Get a grip, Libraries Taskforce

The Libraries Taskforce needs to get its act together and produce a plan to re-invigorate the library network. While many councils struggle to provide a library service, those responsible for leading and developing the service have spent the past eight years simply deliberating.

First, we had the two year Review set up by Margaret Hodge MP and completed just before the 2010 Election.

Then the MLA and the Arts Council came up with the Future Library Programme under the current Minister.

Then we had the Arts Council's Envisioning the Libraries of the Future exercise involving further consultation around the country.

Then we had the Sieghart Inquiry which took another eight months.

Then in January 2015 the Libraries Taskforce was set up and we were promised changes by its chairman within the first 18 months.

Now we have another consultation exercise, this time about a rather bland document setting out just an "Ambition" for libraries.

What we do not have is an imaginative strategic plan to re-invigorate the library network.

Perhaps the lack of a plan stems from the uncomfortable relationship between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Local Government Association (LGA). The minister seems reluctant to take on local authorities which blame the cuts on the government while the prime minister has suggested that closures are simply the result of "technological change". The result is that the crisis facing the service, especially outside major cities, is being ignored.

The setting up of the Taskforce has allowed the DCMS to claim that they are now doing something. They point to the rollout of wifi, the publication of a "tool kit" for volunteer run libraries and the current "Ambition" consultation as achievements. However after eight years we have not seen any action of real substance.

The problems facing the library service have not changed over the past decade. There are still far too many separately managed authorities; much of the technology is outdated and incapable of supporting new services; there are no minimum standards of service provision; there is little proper scrutiny of how funding is spent; and usage is in marked decline. Above all messages about the value and importance of public libraries have yet to convince many in national and local government.

The Taskforce pleads that it needs time and is beholden to the DCMS and the LGA. But libraries are an essential public service and the first duty of the Taskforce must be to the millions of library users and potential users. It is the public that are being let down by their failure to get a grip of the issues.

The time has come for a major shake up of the Taskforce and its large and rather bureaucratic committee. We urgently need a body that is capable of producing a comprehensive strategic plan that we can all support and help deliver.

Desmond Clarke is a library campaigner.