The chancellor has been urged to dispense with "toxic" austerity measures and provide emergency relief funding for public libraries ahead of his Autumn Statement on Wednesday (23rd November).
Libraries membership body CILIP has issued a stark warning to chancellor Philip Hammond cautioning that austerity measures threaten community cohesion. Cuts to libraries in particular make “little sense” as they affect wider issues in society such as employment, educational attainment and healthcare, it argued.
“The chancellor has an opportunity to distance this government from toxic austerity policies,” said Nick Poole, c.e.o of CILIP. “Unthinking cuts continue to damage frontline services rather than seeing them as an investment in our communities and economy. Not only does austerity threaten community cohesion, it makes little fiscal sense as cuts to library budgets cost the public purse more elsewhere, across employment, educational attainment and healthcare.”
He urged the chancellor, who is giving his first Autumn Statement since being hired to the role following Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister in summer, to “avoid the of trap of investing in big infrastructure while failing to develop the skilled workforce we need”.
“Improving life chances for everyone needs investment in life-changing library services, which are the building blocks for strong communities and successful local economies,” Poole added.
Author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons agreed that emergency funding for public libraries would make a “contribution to offsetting the growing crisis that has seen over 350 libraries close and a quarter of librarians made redundant”.
“What is needed is an end to austerity and the serious rebuilding of this vital public service combined with the kind of national strategic planning seen in countries like New Zealand and Ireland," he said.
However, veteran library campaign Desmond Clarke said that local authorities first priority would be to plug the gaps in social care funding. He argued that CILIP and the Libraries Taskforce should be focused on developing more efficient ways to deliver library services, “including merging the 151 separately managed authorities, investing in technology and better managing resources”.
Successive Autumn Statements under former chancellor George Osborne have seen huge cuts to local government, which in turn has lead to widespread closures of libraries in England.
Data collated by the BBC has suggested 340 libraries have closed since 2010, with the number of qualified librarians reducing by a quarter. Meanwhile expenditure on public libraries in England has fallen by £69.1m in three years and the number of books has reduced by 20.5m in five years.
In addition to emergency relief funding, CILIP has also called on the government and bodies such as Arts Council England (ACE) and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce to provide greater leadership and support for libraries.
It wants to see a “robust national plan” for improving libraries with strategic investment.
“The UK faces a significant literacy and skills crisis,” the organisation said. “In order to compete in the global economy the UK’s success hinges on a workforce with advanced skills. Yet the country is failing to develop basic literacy skills amongst young people.”
CILIP’s plea follows a Lords debate on the demise of libraries and independent bookshops in the UK last month, organised by The Big Issue founder Lord Bird.
At the time, Bird, who was illiterate until he was taught to read and write in prison, asked: "If we make a saving here, there will be loss elsewhere. I would beg us all before we allow another librarian to be laid off, think seriously, would this be a saving?”
Speaking for the government on libraries at the time, Lord Ashton said: “I can confirm that the government does indeed recognise the value of libraries in providing for communities.”
However, he also added that he thought both libraries and bookshops needed to "evolve".
Hammond appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday (20th November) but gave few details away about what he was measures he was planning to reveal in the Statement. He did, however, say that the economy must be "watertight" to cope with "sharp" challenges ahead of Brexit.