In the best traditions of the Camden New Journal, see how smooth culture minister Ed Vaizey tries to dodge a series of questions about library closures during his visit to Camden this week.
In the best traditions of the Camden New Journal, see how smooth culture minister Ed Vaizey tries to dodge a series of questions about library closures during his visit to Camden this week.
From notorious crime-ridden blackspot – to mixed community, spurring the regeneration of this important part of north London, a key test for Labour’s administration 2010-2014 is to oversee the start of community benefits arising from the massive King’s Cross development.
To do so would be a continuation of Labour’s historic investment in regeneration and anti-social behaviour going back to the 1990s.
King’s Cross is one of the most significant development and regeneration opportunities in Central London. It is one of the largest inner city regeneration projects in Europe with over £3bn of investment (includes £1bn transport infrastructure and £2bn King’s Cross Central) over the next 10 years.
Key are the planning benefits negotiated from developer Argent. Outline planning permission and a S106 Legal Agreement negotiated by Labour were granted for King’s Cross Central in 2006. This development is now underway and comprises up to nearly 8 million sq ft of mixed use development over 27 hectares.
The permission includes up to 50 new buildings, 20 new streets, 10 new major public spaces, the restoration and refurbishment of 20 historic buildings and structures, creating up to 2000 homes and 25,000 jobs.
Unlike some other major developments the entire project will be public, rather than private realm i.e. under the democratic control of the council. This was a big negotiating point for us.
Some of the wins including community benefits – mixing open space, with mixed housing and business, secured as part of King’s Cross Central include
Kings Cross Central is one of the few developments in London to build though the recessions. Argent has secured funding for Phase 1 of the development. Phase 1 of the development is due for completion by 2014 and will deliver
Completing King’s Cross (final brick laid in 2020) will finish the transformation of the King’s Cross area started in the mid-1990s.
Labour will have played an important part in achieving this change, attracting business and investment, reducing crime, promoting opportunities for local people while retaining the distinct social mix of the borough.
There are few more controversial and emotive issues than the future of local public libraries. Indeed, the current budgetary crisis for affecting local authorities has forced many Town Halls to make unpopular decisions, including widespread closure programmes, leaving residents feeling that their community or neighbourhood library is ‘first on the cuts list’ of local politicians.
As seen almost exclusively through the prism of government cuts, councils like mine vex over whether to ‘salami slicing’ services – risking the reduction of their opening hours to the point where people no longer have the confidence that their service is open; closing services outright; or (most invidiously) adopt a ‘mop and bottle detergent’ approach to services – where investment is so starved from services, all that remains is the shell of a building, a caretaker and a bottle of cleaning fluid.
After conducting a consultation on the future of libraries with over 6000 residents in Camden, it’s clear that The Big Society answer to cuts – replacing professional librarians with volunteers – has only limited appeal, so too higher fees or community giving.
But while it is true that public libraries face unprecedented funding challenges, there is a much more unspoken and fundamental threat which needs to be addressed: the challenge of continuing to provide the public information and content in an age when all content-based organisations are being forced to transform or die.
The brutal truth is that just like any other organisation in providing access to books and music, public libraries will face real pressures from changing behavior over the next 5 to 10 years as more people own, subscribe and ‘stream’ more content online at home or on the move than libraries currently offer.
While some library programmes have anticipated this change, controversially by providing a more diverse and atypical range of services, innovation has often been via larger ‘hubs’ at the expense (closure) of community libraries. The decline and underinvestment in smaller neighbourhood libraries has forced people to literally vote with their feet. Compare a traditional local library with a Costa Coffee and question how it might be that more information is being accessed by more people in private commercial spaces providing free wifi selling coffee than in public spaces supposedly dedicated to learning?
Digital technology is transforming content industries, quickly, destructively and chaotically. The pace of change over the last 10 years has been fundamental and far-reaching. At the time of the first dot-com bubble in 2000 less than 40% of UK households were connected to the ‘down-the-line’ Internet. Today the number is 80%, with many benefitting from high-speed broadband.
The availability of Kindle/iPad, e-books and app-based mobile technology will only drive content change faster.
