with local communities to identify where there was the will and capacity to get involved. This needed to be handled very sensitively because as I said earlier people tend to have a strong emotional attachment to their local libraries.
Some residents– and it has to be said, some of my fellow members were worried that a new kind of library service would mean losing what they knew and held dear. So we had to take time to engage, listen to concerns and make clear what the benefits would be.
But of course community partnered libraries are only part of the story. Our core libraries network is also vitally important. That’s why we invested a lot of money in new and refurbished libraries in Dorking and Woking.
These heavily used libraries are about more than just the building – I think they should be the centre of their communities. Literally in fact – in the centre of towns, nearby the local shops, the local post office and the local amenities.
Close to transport links. A real community space, used for a variety of things, from surfing the internet to holding community meetings.
In my own division of Warlingham, the local library was identified as a community partnered library.
As the local county councillor, I talked to residents, met local community organisations and parish councils to make sure I understood local concerns.
With the support of my district and parish councillors, we worked together and got out on the streets, undertook a survey, listened first hand what residents actually thought about their local library, and understood their strong desire to retain it in a new model.
There are many benefits to our community partnered model:
• Community-partnered libraries can be tailored to local residents needs and aspirations;
• Volunteers set their local opening times to suit local needs in their community;
• The buildings can be used for multi functions and opened in the evenings and weekends for wider community use;
• Income can be generated to support local plans such as a parcel collection service;
• The model frees local community libraries to set up services locally;
• Sixth form students are becoming involved as volunteers;
As I said the proposals were challenged in the High Court earlier this year by a small local group who opposed our plans.
Although the judge did not criticise the policy itself, he ruled against us on the technicality that, although the work had been done – and no issues had not been identified in our Equalities Impact Assessment – our
Cabinet should have had more information about the equalities training programme planned for volunteers before it made the decision.
We are consulting further on our equalities training plans for volunteers and a report is due back to our Cabinet in July.
We have learnt:
• Don’t underestimate people’s emotional attachment to their libraries – even those that never use them ;
• Make sure your members are informed and committed to change;
• Pay very close attention to the equalities impact of any proposals;
• Be courageous, but always remain sensitive to residents feelings;
• Look at maximising the use of buildings that house libraries, in an innovative way, to make them cost effective;
• If the model is right local people will volunteer to work in their community. In Surrey we have hundreds of volunteers who stand ready to join to help their local library
I believe all of us in local government must have the courage to open our eyes, challenge old ways and encourage innovation. We must evaluate new solutions and opportunities to ensure that the future use of our buildings is cost effective, and that the library service meets the needs of local communities.
In closing, we all know there are more tough times ahead for local government.
But if we listen and learn from experiences across local government, together we can chart new library models for communities that will see the survival of a public library service for decades to come.
Thank you and I’m happy to take any questions.