Be under no illusions, all councils have suffered massive cuts to the grants handed down
by central government, the country has barely begun to recover from the downturn which began six years ago.
It’s a fact and there will be consequences.
Another undeniable truth is that the environment in which libraries operate has changed massively. When I was a young teenager I would tiptoe around the town library while adults were putting fingers to their lips and saying “Schhh”.
My most recent trip to libraries were not happy ones and I doubt I shall return. Probably oldies like me are drifting away and the Kindle and i-Pad generation is hard to recruit. So I am not against library retrenchment, only against councils that do not have a clue about democracy. Those which cobble together a policy and put it out for a sham consultation that they have absolutely no intention of accommodating. Worse, will pretend to sponsor a petition which we are expected to believe is a genuine attempt to derail the plans of their own best mates. Does that sound like Bexley? Of course it is. I’ve watched these buggers for more than four years now and they absolutely never shelve a cut because of public discontent and when necessary they will ‘adapt’ consultation figures to suit themselves.
Having already written an informal resumé of Wednesday’s cabinet meeting I shall now fall back on my audio recording and strictly factual stuff.
It has not been the practice historically for petitions to be heard at Cabinet but the across the board reduction in the number of meetings which forms part of Teresa O’Neill’s clamp down on scrutiny opportunities can result in something going out for consultation and being signed and sealed between meetings. The current gap between council meetings is exactly four months. For that reason last Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting was the scene of a sham petition process without a hope in hell of it making any impact.
Before Ms. Karen Mensa-Bonsu was graciously allowed to speak for five whole minutes Teresa O’Neill stepped in to say "the petition refers to closure but we are not actually talking about closure” which as I learned later is not strictly correct. Full closure may not be the preferred option, that's to get a voluntary group to run them, but if volunteers cannot be found, or they are found but make a hash of things, then four libraries will close.
KMB’s case was that if libraries have to be down graded or closed, Blackfen is not a sensible choice.
Official figures show Blackfen to be the fourth most used library (visits) which is not what the consultation document said. All libraries have suffered a decline since 2010, Central is down 21% and Welling 35% but Blackfen is down by only 14%, no more than Sidcup and Erith which are to stay open. Over the past year Blackfen has not noticeably declined and Northumberland Heath and Upper Belvedere Libraries, also scheduled for closure (or whatever) have actually increased.
For use by children, Blackfen is second only to Bexleyheath’s Central Library, perhaps because it is within walking distance of six schools. It is well placed in the town centre, helping to bring in trade and is the only public meeting place in Blackfen. There is a large car park nearby neither of which apply to Sidcup and Welling.
Community libraries have a restricted range of books and none in ethnic languages and are not entirely free to use. Volunteers do not have the expertise of professional librarians. Blackfen, Ms. KMB said was too large a library to be successfully run on a volunteer basis and unlikely to offer other council services such as parking permits, neither was skilled IT assistance likely to be on call.
In summary KMB said that Blackfen was more used than Welling and in terms of cost per visit was the second least expensive in the borough and more of Welling’s 1·5 mile circle lies outside the borough than does Blackfen’s. Ms. Mensa-Bonsu received a round of applause exactly 300 seconds after she started speaking - but not from a stony faced cabinet although Teresa O’Neill did manage a rather condescending and school teacher-like comment about hitting the five minute mark so precisely. I felt sorry for those who had come to watch the spectacle. Unused as they were to the ways of Bexley council they probably thought they were in with a chance of influencing a decision which in reality had been made weeks ago. The cabinet were there solely to destroy every argument KMB had put forward.
Cabinet member Alex Sawyer who is charged with making cuts to library expenditure congratulated KMB on obtaining more than 3,000 signatures. He may have meant well but again it sounded condescending. He agreed that the library was the heart of Blackfen’s community, “do you not accept or acknowledge that libraries run by a community group in the community can better serve that community than the council can with a one size fits all library”. KMB thought that “Blackfen was too big and busy to be effectively managed by a community group”. The usage figures in the consultation document were simply not true and the wrong “down grading” decision had been made. “Welling has been losing customers at a rate of knots” and Blackfen has not been. The decision “is disgusting”.
