Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Future of the Library Service

Amidst all the very difficult proposals the council is having to put forward as part of its budget between now and 2019/20, the future of the library service is amongst the most fraught.

The closure of Cockerton Library, the ending of the mobile library service and the relocation of the main library away from its historic site in Crown Street, are all emotive and difficult options for anyone who loves learning and literature in Darlington.

I wasn't surprised therefore that campaigning group Darlington for Culture announced they were against the plans, and at least one Facebook page has been set up to voice opposition.

In Monday's Echo, various distinguished authors also said they were against the plans, although the extent to which they were aware of (or indeed interested in) the wider context against which the budget is set, was not clear.

My Cabinet portfolio includes the library service. In the Echo piece, it was suggested by one of the authors that libraries were somehow a "soft target" for the council. This is not the case. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – an independent body of finance professionals – estimates that 463 libraries across the country have closed since 2010. I’m proud that we have managed to stave off library closures in Darlington to this point.

The proposals which are currently being consulted on are driven by the Conservative Government’s extreme austerity agenda. By 2019/20, Darlington will be receiving £44 million less in real terms in Government grant, when compared with 2010/11. To put that into context, this year the Council’s total revenue is just £87 million. The scale of the challenge to cut budgets still further whilst protecting services is enormous.

The greater part of the council’s spending has to go on what are known as Statutory Services, in other words those functions the council is required to perform by law - protecting and meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable in our community, including older people, disabled people and children, as well as services such as refuse and highways.

Yet the other services are no less important, and include parks and gardens, the Dolphin Centre, Street Scene and economic development, for example. In fact, these are the services which people in Darlington see most often, and which have high public satisfaction. To leave these services untouched requires £12.5 million every year. However, the council will only have £2.3 million left after the Statutory Services have been paid for – hence the need to find about £10 million of savings over the next four years.

It is in this bleak context that the proposals regarding the relocation of the main library are made. By moving the library to a purpose-built facility within the Dolphin Centre, savings amounting to £330,000 per year can be made. Crown Street is a much-loved venue, but the building does not provide all the facilities customers today demand.

Across the country, councils are responding to the Government’s agenda by concentrating services in a single building. In Darlington, by placing the library in the Dolphin Centre, a new generation of children and their parents who use the leisure facility will have better access to education and learning.

A new facility will enjoy improved sound-proofing. It will of course have reference and lending sections, and up-to-date IT facilities which people now expect of a modern library service, as well as better toilet, refreshment and access arrangements.

For many people, the library service is indivisible from the Crown Street building in which it is housed. I understand that. But if the council is to protect not only the library service more generally, but other much valued provision such as the Head of Steam railway museum, the beautiful South Park and school crossing patrols, then the savings that the library relocation will realise have to be made.

Nothing is set in stone, however, and the Council wants to hear your views. Regarding the library changes, there are public sessions on 23rd March 2016 between 2.30pm and 4.30pm in the Dolphin Centre, and between 6pm and 8pm in the Methodist Chapel on Cockerton Green. The Council also wants to hear from library users, and for them to help shape the new service, so it better meets the needs of the people of Darlington.

I would also like to meet people directly who have issues or concerns about this proposals – simply email me on to fix up an appointment.

In Monday’s piece, Philippa Gregory talked about the “grim austerity cuts this government has put in place” and she is right in this respect. Austerity is precisely why councils like Darlington are being forced to ‘think the unthinkable’ and radically change public service provision.

Unlike the authors however, who write fiction, councils have to deal with hard financial facts. The library proposals are a central part of that tough reckoning to survive.

This is a version of an article I have sent to the Northern Echo, asking that they consider publication in response to the various articles which were published on Monday.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Council's Budget II - What do the Figures Mean?

At the very heart of Darlington Council’s appalling difficulties (and those of every other Local Authority in the North East) is the scale of the Government grant that has been taken away since 2010 – cuts that will be compounded between now and 2020.

So here are the facts:

Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, DBC’s Government grant was cut in real terms by £37 million (a 47% reduction.) Councils are a “people” business, with a heavy reliance on staff to deliver the services. To date, 572 full-time jobs have been lost.

To achieve those savings, like other council’s DBC has tried to protect front-line services. There have been significant management savings, and the Xentrall collaboration with Stockton BC saves over £2 million a year in ‘back office’ efficiencies (operation of IT, payroll and the like.)

Still some high profile areas of Council spend have had to take a hit. People will think of the Arts Centre, but those savings have been realised across the Authority.

Between now and 2019/20, Tory Government cuts mean that a further £12 million will have to be saved. With efficiencies already squeezed dry, options are extremely limited.

Over the next few weeks and months, you will probably read a lot about Councils and their ‘Statutory services’. This relates to those things that councils have to do by law. We estimate that there are 1,300 “legal requirements with which councils like DBC have to comply.