The Internet, high-speed communications, new consumer electronics devices—together these and other inventions have created a perfect storm for content organisations. They provide an alternative, virtual supply chain, one where often the costs of creation, marketing, distribution and use of information goods have plummeted to something close to zero.
Simply put, the cost of physically providing information is being overtaken. Library users, like customers of HMV or Waterstones will tell us: Why visit your local library when you can get more information online? Why borrow a book or a CD, when you are just two clicks and a download away from it online?
We can only guess at what the future holds for content providers, but the reality is that we don’t yet know what the emerging new markets and services for information will look like, but we know they are coming, and we know that in the interim it is entirely unclear who will survive the revolution.
The content crisis of the last decade is grounded in the reality that digital technology has generated far more challenges for traditional content providers than we ever expected. This crisis is about to play itself out across our public services.
So why haven’t public libraries changed?
While all content providers have been forced to change, parochial politics rather than strategic thinking have played a major part in not anticipating the worst.
Libraries possess are rare quality among public services – they are seen as a fundamental good regardless of whether people use them or not. Whenever libraries are under threat, supporters argue strongly just how important these services are, yet once the leaflets have been delivered, local councilors and MPs lobbied and decisions overturned we find ourselves back in the same position as before: stuck in the 1970s.
There are two functions well-expressed about the public library: the “street-corner university” and the “living-room in the city.” The library needs both these parts of its identity – a place of learning, but also of culture, leisure, conviviality and inclusiveness. There has often been a tension between both these functions, and resistance to becoming skewed towards one or the other so much that they are often neither. The digital challenge over the next decade will enhance and distort this.
In Camden – par excellence the hotbed of the Library Lobby– amenity groups have historically been very vocal and influential. Indeed Friends Groups can credibly claim to have kicked off the wider national debate about libraries in the late 1990s, a debate which has re-emerged today as councils face severe cuts in government funding.
As has been played out politically, the strength of the Library Lobby over the more diverse voice of library users has often distorted the very real role community libraries serve in more deprived communities, as spaces where parents can meet and pre-school children can play and have unstructured learning with books. For those who live alone, a community facility like a library serves as an important venue for socialisation, the concept popularised in library circles the last decade as the ‘urban living room’ idea – a community space in an increasingly individualised world.
Famously backed by local celebs Library Lobby has, however, left itself open the criticism largely the preserve of the well meaning affluent middle classes. While libraries have been protected by the fury of this group over time, views about libraries have ossified and change resisted. (‘Libraries should be for books, not machines’ was a slogan when Camden council first installed UK Online computers ten years ago).
Perhaps it’s now time that the much more diverse weight of opinion and experience from the more diverse body of library users it brought to bear.
Can we change before it is too late?
Libraries do not have to be the first public sector victims of the combination of cuts, content wars and conservatism. With concerted political will, perhaps Town Hall politicians can take the lead and help public libraries modernise to meet these three challenges:
Social inclusion must be central to the work of community libraries
The Library Lobby is often far too unrepresentative of broader library users, skewing the priorities of library services away from goals the community shares in other services. Councils should support and assist diverse and sometimes unrepresentative library users groups by establishing more effective and engaged networks where library users can not only exercise more self-governance, but do so in a way which links up with schools, childcare, youth and older peoples’ services.
If libraries are to seriously be effective we must ensure a more effective voice for library users from across the community, including a more powerful voice for young people and parents with young children.
Camden, for example, where Friends groups have historically sprung up in libraries serving more affluent areas – the council proposes to assist library Friends groups establish themselves self-govern in public libraries serving more deprived areas.
Library as a digital-physical bridge
The decline of high street retailers in books and music has clearly created a potential additional need for libraries as the mediator between digital and physical goods via a trusted brand in a way that few other organisations could ever offer.
Libraries are probably the only places where people today can use the internet for free and browse/borrow for books for free. Libraries should proudly the repository for ‘physical’ information – the core service of lending books/music – but should also recognise their evolving role in online literacy. More radically, some have started to offer greater choice to a greater number of people with additional e-book services.
