Passing the buck

Suffolk County Council is the latest local authority to come up with a new way forward for its public library service. The council was forced to drop its Big Society plans to close most of its libraries, and it seems to have found another way to make people redundant and cut social spending. They are planning to set up an "independent society" to manage its libraries, making 20 people redundant and slashing their budget by a third. It had previously held locals to ransom by threatening to shut around 30 sites if community groups did not take on the burden.

This most recent attempt to balance the library books follows hard on the heels of efforts by Gloucestershire, Brent, Derby, Surrey, Doncaster, Bolton, Camden and other councils to save money by closing libraries, or transferring them to alternative providers. It is unlikely that a change of governance will either protect or improve the quality of library services being provided directly by local councils. Evidence elsewhere within the local government sector suggests that such attempts at "outsourcing" services do not necessarily deliver the desired outcomes in terms of reduced costs and/or improved services.

For example, Bournemouth Council entered a £150m, 10-year contract for "outsourcing specialists" Mouchel to run its revenues, benefits, IT and facilities management departments, which was supposed to cut the council’s costs by 6%. After nearly a year of the current contract, it was reported that the projected savings had been revised downwards by £42m, the project was already £3m over budget and the council had not properly considered a rival "in-house bid".

Public library services can only be made "profitable" by significantly cutting their three main areas of expenditure: staffing, buildings and bookfund. Any reductions in these areas will inevitably lead to a lower quality of service and poorer performance. Rather than making these reductions themselves, and facing the public’s anger, councils are offloading the problem—and decision making—onto third parties. But the outcome will be the same: fewer public libraries offering a poorer service.

The Public Library Act offers absolutely no protection and moves are afoot to review it, with the ultimate aim of either scrapping it completely or amending it in a way which enables providers to turn libraries into going concerns. There are very strong parallels between the National Health Service and the Public Library Service. Both were designed as public goods to deliver high-quality services at the point of need.

They are both highly cherished and valued public institutions which set the standard for (and are the envy of) many other countries. And they are both facing unprecedented "modernisation" and "transformation" which will open them up to market forces and allow private providers to put greed before need