Barnet campaign group Save Barnet Libraries (SBL) has taken the first step in legal action to challenge the errors in the Council’s current consultation by sending a ‘letter before claim
’ to Barnet Council earlier this week.
‘They’re keeping the buildings open but reducing the service so severely there’ll be almost nothing left. The consultation is much more limited than last year’s and it doesn’t even say what hours my library will be staffed,’ says Save Barnet Libraries campaigner Emily Burnham.
‘We had an overwhelming response to our request for funds to pay for this legal action to oppose Barnet’s radical and untested proposal for unattended libraries. Within a day we reached our first target and, altogether, one hundred and fifty residents contributed via the crowdfunding site, ‘Crowdjustice’,’ says spokesperson for SBL and Chair of East Finchley library users group, Polly Napper.
Barnet residents are appalled by the council’s latest proposals for making cuts to the library service, particularly the plans to reduce staffed hours to between only 15.5 and 23 per week, which means users will be expected to use entry systems to gain access to branches when no member of staff will be on the premises. ‘Partnership libraries’, the least resourced, will be wholly reliant on volunteers and open ‘a minimum’ of 15 hours a week.
The health and safety risks of this shift to ‘open libraries’ are self-evident: CCTV will be unmonitored, toilets will be closed, many vulnerable users will feel unsafe, while children under 16 years of age will not even be allowed to use these ‘libraries’ unaccompanied by an adult (age 18 or older). The Council claims it is using a ‘pilot’ at Edgware library to test its plans. However the pilot is not a fair test because, unlike in the proposed plan, a security guard is present during unstaffed hours, which are, in fact, only in addition to current opening hours.
SBL points out that the Council’s claim of ‘Keeping all the libraries open’ is misleading, as reduced in size and resources and without full-time staff, these are libraries in name only.
The campaign has taken advice from respected solicitor John Halford, at Bindmans LLP, and a ‘letter before claim’ detailing the legal errors in the consultation procedure was sent to the council shortly after Christmas.
The letter maintains that the consultation is unlawful because it fails to seek the views of,and consider the impact of the proposals on, those most affected, and that the documents do not contain enough information to allow people to respond sensibly. It also raises the flaws in the pilot and the lack of any contingency plans, for example if not enough volunteers come forward. Another complaint is the Council’s failure to carry out its promise of October 2014 to actively explore co-location of council services within existing library buildings.
Notes for Editors:
1. Barnet Council is consulting for a second time on proposed changes to the library service. The first consultation ended in February 2015 and contained three broad options. The current consultation, which is much less well publicised and includes fewer public drop in sessions, contains one option, which is a hybrid of those previously proposed.
2. The consultation deadline is 6 January, with a view to implementation in April 2016.
3. The plans are intended to cut a further £1.73m from the library service budget and to raise £0.546 m from reducing the size of libraries and letting out the rest of the buildings. This will amount to cuts of 70% in the libraries service budget since 2010/11.
4. There will be three tiers of library ‘Core Plus’, ‘Core’ and ‘Partnership’. The first two tiers will have some staffed opening hours (23 and 15.5 respectively) whereas Partnership libraries will have no professional staff, relying entirely on volunteers. Overall there will be a 70% cut in staffed hours. Barnet has not produced any evidence to show that sufficient volunteers will come forward to maintain the proposed 15 hours of opening a week.
5. The ‘pilot’ at Edgware library began in July 2015 and is ongoing.
6. The ‘letter before claim’ was sent on 29 December 2015, with a request for response from Barnet Council by 11 January.