Recuing the stubborn digital divide
Public authorities should embrace UK Digital Tsar Martha Lane Fox’s Manifesto for a Networked Nationprogramme (authored by the only government Tsar to survive the transition from Labour to Coalition government). In the short term, community libraries have a potential future as vehicles for to reduce the persistent digital divide and a hub for community ‘digital champions’. One in six (including many disabled people, parents and older people) remain offline. Despite the market for computer hardware and broadband now within the reach of a majority of low income households, many lack basic digital skills. Through their links with UK Online, libraries have a crucial function over the short and medium term to close this gap.
Libraries should be much more self-governing than they have been traditionally. Allowing greater innovation would allow a broader, more bespoke range of services to be delivered from these neighbourhood centres.
Hours should be extended by encouraging local volunteering. However, the patronising suggestion that the role of the public librarian can be replaced by cohorts of full-time volunteers should be rejected on grounds of unsustainability.
A far better idea is to challenge public librarians to develop their latent skills as community organisers as well as knowledge professionals to assist libraries in provided extended and out of hours services by Friends networks and community programmes such as Time Banking.
Local public service hubs
Councils should ensure that libraries work properly with other local services and other public sector bodies. Too often libraries do not work as effectively as they could do with local schools (which have libraries themselves).
Remodelling of other services, e.g, housing services or advice, could provide new opportunities for council services to co-locate or provide ‘touchdown’ points in neighbourhoods where face-to-face services still need a presence. Libraries should look at how they can work with local advice charities, for example Citizens Advice or Credit Unions, to jointly run services.
The need to respond to cuts, the changing dynamics of content and conservatism require a fresh approach to community public libraries.
In this climate those whowant to see a public library servcie survive must accept modernisation is a reality, not an option.
I wrote in December about Camden’s financial challenge and the steps Camden Labour was taking to mitigate them and develop proposals for the future.
Now one full year in, it’s clear that a position of outright opposition to government cuts is untenable given that the cuts are expected to go on for six successive years – Camden Labour must (and has) done two key things: first, it has responded appropriately to taxpayers’ demands that the council make administration savings; second, it has sought to defend universal provision.
Here’s our work in progress:
Ended the unpopular auctioning of council homes which had resulted in public property being ‘flipped’ by private developers.
Revealed all payment to suppliers over £500. In July 2010 Camden was one of the first (and largest) councils in the country to show what we spend, online. Residents can see how much money we spend on suppliers and challenge us on value for money.
Published Chief Officer Pay and reward schemes for the first time. Unlike the former Tory-Lib dem administration, senior officer pay has been put online, so every citizen can see the pay and reward of Camden’s top public servants.
Reduced senior officer costs and numbers. Camden senior pay will be negotiated down to reflect everyone rowing together against the cuts. Reward packages will be reduced by 17%. The number of senior officers will also be reduced in the short term, with further plans to bring this down. In all the council will reduce its payroll by 1000 staff in the next 3 years.
Set the outlines for a 3 year budget strategy. When most councils had only stuck (publicly at least) to one or two year plans. This enables us to better plan savings, and at least cushioning the blow on service users in those services we have to close – e.g. new arrangements for play service coming in 2012, not April 2011.
Created a Camden People’s Fund. Money from in-year underspends to ease further ease the transition of some services, already being used to Netherwood Older people Centre.
Made £23m administrative savings out of a year 1 £35m cuts pressure. Administrative posts have been cut by up to 40% in some departments. More services have been brought online to reduce internal costs between departments and the communications budget has been reduced by over 25%.
Protected children’s services from the brunt of the cuts. Camden’s £30m a year children’s services budget is the largest in London and funds many services few other councils provide. While other departments had to cut budgets by up to 20% of more, children’s budgets were only reduced 10%. Camden now retains a high number of children’s centres (15), compared to Conservative-run boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham which have reduced theirs to 5. These focus only on the poorest, while Camden still provides universal care.
Created the Community Investment Programme, a £100m ‘Plan b’ to modernise our schools following the unfair decision by the new government to withdraw Building Schools for the Future money in July 2010. Camden schools will now be able to support at least some of their modernisation and repair plans through this cash injection from the sale and reinvestment of council assets.
