Lambeth Council has suffered budgets cuts of over 50% since 2010 and it faces further deep cuts under the new Conservative Government.
We’ve done everything you would expect us to do in the first round of cuts to protect front line services. We reduced management, restructured our departments, reviewed our contracts and reduced our over heads. We spoke to other boroughs about joint working and we’ve also taken the tough decision to put up Council Tax by 1.99%.
But that only got us so far – and the £90m of cuts we are now making, on top of the £110m we’ve already made, means heart breaking decisions which no Labour administration wants to make.
The reality is you can’t take as much as £200m out of our budget without reducing services – and because most of our budget goes on paying staff to do valued jobs, from social workers and carers to gardeners and librarians, we can’t shy away from the reality that this means people will lose their jobs. Already Lambeth Council has a 1000 fewer employees than in 2010.
So, as a result of our current financial situation, the budget for cultural services, which funds our libraries, parks and open spaces, sports and the arts, will be reduced from £10.4m in 2014 to £6.5m by 2018. That means we simply cannot duck tough decisions about the future of our library service.
Lambeth currently has 10 libraries. The majority of usage is concentrated in our biggest libraries in our Town Centres. Some of our smaller libraries are open as little as 31.5hrs a week and aren’t well serviced by transport links – one of the reasons they are less busy. We also have an uneven spread of libraries across the borough. North Lambeth has four smaller libraries, but none of those are ideal and they don’t reflect the modern spaces libraries need to be. By contrast, we have a fantastic new library in Clapham and have refurbished Brixton and Streatham libraries.
Protecting our Town Centre Libraries – a comprehensive library offer
The council undertook an extensive three month consultation between 30 January and 24 April 2015 on how we should best spend that new budget. We put forward our proposals, which included the difficult recommendation that we should concentrate our resources in our most well used libraries. We suggested that rather than just reducing hours across the board we should protect Town Centre libraries like Streatham, Brixton and Clapham.
We put forward some ideas on how we might use the less busy libraries in new ways, as community hubs with a range of activities or even put small self-serve libraries in with other services in nearby buildings.
The council has a statutory duty to deliver library services, and rightly so. We should provide safe places people can access books, computers and space to study. Our proposal is we work towards five excellent Town Centre Libraries, across the borough, in locations well served by transport links. These 5 locations currently already serve 77% of users across the service. This means all residents will be able to travel to a Town Centre Library, open over 54hrs a week, less than a short journey by bus from their home. And for those who can’t travel we aren’t proposing any cuts to our home delivery service. We will continue to deliver books to those residents’ homes.
We already have 3 great Town Centre Libraries, Clapham, Brixton and Streatham. By 2017 we will have a new library in the heart of West Norwood – alongside a new cinema – and we will work to identify a suitable site in North Lambeth for a brand new modern library.
We will also continue with extending and rolling out our digital library offer. Residents now have access online to a range of free books and publications. As the digital world grows it presents new opportunities to extend our library services outside of buildings and allows people to access material from home.
A new way of delivering neighbourhood library services
In addition we will have 5 smaller neighbourhood library services. These libraries won’t operate along the traditional model, realising the £1m savings we need to make in the libraries budget. We will continue to provide books, PCs, study space, Wi-Fi and also put on a programme of professional librarian run activities like children’s reading groups. But these libraries will sit alongside other services and activities, meaning they won’t need to have dedicated library staff there in order to be used by the public. So for example in our three proposed healthy living centres, the staff there would be from a new Lambeth Cultural Services Trust, primarily to help people access health and fitness activities, but as long as these activities are happening the library space will be open to residents. In some cases the hours residents can access the new library spaces will more than double to 70 hours a week. But I won’t pretend these library spaces won’t be significantly smaller than residents are currently used to because the space will be shared.
