By Cllr Jim Dickson
As Herne Hill residents met in a major engagement event to discuss a fresh approach to the delivery of their neighbourhood library service in their local Carnegie library with local councillors and Lambeth council staff, it is worth reflecting that in every area of the country, local politicians are struggling with the fundamental issue of what they can afford to deliver under huge cuts to local authority budgets. This is a time when every aspect of council spending is under scrutiny and under pressure.
In Lambeth, in common with many local authorities, the bulk of our spending goes on looking after vulnerable adults and children, and that will remain an absolute priority. For the rest of our residents the key services are keeping the streets clean, collecting the rubbish, running schools, maintaining parks and providing the cultural and leisure services that keep minds and bodies healthy.
This may seem to be a simple task, but with an ever growing population and a dramatically shrinking budget, delivering them is a complex challenge.
In Lambeth, one of the toughest challenges has come around libraries – seen by many as a sacred and fundamental right. They are undoubtedly an integral part of public life, providing universal opportunities to learn, study and explore the vast history and culture the world has to offer from the safety of a public building.
Nobody in public service wants to diminish these opportunities, but we must look at libraries in the same way as every other service; that is to think hard about how we can deliver the most efficient and effective service possible with a tightening budget.
In many areas of the country, we have seen libraries close. The buildings that housed them were perhaps underused and could generate more money – and savings – by simply being sold off. We looked at that option in Lambeth with our two least used libraries.
We undertook a huge public consultation, which examined all our cultural and leisure services and asked residents what they thought. Our residents rejected library closures, so proposals were developed to ensure all ten of our libraries remained open.
Where library buildings were underused or overly expensive, we have looked to work with partners to help expand the range of activities on offer and provide a more sustainable future. In Upper Norwood, that partnership is in the form of a community trust who have some really exciting plans – they will take over running the building, in which we will provide a library service.
In Waterloo, we are delivering a library in partnership with an already established community group in the area, saving us money in running a building while expanding the range of activities on offer in a new ‘community hub’. In West Norwood we are opening a new library alongside a cinema.
In Herne Hill, we have the magnificent Carnegie Library which gained fame recently when protesters occupied the building who perceived planned changes as the end of a library service. In reality, in a similar way as other areas of the borough, we have found a way to keep a library in the building when it reopens next year.
Partnering with our leisure provider to deliver a library may sound unusual on the face of it, but it makes sense. Their presence, in the currently unused basement of the building, will enable us to reopen next year with a library service that is both open longer and delivering savings in the council budget. Residents who have been opposed to the plans or sceptical they will provide the library they want are now turning their thoughts to ensuring that the new arrangements deliver the financial security into the future for the service which Carnegie users seek. It's vital the council builds on this new atmosphere of engagement and joint ownership of the Carnegie building's future.
In the long term, we propose transferring the building to a community group who will be able to generate income, access grants and deliver a strong community service - including a library - for many years to come. Complex challenges often require innovative thinking and we firmly believe Lambeth council has developed imaginative solutions that can deliver for everybody.