Monday, 21 February 2011

Dramatic North Yorkshire campaign progress

After my last post, everything that I wrote quickly (and annoyingly) became irrelevant: last week saw dramatic changes to the plans for North Yorkshire’s libraries. On the 16th of February, the Conservative leader of the council, Cllr. John Weighell, made this statement after a budget meeting: 

It is very gratifying in a way that people value our library service so much. The consultation on libraries hasn’t finished. We will not end up in a situation where we are… as part of the consultation… it will be a very different end result to what is being consulted upon. I can’t go too much further in saying exactly how but we will certainly look to spread the pain much more widely than the consultation said and we will look to make other savings rather than closing libraries. What I’m personally looking for is to have libraries operating in at least all the market towns with some volunteer help to the professional staff not just leaving volunteers to run a library and forgetting about them but to work together with the professional library staff and volunteers throughout all our libraries that we can possibly keep open. And by that I mean the market towns primarily. 
You can hear him saying those words and me reacting to them on BBC iPlayer here. The market town libraries currently under threat are: Bedale, Bentham, Boroughbridge, Easingwold, Helmsley, Ingleton, Kirkbymoorside, and Leyburn. The revised plans mean that North Yorkshire would retain 26 libraries out of the current 42 (62% of the region’s libraries). Therefore the council still plans to close, merge, or volunteer-run 16 libraries. 

On the 18th, it was reported that the Council have set up a £650,000 fund to buy more time for planning the future of the library service. It is implied that the fund is intended to keep libraries open while preparations are made for handing them over to volunteers or part-volunteer, part-professional staff. 

From a larger perspective, the week saw good news for Doncaster as the 14 threatened libraries were given a 12-month reprieve and the council backed away from their previous plans. However there was bad news in Gloucestershire where the council blatantly ignored the will of the people by voting through the library cuts and in Surrey where the council revealed their plans for the library service. On the 19th, the Yorkshire Post reported that Yorkshire as a broad region faces the loss of a fifth of its libraries with 65 currently under threat. The total for the UK now stands at 526 libraries under threat.

The North Yorkshire news should be treated as a victory: the council is backing down from its previously hard-line stance and is, unlike Gloucestershire Council, listening to its people. However this battle in the ‘Great Library War’ is not yet over. It seems the council is now pushing volunteer-run libraries: these are no substitute for libraries run by professional staff and while it isn’t clear what level of volunteer support the council expects, we must be wary of the plans set out. The libraries have a 12-month reprieve during which time we may become complacent. We need to keep up the good work and remind councillors again and again that we value our libraries. If we do this, we’ll be able to save our libraries like others have saved our forests.

There is a public meeting tonight on Harrogate-area libraries (Starbeck and Bilton) at St. Andrew’s Church in Starbeck at 1730. If you can make it to show your support, please come along.


Terry Browne said...

Simon. Don't be taken in. Whilst this may be a respite, we should not lose the initiative in N Yorks, in defending Libraries, and spreading what is to come evenly.
We might not know what is finally proposed until later, when momentum could have been lost on the campaign side.

Simon Barron said...

You're right. As I said, we shouldn't become complacent and as of yet it's fair from clear what exactly the revised plans for North Yorkshire are and what levels of volunteer staff are expected.

Frankly I'm quite surprised at the timing of this announcement. I'm not sure why they didn't wait for the consultation to end: now they open themselves to (possible) criticism of making a decision before the consultation is complete. 'Ineffective consultation' was one of the reasons why the inquiry in Wirral succeeded and their libraries remained open.