Campaigners hit back after government rejects petition to ringfence library funding

Campaigners hit back after government rejects petition to ringfence library funding

Campaigners have expressed anger and frustration following the government’s rejection of a petition to ringfence funding for public libraries.

The petition, started by Frances Belbin and endorsed by CILIP, has accrued more than 28,000 signatures since launching on 8th October, along the way picking up support from the likes of JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman.

However at the end of last week the government responded that, in the interests of “giving greater funding flexibility to local authorities”, and aligning with its agenda of localism, that its position is such funding should continue to be non-ringfenced.

In its response, the government sought to reassure petition signatories it “takes seriously the statutory duty to superintend and promote the improvement of library services in England”, that it is “committed to supporting a sustainable long-term future for libraries”, and that it wants libraries “to thrive, not just survive”. “We are continually advocating for their value and contribution to strategic objectives across central government,” it said.

In evidence of this, it pointed to the Libraries Taskforce which, set up in 2015, provides £500k in funding a year (April 2016 - March 2020). It said the Taskforce is “helping to invigorate the public libraries sector”, through its advocacy work, encouragement of good practice and innovation, and the provision of toolkits and free masterclasses for library services. It also highlighted that over a five year period (2015-16 to 2019-20) councils will have access to more than £200bn and the chancellor’s announcement at budget meant “a real-terms increase in funding for local government” in 2018/9 - 2019/20.

It concluded: “The decision about how to allocate this [local government funding] falls to the local authorities as the locally democratic and accountable body. Ultimately, decisions about resource prioritisation for libraries sit with local authorities.”

Library campaigners have been left cold by the response, though, variously describing it “cut-and-paste”, “shameless” and “totally predictable”.

Campaigner Elizabeth Ash called it “total flannel from a government which has done little to protect statutory services such as public libraries”, taking issue with both the Government’s commitment to superintend the improvement of library services and its Taskforce.

“A lot of money has been thrown at the Libraries Taskforce, which has pushed government agendas such as volunteers running libraries, and the government response makes no reference to volunteers,” she said. “A series of ministers have failed to superintend, even when implored to do so with great urgency. The damage to the public library service has been catastrophic as a result.”

“Shameless” is how campaigner Shirley Burnham described the government's response, heaping particular scorn on the government's claim it is “committed to supporting a sustainable long-term future for libraries”. 

After lodging a formal complaint in December 2016 as to the running of Swindon’s libraries - something the Secretary of State is obliged to investigate under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act - she said all that had ensued was “procrastination and obfustication” while, in the interim, the town’s library service and its professional staff had been “duly decimated”. With regards to the government's Taskforce, she said, despite a visit from a leading light on its committee two years ago, this had “frankly accomplished nothing” for the town.

“A claim that this body [the Taskforce] is tasked with ‘helping to invigorate the public libraries sector’ will bring a bitter smile to the lips of the thousands who have lost their livelihoods and the many who have been required to set up individual make-do-and-mend hubs, run by volunteers, with little or no money and poor book stock,” said Burnham. “Let’s not fool ourselves, a ‘sustainable long-term future for libraries is not this’. What we have is a postcode lottery of provision and a much diminished national service. Libraries are no longer properly linked up. Many areas have nothing.”

Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, likewise said the government's response "falls far short of what is required to secure a positive future for our libraries and the communities they serve". "Local authority finances are under ongoing pressure while costs, such as adult social care, continue to rise," he said. "We need money not masterclasses in order to secure the long-term future of the nation’s libraries. We have put the case for investment to government with our partners at the Big Issue, and together we will continue to demonstrate the value and impact of modern library services to departments across government.”

Ian Anstice, who runs the newsletter Public Libraries News, said he was unsurprised by the government's “unbothered … cut-and-paste” rejection of the petition, believing “it was always going to do so at this stage”.

He condemned the government for washing its hands of the sector, “abdicating all financial responsibility, and thus any responsibility of consequence at all, to local authorities” whilst UK public library funding has “on average, never been worse”. Furthermore he expressed his cynicism the Taskforce was set up for any other reason that to act “as a shield” for government to hide behind.

Nonetheless, he encouraged people to keep signing the petition, urging every signature represented “a slap on the wrist to the politicians and a reminder that they will eventually be held accountable for their actions at the ballot box”. If the petition manages to garner 100,000 signatures by 24th March 2019, it would also be considered for debate in Parliament.

“The point of the petition is both to show the importance libraries hold with people and also that there is an alternate path possible to the one so tragically adhered to in this country,” said Anstice. “I hope that people will be sufficiently enraged by the complete disconnect between what the government is saying and what they can see with their own eyes in their local library service that they will be moved to sign it.”

Like Anstice, former Waterstones boss and library campaigner Tim Coates agreed the government's response to the petition was “totally predictable”. However, with Coates of the view that what the petition asks for is “administratively both impossible and undesirable”, he argued both government and CILIP need a wholly new strategy for public libraries.

Citing statistics showing a 50% decline in library visits in England over the past 20 years, in an article for Public Libraries Quarterly “On the Closure of Public Libraries” Coates posited the root of the problem was less an issue of funding than a shift in the aims of libraries themselves. While diversifying the role of the library service - its focus moving from the provision of books and reading materials to the idea libraries are to be used for social and community services of many kinds - the number of books available to loan in English public libraries has been allowed to fall by at least 25m, he said.

Among his recommendations to turn things around, he has suggested that “the 152 chief librarians and their teams be replaced by 10 new competent management teams”; that the 100+ library management systems in use be replaced by one system supporting every library building and local library manager in the country; that the sector quadruple its expenditure on books; and that every library increase opening hours to at least 25 hours a week. He also said the sector must “grasp and state publicly libraries are principally and fundamentally about reading” and “at no point until things improve ask for more money than they have...that will only come when use of the service is visibly and sustainably increasing”.

CIPFA, the body charged with providing annual data and statistics on library usage, is due to present its report on library performance for 2017-18 next month.