Written evidence submitted by Doncaster Council (LIB 126)
Please find below a statement for the benefit of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into library closures. This document covers the following issues:
· The Council’s view on a comprehensive and efficient service, as put forward by the Head of Service here (point 2)
· Context to changes in service provision in Doncaster (3-4)
· Context of these changes in light of the Charteris Report (5-7)
· Context of these changes with regards to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (8-9)
· Consideration of the impact of changes in provision on communities in Doncaster (10)
1. In response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into library closures, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council would like to make the following statement in response to the request for submissions, with particular regard to what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century, and the extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report.
2. A comprehensive and efficient service introduces and sustains a public appreciation and participation in reading and information, for leisure and for personal development, formally and informally supporting individuals and groups through lifelong learning journeys. This support by the library infrastructure as a national reading service is from cradle to grave, encompassing the widest spheres of public interest and usership. It is comprehensive insofar as no library service should or could exclude any member of its public from accessing or benefiting from its services; it does so efficiently by responding to trends in technology and customer interaction, changes in lifestyles and customer requirements, and by providing services to residents which may be less efficiently provided elsewhere: welcoming, safe, democratic, social spaces, which the public generally choose to access rather than have to access, maximising new technologies to provide information mediation and brokerage to the public at little cost to the public, and with efficient and effective pooling of stock to foster and develop a culture of reading and literacy development across all ages. No other service can say that it focuses resources across all demographics and ages in this way, and arguably with such cost-effectiveness.
3. In November, Doncaster Council agreed the closure of two libraries in Doncaster, with a further 12 moving to community-led provision. The Borough has traditionally maintained more libraries than are needed (the 2 that have closed are for sound business reasons – low usage, high cost, other nearby library provision) and more than can be sustained with traditional provision. The council wants sustainable, high quality, fully maintained libraries that are significant community facilities. Earlier in the year the Council made a decision to definitely keep 12 of the 26 libraries and to improve and develop these 12. The Council also wanted to review the other 14 libraries based on their levels of use, the condition of the building, the needs of the community, and value for money. 65 000 questionnaires were sent out to people living near to the 14 libraries under review. Following the feedback of 7 000 people, a thorough impact assessment and discussions with volunteers, community groups, and library action groups, a series of recommendations have been drawn up.
4. Concentrating the council’s resources on a core group of libraries and enlisting the help of the community to manage other libraries, in partnership with the library service, will see the 12 community-led libraries sustained as part of the infrastructure. The Council is not proposing to close any of these 12 libraries – it is simply the model of delivery that is different. The Council will still pay for and update the stock, the IT infrastructure, and still provide events and activities, delivered by library staff in these libraries. Volunteers are being trained and will receive ongoing training and support from Council library staff. Each community-led library is being managed by a community-based committee (often a Town or Parish Council, or a local school, for example) and where community groups need the support a grant is being made available to cover initial costs. Every support mechanism to ensure the long term sustainability of the community group is, where practicable, being offered.
5. The Charteris Report identified that the Wirral Council did not adequately assess how well its Neighbourhood Centre and outreach model would meet the needs of its constituent communities before taking a decision to close 11 of its 24 libraries. The model of future library provision for Doncaster is different. The Council’s decision is not to close 12 libraries, but rather see those services delivered with greater, devolved community involvement and direction, but with intrinsic links and support back to the library service. The impact on the local community is mitigated by the fact that the library’s presence will still exist in these communities. There will be new partnerships involved, and the building and use of the building may differ, but the service’s presence is sustained. It is the service’s ambition to increase usage through dedicated and targeted marketing and outreach promotions, with library staff employed to work solely in the community, delivering activities and events, cultivating partnerships, and promoting the service to the public, so that we take every opportunity to reach the widest range of individuals and groups.
6. In sustaining the service in this way, the Council has also been mindful of its responsibility under s.7 (2) of the Act, which places a mandatory requirement upon library authorities to have regard to the desirability of securing that the needs of local adults and children are met (in respect of the provision of library resources) when discharging its duties to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. Furthermore, following two rounds of consultation (the first across the Borough, the second targeted to library catchment areas), and sustained and detailed involvement with a wide range of stakeholders and community groups, the Council has learnt from other local authorities’ lack of consultation processes focused on libraries, and is mindful of a continued consultative dialogue and partnership with local communities. The library service proactively seeks this engagement at each stage of partnership development.
7. The Charteris Report required that the local authority had the capability, capacity and determination to implement its plans for the revised service – this is clearly the case in Doncaster, with the Council’s long term commitment to sustainable, community-led library delivery.
8. With respect to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, it is considered that whilst the Act is beneficial in securing and ensuring the provision of, mainly, stock, for the public good, the Act must be updated to reflect the 21 st Century library’s role and capabilities, in content, wording and direction. This is with particularly important with regards to information provision, e-information and digital supply, and the range of functions which a comprehensive library service can provide. If local authorities are to use the Act as a source for guidance and direction, and as services evolve in the response to customer requirements, lifestyles, and technology, greater clarity on the meaning of ‘comprehensive and efficient’ should be incorporated, so that local authorities can be clear on steps which can and cannot be taken. The now defunct MLA provided Doncaster Council with useful guidelines on the scope of a comprehensive and efficient service, and matters to consider when implementing any changes to service provision to ensure the service remains comprehensive and efficient. Doncaster Council has used these guidelines throughout its library review process. Separately, it is also hoped that the Arts Council proactively provides direction on benchmarking library service performance and standards, so that poor performing services can learn from the best.
9. In terms of specific method of provision of service in Doncaster, the Council is mindful of s. 7 (2) (a) which refers to provision ‘by any other appropriate means’, and the duty of the local authority in ‘securing, in relation to any matter concerning the functions both of the library authority as such and any other authority whose functions are exercisable within the library area, that there is full co-operation between the persons engaged in carrying out those functions’. It is within the framework of the Act that the Council still operates. In supplying and refreshing book stock and information, and by ensuring that the service point in 12 communities is sustained, the Council considers this community-led development part of the statutory service, and not outside of it, and therefore compliant with s. 7 (2) (c) of the Act.
10. In terms of the impact library closures have on local communities, this has been identified and commented upon through comprehensive Equality Impact Assessments and interviews with relevant user groups, and scrutinised through the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The Council is mindful of the impact of any changes in service provision to any individuals or groups with protected characteristics, and indeed to all our residents using or not using the service. The Council has studied and recognises the impact on residents who may find travelling distances problematic, or who cannot afford to travel; of the impact of changes to parents and children; and to people who live in areas of significant deprivation. This is reflected in the Council’s consideration to maintain statutory provision through 12 branch libraries, 12 community-led libraries in partnership with the Council, a Central Library, and other outreach services. It is the Council’s ambition to develop a modern, high-quality, 21st Century library service, fit for purpose, professionalised, responsive, and providing the high quality access to reading and information which Doncaster’s residents and workforce deserve.
11. If you have any further queries regarding this please do not hesitate to contact me. Doncaster Council would be happy to provide representation at any further interviews on this matter.