Thursday, March 03, 2016
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 email@example.com 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.