Approval by Lambeth’s planning committee of plans for the future of Carnegie Library is a major step towards the reopening of the building by the end of this year.
In the face of huge government cuts to financial support for councils since 2010 (with Lambeth having made savings of £183m and now needing to find a further £55m in savings over the next 3 years), it won’t be possible to get the library open again unless an alternative way of funding the service, the building and the range of activities that take place in it can be found. The plans now agreed by the council unlocks that funding by approving new uses alongside a high-quality library. And for the very first time planning guarantees have been placed on the use of the ground floor as a library.
Over the 30 years that I’ve lived in Herne Hill, local people have time and again proved themselves a creative and resourceful partner for the council, frequently leading Lambeth towards solutions the council could not have achieved on its own. In the late 1990s when it was clear the council could no longer fund it, the closed and decaying Brockwell Lido was transformed into the thriving hub it is today by bringing in a not for profit leisure partner to put a gym and other activities alongside the pool.
The complex project to create a new square in front of the station was led by the community using investment and support from TfL and Lambeth. The phenomenal success of the crowdfunding project to keep the Ruskin Park paddling pool open last summer is only the most recent example. Now Herne Hill’s brilliant 198 Gallery – no longer in receipt of council funding – is redeveloping, doubling its floorspace to add creative business startups and new arts based enterprise uses alongside its core educational and artistic functions. This will give it the income to train young people for creative and digital work in the south London economy.
In addition to being outstanding examples of the ingenuity of Herne Hill people and businesses all these projects which have made our neighbourhood a hugely better place to live have one crucial thing in common. That is a recognition that sometimes things have to change to survive; that in difficult times new solutions are often needed. This is often controversial. Back in 2008 there was major opposition to the creation of Station Square where we now have our much-valued market. Those with even longer memories might recall the sense of outrage felt that the council could no longer subsidise Brockwell Lido.
The transfer of the Carnegie building to a community run organisation is the next big challenge that Herne Hill people will need to meet showing the same mix of expertise, energy and co-operative values. The council will retain the freehold and the building’s leasehold will be taken over by one of two bidding organisations. The gym in the previously largely derelict basement will be run - as with Brockwell Lido - by a not for profit provider (the council’s leisure partner GLL). This will cover the cost of hosting the library and providing staff on the ground floor. Open double the previous hours and offering a similar number of books, DVDs, computers and plenty of study space there will be librarians present for part of every week day. All the previous activities including those for children, community groups and much more will run again. There will be an opportunity to get a café open in the building to attract new visitors and complement the library. Space for arts and performance will also be possible as well as a chance to create dedicated facilities for small business, training and enterprise uses.
The transfer will crucially open up the exciting prospect of major investment from sources not currently available to the council. A successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid - which Lambeth as key partner will need to match fund – could give the building the major refurbishment it sorely needs including a new roof and preservation of the building’s crucial heritage features. The council for its part needs to hugely improve communication and engagement with local people.
For the past 100 years the Carnegie has been the centre of our community. But it has had to exist for many years on ever diminishing public subsidy which has now run out as the council struggles to keep services for children, disabled and older people afloat. Some other councils have responded to similar circumstances by closing libraries or turning them into volunteer run facilities. This is an approach that the Labour Party in Lambeth strongly rejects. In Herne Hill we have shown we can do much better.
By forming yet another creative partnership between the community and the council we can once more call upon the energy and imagination of Herne Hill’s people to prepare the Carnegie to be a flagship library and community hub for the next 100 years.
Cllr Jim Dickson, Labour Councillor for Herne Hill