Sawyer who admitted he preferred Wikipedia to libraries, came back with another condescending remark. “You are making your points very well if I may say so” and went on to admit that “Blackfen Library is an undoubted success” but experience of community management in Bexley village has shown “it can increase footfall”. This was a bit of a lame argument. Bexley was a part time, 16 hours a week library and is now a part time 25 hours a week library. There is little scope for increasing the hours of a full time council library. Ms. KMB said only that community management is a second class option. Councillor Sawyer had not shot any fatal holes in the petitioners’ argument so cabinet member Don Massey took over the bombardment.
Don Massey began by trying to attack KMB’s figures, “I’m pretty certain they are not correct”. This is exactly the same tactic he adopted three years ago when Elwyn Bryant had his petition rejected on the grounds that the salaries figures he presented as examples of grossly excessive pay were all wrong. It was in fact me who argued strongly that his figures should be exactly those shown on Bexley council’s website or they wouldn’t listen to him. It made no difference, they still claimed that Elwyn’s figures were wrong.
If petitioners or indeed the population at large wants to argue with Bexley council they really must not assume they are dealing with reasonable people. They are not. The central core is made up of proven liars, unscrupulous businessmen and those ready to commit criminal acts in the sure knowledge that Bexley police will always come to their rescue.
Massey wanted to know if KMB had visited Bexley and Slade Green libraries. She had but at Bexley was only able to speak to the council employed librarian. The volunteer turned up late and was taken up with another matter and never seen again. In Slade Green no one could be bothered to offer an appointment.
When that line of attack failed to do serious damage Massey changed tack and referred to a leaflet put out by the Bexley Civic Society. It apparently said “it may be worth remembering that Bexley library was closed some time ago and is now open as a community amenity“. “Would you now accept that is a false statement?“ Massey asked. Surely that is desperate nit picking on his part and shows just how shallow his mind must be? Everyone would know what the Civic Society meant by their statement, pedantically it only closed as a council run library and was immediately reopened under new management, and secondly why was KMB being held responsible for what the Civic Society said? Pathetic point scoring to make himself look clever in the eyes of his equally pathetic colleagues.
KMB reminded Massey that the council’s proposals included full closure even though that may not be their preference. Massey confirmed she “was quite right” but he still demanded to know if the Civic Society’s statement was correct. A display of mind blowing pedantry and small mindedness while the audience muttered about hairs being split and “nothing to do with us”.
The council leader invited councillor Peter Craske the petition sponsor to speak. Instead of speaking on behalf of the petitioners he asked Karen M-B why she thought the library was a valuable resource for the community. Hadn’t she spent the past 18 minutes telling the purple faced drip that?
She mentioned the scrabble, chess, reading groups, coffee mornings, computer lessons and stitch crafts. Quite a lot of the users come from Welling because Blackfen has so much more to offer. Craske managed to get away without actually speaking up for petitioners or running the risk of his leader’s wrath. He knows how much he owes her following the events of two and three years ago. His arrest for Misconduct in Public Office and the subsequent “political interference”.
Labour councillor Joe Ferreira rather cleverly asked one simple question. “Had the petitioners come across any resident who was in favour of the council’s proposals?” They had not.
Toni Ainge who is Deputy Director of Leisure and Arts and wife of the Director (nepotism and its potential for corruption is never far away in Bexley) read out the council’s proposals referring to the reduced usage and the minimal statutory requirements. She did not add a lot to the debate. She had done her job and was presumably reluctant to rework it in the light of the statistics etc. put forward by the petitioners. Like Massey, she believed the petitioner's figures were wrong, or as she preferred to put it, out of date. She confirmed that the consultation responses did not support the council’s money saving plan but recommended the consultation be disregarded and the plans adopted. It’s Bexley style democracy and loyalty that should guarantee another salary bonus.
Cabinet Member Gareth Bacon responded with his ritual comment about the “unprecedented level of central government funding for local government”. It is a well understood message which has no bearing on KMB’s contention that it was wrong to contemplate closing Bexley’s second most successful library to save not a lot more money than Bacon extracts from the public purse each year.