Established the Camden Education Commission, a radical move to plan how we save and nurture the best out of Camden’s schools in the face of massive government change.
Libraries – despite what detractors say Camden will remain a safe home for libraries. Despite £2m cuts to the library service, Camden will retain one of the highest funded library services in London. After conducting the biggest consultation exercise in Camden’s history, we will work up plans to ensure that library closures are as remote as possible while we also modernise the service to meet changing needs of Camden residents – and the challenge of change in content industries. Our Community Investment Programme and King’s Cross development will also mean the wholesale modernisation and rebuilding of two libraries.
Saved future capital costs by investing in a new council office in King’s Cross. Taxpayers’ liability for future repair costs for old council buildings will be reduced and money saved through the building of a new administrative centre in the King’s Cross. The new centre will mean that costly older buildings can be closed and sold, and more services digitised. the new building makes good the wins from developers we achieved in 2006 when negotiating King’s Cross.
Workforce rights are also important to us. We are on the verge of agreeing a package of more favourable terms and conditions for outsourced workers, to ensure that where we are forced to outsource, we do so on the understanding that workers will have decent workplace rights.
Where do we go next? In July Camden will be developing it’s next Medium Term Financial Strategy – a moment when Labour can look again at its economic strategy for the area, and the future of our services in the face of very heavy budgetary pressures.
Here are some big questions:
- How will Coalition government plans to force council to outsource impact on what we do, and what residents expect us to do? Can we retain the best of Camden’s active public service model in the face of the Tory idea of ‘hand’s off’ / sink or swim local government?
- Digitising services – can we eradicate digital exclusion in the borough and help people get the most out of a transformed ‘virtual council’?
- How do we get real savings out of shared services? What does that mean for our workforce? Can we maintain our public service ethos and resist the demand by the Coalition to outsource?
- Securing and celebrating wins from King’s Cross (rather than continuing to deny them) and, given the £3.4bn asset base Camden has, really looking at the role of regeneration in achieving community benefits and our political aims – preserving Camden’s social mix.
To answer all of these questions there will need to be more of a shift in local Labour thinking – from councillors, MPs, the party and our community activist base – away from the (often internal) opposition politics of the past and towards the consideration of more long-term, and strategic thinking on policy.
Welcome today to Prog Loc - a new blog representing the veiws of progressive local government…
Top article by Camden’s Lewis Baston. Always a sensible fellow.
Welcome to ‘Moderate Cause’ – a new blog discussing local and national politics from a local councillor’s perspective – and a Camden one at that.
It will seek to provoke a develop informed political debate about Labour councils – Camden in particular – and how they should respond to government cuts and how they should deal with major issues such as regeneration.
The central question I pose is this: is it good enough to just oppose for the next 6 years? How should we respond the major changes in government legislation, or the shortage of funds to make necessary changes to our area?
The genesis of this comes from a post I put on Camden New Journal Deputy Editor Richard Osley’s blog this week, in response to some genuinely ill-informed comments made about left/right splits within my local party, by party members see here (about 19 in) following from the events outlined here.
Setting this up is not to make an overly parochial statement - and there is not use being inward looking - but many of the issues raised here will have much wider relevance.
I’ll specifically be looking at:
- the impact of government legislation on local authority powers in schools and health
- what is the public role of councils resisting attacks from CLG Ministers
- outsourcing to private and voluntary sector bodies
- digitisation of services and the challenge of IT on frontline services
- the need for sensible and long-term policies around regeneration projects
- what more progressive links between councils and the community – in the era of ‘Big Society’ – actually mean…
Labour everywhere must guard against lazy, short term thinking. We govern boroughs for all residents, not the few activists who select us to represent the Rose every four years in barely quorate meetings in tenants halls. Residents deserve administrations which don’t merely operate in the here and now. They also need councils with a vision. We must have a space where long-term thinking can be discussed without rancour.
More than anything else moderates need to guard against the contrarian tendency, so often responsible for confusing knee-jerk opposition to ideas, with ‘being left wing’.
The Labour Party and the Left is bigger than that.