Westminster library staff tackle bosses on cuts

The staff of Westminster libraries have written an open letter to their council bosses, urging them to stop a “race to the bottom” and commit to investments in their libraries rather than cuts.

The London council runs 11 public libraries, as well as a reference library, an archive service, and a music library.

Westminster Council, which has partnered with two other London boroughs to provide library services, later responded saying that despite financial pressures, it was committed to a "first class service".

In the open letter, a highly unusual move, library staff outlined the number of roles they undertake, saying: “We provide books, DVDs & CDs, Internet access, CV building workshops, Under 5s sessions, class visits, language and computer courses, community groups and workshops and engage teenagers through projects like Fast Forward which has taken over from the connexions career Services: We promote health, community and citizenship and provide a free space to work, socialise and study for residents and visitors.”

It then added: “We now have Parking, Council tax, Rescard, Housing and OneStop services incorporated into our day-to-day duties with no additional funding as a service or as employees; In fact we've provided all these services at this low cost whilst going through 5 years of cuts that has already closed libraries, reduced our budget and decimated our staff levels each and every year.”

The staff compared their difficulties of providing these services on a shrinking budget against Westminster Council’s spending in other areas.

They said: “In 2011, Westminster Council hired two new department directors at the rate it cost to run St James's library which they were closing at the same time. In that same year, Westminster councillors refused a 5% reduction to wages above £100,000 to save £3.5m because the saving would be too insignificant to justify; but library staff have been asked to bear double that cut for only 10% of that saving.”

The letter finished by saying: “The solution to unemployment cannot be to fire people, and the solution to debt is not to cut income generating, job creating, and crime preventing services. Not only is it a statutory requirement to provide this service, it is our moral obligation to do so.  With new challenges, we need new ideas, not old mistakes and any further cuts to our library service budget would be a drop in the ocean compared to almost any other department in a council that has often stood in the spotlight on the international stage.

“We ask that this race to the bottom is brought to an end; and that Westminster council commits to investment rather than cuts so we can continue the good work that we do for the small budget we have.”

David Ruse, Tri-borough Director of Libraries and Archives, said: "The claim that Westminster City Council is planning the wholesale decimation of its library service is straight off our fiction shelves. I can state now that there will be no library closures and no cuts to opening hours and no reason to think that the excellent range of services described will be reduced.

"Like all local authorities the Council is faced with tough financial challenges, and that includes the library service. But our innovative partnership with Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham has allowed us to make significant savings and so protect front line library services. We are also about to invest £12 million in a new library for Marylebone.

"We know how much local people value libraries and we are committed to a first class service."

Their letter comes in the same week as the leader of another London borough, Islington, said that its library service could be lost altogether.

Catherine West said the council's attempts to save £100m by March 2015 could mean: “that we would just have to stop doing certain things. There are things we have to do by law, such as social services and schools. But there are other things we do that we decide to do, such as run libraries, children's centres, youth clubs and offer help with employment. All of that is at risk.”

Islington has already cut library opening hours, but West insisted it was committed to keeping libraries open. Like all councils, Islington has a statutory duty under the 1964 Museums and Public Libraries Act to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.

Also this week, the BBC revealed that Gloucestershire County Council spent £238,000 defending its plans to hand over 10 libraries to community groups, in an attempt to cuts its library budget by £2.6m a year. The proposals were challenged by the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, in the 2011, the High Court ruled that the council’s consultation had not taken into account the impact on vulnerable groups. In the end, seven libraries were handed over and the mobile service saved, at a saving of £1.8m.