Bacon maintained that swapping Welling for Blackfen would result in fewer residents being within 1·5 miles of a library. His only other point, if you can believe that one, is that community management could continue with all the ancillary services if they so wished. He said he would be voting against the petitioners. For any serving Tory councillor to vote against the leadership would be unprecedented, so what hope the deputy leader?
Don Massey chipped in with the fact that he had visited all the libraries. If he was expecting a round of applause for his diligence he would have been disappointed. He went on to throw doubt on the council’s own library usage figures used by KMB. Crayford and Thamesmead had suffered some day closures during the year.
The sour faced Cabinet member Linda Bailey has never displayed any redeeming features and is resolutely anti every aspect of democracy. Naturally she wanted to announce that she is not herself a library user and would vote against the petitioners’ wishes.
Cabinet member John Fuller spoke highly of the community libraries in Blackheath, Lewisham and Sydenham some of which offer full council services. John Fuller is the only cabinet member who can be relied upon not to make silly political points and stay within the bounds of truth and relevancy - as far as I can remember anyway.
Cabinet member for failing Children’s Services, Philip Read, who is everything that Fuller is not spoke next, launching into a nostalgia fest about horse drawn milk carts which did not go down well with the audience. He said he would support the council’s plans. At that point the battle was effectively lost.
Sawyer came back to round things off for the cabinet making another condescending remark about KMB’s success in gaining 3,017, if worthless, signatures. Members of the audience tried to interject but she who must be obeyed quickly shut them up.
The Labour councillors spoke at some length in support of council run libraries. They mentioned how the consultation process was poor and how it did not allow a full range of expression - they never do. That is why the petition was far more successful in terms of responses.
Councillor Joe Ferreira questioned why the council still believes it is ‘Listening to you, working for you’. The council leader was visibly bored by being told some home truths and eventually asked Ferreira “have you finished?” and went on to remind him that she had won the election in May so his opinion did not count for anything. Cue groans from the audience who had by now realised that their supposition that Bexley council was the seat of local democracy was wrecked beyond repair.
Seán Newman went through a list of libraries, including mobile libraries, closed by Bexley Conservatives and was concerned for Belvedere and its pop in parlour and the opportunities closure of the Splash Park will give (sale of land for housing etc.) for a serious loss of amenities in the area. Community libraries in Bexley had so far proved to be elitist he said to some applause. Teresa O’Neill could only answer that a Labour administration once closed a library.
Councillor Stefano Borella made a number of points including the fact that Bexley Conservatives said not a word about their proposal to cut library services in their election Manifesto. The audience responded, no one else did.
Councillor John Husband wanted to know what would happen to the displaced librarians. There was no answer to that either.
Councillor June Slaughter who is one of the few remaining Tory councillors still clinging to a shred of integrity named a string of authority run libraries which have been “enhanced by considerable capital expenditure and they [the councils] wondered why Bexley is in such a different position”. Teresa O’Neill responded only with, “OK , thank you” and moved swiftly on. June would not be popular at the after meeting drinks party, but she probably isn’t anyway. The councillors must know by now, June was happy to support me in the case now being investigated by Greenwich police. An honest politician, whatever next?
UKIP councillor Lynn Smith asked why the council cannot use some of it reserves. Teresa O’Neill said that community management brings greater resources to libraries than the council could. I failed to see the connection.
After Alex Sawyer was allowed to engage in a one direction trade of political insults with the opposition Teresa O’Neill asked if everyone was in favour of the plans that they had decided on ages ago. They were.
Twelve whole seconds to agree! They couldn’t even be bothered to find a proposer, a
seconder, or even raise their hands. Is that even legal? Whatever the case it
was all a foregone conclusion.
Incidentally, I do try to be fair to both sides in these reports so I feel duty bound to say that I know someone living in my road who has joined Lewisham Library. It's quicker to get to by public transport than Bexleyheath Central and he says it is better than any Bexley library. I can’t help thinking that it’s a mistake but his Greenwich Library ticket has opened the door to free swimming for pensioners too, so maybe Ms. KMB should get across there to see how it is done.
However as a demonstration of how Bexley council will listen to no one, shout down all opposition and manipulate or invent statistics to favour their ambitions, the library consultation and debate was something of a classic. There will be many more in the months to come.