Why is this so important now? Because Government grants (which will probably have been phased out altogether by 2020) plus Council Tax barely meets those legal requirements. They include key elements of Children’s and Adults Services (child protection, children in care, school transport for example) some maintenance of the highways, a bin collection, a library service (but to what level is not said), planning. There are some others.

What isn’t ‘Statutory’ is a much, much more extensive list. Regrettably, it includes council services which are at the very heart of our community, and about which people immediately think of when they imagine what a local council “does”.

Working with families and children in need, support for the voluntary sector including charities, leisure (the Dolphin Centre and Eastbourne Complex), much of the library service, the maintenance of parks, gardens and open spaces, museums (like the Head of Steam). Even lollipop men and women aren’t required by law. Councils don’t have to provide them.

Of course, DBC (like the vast majority of all councils) wants to provide these services to a good standard. That’s why they’re there in the first place – because they have been demanded by local communities.

But now, the impact of austerity is so overwhelming, that they are almost completely unaffordable. Locally-raised Council tax and Government grant dwindling to nothing, simply doesn’t bridge the gap.

So this draft budget which is now out for consultation only provides for those ‘Statutory’ services. Because of the hard work done over the years, there is an additional £2.3 million to allocate to the most vital services. The Council’s Cabinet is suggesting that some provision for the most needy be included, that school crossing patrols be protected, that our town’s heritage be preserved by continuing to invest in the Head of Steam museum, that at least some of the cuts to Street Scene not be made. Also there is money for economic growth, because we must continue to bring good quality jobs and investment into the town.

A lot has to change, however. Somehow, enough has been found to keep the Dolphin Centre, but only by including within it the new library (moved from Crown Street) and incorporating a Children’s Centre. The news today has been dominated by the particular impact on the Covered Market.

How should we feel about this carnage? First and foremost, we should be angry! Bloody angry!! The Tories have no love for local government, they know that councils tend to take the blame when Government cuts have to be delivered locally, and they are cynically exploiting that. It is grotesquely unfair. Key services which the neediest in our society rely upon are suffering. Key local facilities are disappearing, and all because Westminster Tories don’t give a toss about anyone north of the Watford Gap.

Yet somehow, we should remain hopeful too. Darlington is still a great place in which to live, and in which to bring up a family. The Feethams multiplex/hotel/restaurant/multi-storey care park development shows that the town centre is on the up. Highly-skilled jobs and investment continue to come into town. Darlington will survive this terrible period.

Of course we should protest! Sign the petition to Government created by Peter Barron demanding that the Government reassess its terribly unfair spending formula for Darlington. Lobby our MP to give her the maximum authority when she challenges Government Minsters. Write letters. March.

But take time to look at the Council papers too, and have your say on the proposals. Should the Council continue to invest in the Dolphin Centre, school, crossing patrols, economic development and the railway museum, or should they cease and other priorities be found?

Sounds like an impossible choice? It is – but that’s the inescapable reality facing Darlington between now and 2020. Unfortunately, there’s no place to hide.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Darlington Borough Council Budget 2016

Just as I did back in 2014, I'm resurrecting my blog for the purposes of getting some points across regarding the Council's draft budget, which will be announced over the next few days.

Things were really tough in 2014, but now they are truly horrendous. The Tory Government has carried on where the Tory/LibDem hybrid left off, and is targetting local council spending for the heaviest of the cuts - presumably they continue to bank on people blaming their local elected representatives for the deterioration in council services, rather than Whitehall and Westminster, where responsibility truly lies.

As a starter for 10, here is DBC Leader Cllr. Bill Dixon's overview of the budget, which you will be able to see in March's edition of the One Darlington magazine:

"I appreciate that the budget proposals in this magazine, and available in full on our website, don’t make for easy reading. We have had to make some tough decisions in the past months to ensure we can continue to provide the services that we think are most valued by you, our residents.

This means we have retained the Dolphin Centre, a library service and aspects of the Borough’s heritage, alongside the essential services that protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Most people in the Borough do not use most council services but I know you care deeply about those services that you do use and, in some cases, rely on. It has been a juggling act as the money we get from Government has been reduced by £13m, which is a significant amount, but we have tried to ensure a core offer that has value for the majority of residents.

The reduction in funding from the Government amounts to a tax on local councils but it is important to remember that these cuts only effect local council spending, they do not affect the aspirations of the town.

Everywhere I look I see new private sector development and investment coming into the town, from the new cinema complex to Central Park, and as long as people continue to see a future for the town it will thrive. Darlington’s biggest asset has always been its residents and as we see services we have relied on being sadly cut, now is the time for us all to step up and think what we can do for our community, however large and small.

By working together and helping each other I am confident Darlington will remain a great place to live, work and visit.

I want to hear your views on the proposals but it is important to understand that this is a realistic offer of services given the resources we have. Sadly we can only play the cards we have been dealt, not the cards we would like to play."

I'll be posting more over the next few days, to try and make sense of the numbers and what the proposals actually mean.