In my recent article the question was posed as to whether the Council had the creativity to develop new community partnerships to save Sheffield libraries. We now know the answer – it doesn’t. Instead the Council’s creative energies have been directed to spinning the outcome. Significant cuts in the library service are now presented as […]

In my recent article the question was posed as to whether the Council had the creativity to develop new community partnerships to save Sheffield libraries. We now know the answer – it doesn’t. Instead the Council’s creative energies have been directed to spinning the outcome. Significant cuts in the library service are now presented as a triumph of local democracy. You wonder why people have lost faith in politics.

At the Council’s Scrutiny Committee and the subsequent Cabinet meeting, the Council’s original plan for significant cuts in the library service was agreed largely unchanged. 12 out of 27 local libraries will be run by the council, another five ‘community libraries’ are to be partially funded (but with no paid, trained staff) and ten ‘independent libraries’ will potentially be transferred to local community groups, if the business plans they have submitted are approved. The only change announced was that the Council have found £262,000 a year for three years which the ten independent libraries can bid for.

How significant is the new funding? To put it in perspective, the community and independent libraries will lose 61% of their current funding, and will be expected to function without any paid, professionally trained staff. A key request from the community and independent communities was for professional support. This could have been achieved if the council had been willing to develop a more meaningful partnership with third sector and community groups, spreading the available professional resources across all local libraries. But this would have required the council to be prepared to consider more equal forms of partnership with the local community – apparently a step too far.

The community groups have been placed in a no-win situation. Whilst many are concerned that they lack the skills and resources to run a meaningful library service, they are fearful that unless they come forward with business plans, their libraries will be peremptorily closed.

The future for the community and independent libraries does not look promising. The Council’s own earlier review had concluded that independent libraries “were not a long-term sustainable option”, and it is hard to see how a relatively small level of funding changes this judgement.

But in a parallel universe things are looking much more positive. The Council’s press release announces that “Council leaders have revealed all the city’s libraries could be on track to remain open as they announce a proposed £262,000 deal to help local community groups implement their business plans for running independent libraries”.

Many of the community groups in question were angry and disappointed with the Council’s announcement, which seemed to be focused on avoiding negative PR and glossed over the serious uncertainties that exist as to the viability of those libraries not selected to be council-run ‘hubs’. The final straw was the quote from Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Sheffield City Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities and Inclusion:“I can reveal more than 7,000 people had their say in this recent consultation. Today’s outcome should prove to all those who doubted the process of democracy that we are a council that listens and acts on what people say they need.”

For the record, 61% of those responding opposed the Council’s plan, and an undisclosed percentage of the 39% who were recorded as being positive about the plan had reservations. But maybe a press release stating “we are a council that listens and acts on what around 30% of people say they need” doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

David Edwards.