Our recommendations around the five neighbourhood libraries have changed since the public consultation to take on board resident’s requests to be more imaginative with library sites like Minet Library – rather than to just sell the building. Hence the proposals around the three healthy living centres at Minet, Tate South Lambeth and Carnegie. We think these proposals are imaginative and serve our residents well given the difficult financial circumstances.
We have a great proposal at Waterloo, with the neighbourhood library service being hosted by the Oasis Trust in their new community space and cafe, whilst they work on proposals for a community library to be built – using money from the Shell Centre Development - as part of their proposed development on their school site round the corner from the current library. And we will continue to support Upper Norwood Joint Library Trust to be our first library to transition into a resident led community hub.
Do we have to do this?
I wanted to acknowledge that throughout the consultation many residents contacted me to ask us not to cut the libraries budget. They did so because they believe, like I do, that libraries are worth protecting. I spent my teen years heading into Basingstoke, a 45min bus journey from the military camp I grew up on, to stock up on my weekly reading material. I won’t pretend it was all high brow! But that passion for reading is still with me and I want every Lambeth resident to have the opportunity to develop a life long love of reading, learning and developing their understanding of the world.
However, not make cuts to libraries would mean even steeper cuts in other vital areas like adult and children services. These areas are already taking their share of these cuts – and none of them are easy. Sadly these proposals will result in some job losses in our library services, but if we don’t make them then there will be even greater job losses somewhere else such as social care. There is no pain free option here – just difficult choices.
No Labour Councillor came into politics to choose between care packages for the elderly or reducing library provision. We believe in excellent public services. This is getting harder and harder as the Tories target cuts at the poorest boroughs. Don’t forget that some places in much richer areas have seen an increase in local government funding. These cuts are ideological and hurt the most vulnerable.
I’ve been asked how we compare with other boroughs – and why are we proposing to reduce our number of traditional library services to five when others plan to make no reductions. The reality is each borough is different with varying levels of need and opportunities. For example, even though we look similar to Southwark, there are some key differences. Our levels of violent crime are almost double that in Southwark. Apart from Westminster, our levels of violence far outstrip everywhere else in London (and we have far fewer police than Westminster). This is a problem we are determined to tackle and a firm political priority.
One third of that violence is from domestic violence. This is why we spend more than our neighbours on tackling violence against women and girls – over £1.5m every year. Many London boroughs spend nothing on Domestic Violence. We fund the highest number of refuge beds compared to other London Boroughs, 52 beds, and have the ground breaking Gaia and Beth centres supporting women, and their families, to be safe. We have looked at the needs of Lambeth’s residents, especially the most vulnerable, and protected these almost hidden services. It’s at the heart our values as a Labour council.
We also have twice the number of children centres compared to our neighbours. We know that Lambeth’s children deserve and need the best start in life – and many of our children’s life chances don’t compare favourably those born in other London boroughs. This commitment means we can try and get ahead of the curve of some of Lambeth’s health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, difficult social problems such as neglect or poor mental health and low educational attainment.
The immediate future is bleak, with even more cuts coming our way. But there are areas for hope and our residents continue to step up. The massive resilience Lambeth has shown in the face of these cuts has been thanks to our residents and their civic spirit. Upper Norwood Joint Library will be our first independent library – with residents stepping up and running the building for the community. We hope Carnegie will follow in its footsteps. We will also follow Merton’s example and increase library volunteers, allowing us to extend the opening hours of our Town Centre libraries even further.
Politically we also have opportunities. We need a Labour Mayor in 2016 to fight for London and make our case to government and we are working with Labour-led London Council’s on opportunities presented by further devolution of powers from central government. But the status quo imposed by the Tories means really difficult decisions are having to be made which take us far from our ideal vision for Lambeth. However, I’d rather it was Labour making these choices, because whilst we will take them with a heavy heart – we will continue to try and protect our most vulnerable residents as best we can.
Cllr Jane Edbrooke
Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods
Read the full cabinet report here: http://moderngov.lambeth.gov.uk/documents/s77362/Culture%202020%20Cabinet%20Report.pdf