The Suffolk County Council Scrutiny Committee met at Endeavour House on Tuesday 14th June. Josiah and Sylvia attended. Sylvia prepared these reflections for the Bungay Library Cross-Community Working Party:
Prior to the meeting our understanding, and that of all other Library representatives, was that the committee would be looking at the consultation process. This was confirmed by an email from Stephen Taylor, of the Libraries Management team on 8th June and the first objective on the briefing paper for the committee was “to have information on the consultation to date”.
However, on opening the meeting the chairman stated that the committee would not be examining the consultation! As you can imagine this put many of those attending on the back foot and negated a great deal of preparation work done by a large number of people, including myself.
Invited witness presentations followed and the chair opened the floor to the those of us in the public gallery. Three themes dominated:
a) The consultation document was more of “a gun to the head”, engendering a fear that if libraries did not submit an EOI they would be closed.
b)The data published with the consultation was inaccurate, incorrect, incomprehensible and virtually unreadable.
That the experience of all libraries, with the exception of Aldeburgh (there seems to be a special synergy between them and Judy Terry) was that any clarification of published data or provision of additional data, either for clarity or to enable the preparation of an EOI was not forthcoming.
c) The treatment of library staff had been appalling. They had not been briefed about publication of the consultation, they were, certainly initially, actively discouraged from getting involved and throughout the consultation period they were not kept informed.
None of the Evidence Sets published, with the agenda, prior to the meeting and which focused on the consultation itself, were referenced at all throughout the meeting. The only document used for reference was an “Update on Libraries Consultation” produced by the Libraries Management team and distributed at the start of the meeting. This contained some pictures of libraries and of the vast quantity of petitions, letters and documentation sent to SCC demonstrating passion for the libraries and library service throughout the county, together with quotes from library users, and some rather nebulous statements by the authors of the document. NB we do have this, together with all documentation for the meeting available for anyone who wishes to see it.
Anna McCreadie (SCC ACS Director), Guenever Pachent and Stephen Taylor were the officers present and reported that the overwhelming response had been that library users in Suffolk want to retain their service and all that it currently offers. They gave no detail of the model used to analyse responses but were keen to stress the passion and committment demonstrated by library users evidenced by the large submission of EOI’s. They totally failed to acknowledge that the emotion so evident in the responses had previously existed and that it was the obvious threat embodied in the consultation that had generated its public declaration and the preparation of EOI’s.
Portfolio holder Cllr Judy Terry gave a very brief presentation which tacitly ignored all of the criticism but stressed the view that the large number of EOI submissions demonstrated an overwhelming desire for libraries to run themselves. She stated that their current recommendation, which they will be putting to Cabinet is; an arms length social enterprise (CIC seems to be being used as shorthand for this!). She suggested that they are taking legal advice on the best model and are currently working on detail. This suggestion seems at odds with very recent conversations and meetings that have taken place with officers. It is also exactly what she announced on the radio on May 2nd two days after the consultation closed and before they had even begun an analysis of all responses!
There was a deal of discussion surrounding the county/community designation and finally Judy Terry acknowledged that this had been abandoned and that all libraries face the same threat.
Though we were frustrated at the embargo put on discussing the consultation there was a tacit agreement that it had been seriously flawed, evidenced by the chair Cllr Colin Hart saying “we’re in a hole and need your help to get out of it”.
The direction of travel seems unchanged – it is divestment with some sort of QUANGO set up to oversee the service.
We believe that the Bungay Library Cross-Community Working Party should take a firm stance at this stage;
Either we send a strongly worded statement to SCC stating that we reserve the right to withdraw our EOI, given that the terms of reference under which it was prepared no longer apply and that it was produced under duress. Our designation as a community library, though we believe that to be inaccurate, meant that, under the stated terms of the consultation, we faced closure if we were not prepared to take over the management. That we shall consider our position once the Cabinet decision is known and when ALL of the details pertaining to the social enterprise vehicle are known.
Or we withrdraw the EOI stating all of the above reasons.
The full Scrutiny Committee recommendations are:
- the classification of County Libraries and Community Libraries referred to in the Consultation document is not a reasonable basis for a policy;
- the potential community interest company agrees individual budgets for each library;
- the business case considered by Cabinet should clearly demonstrate how the community interest company service would operate across the whole of Suffolk;
- that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service;
- any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk;
- due consideration be given to innovative ideas that have already come forward and any others that are received from communities on how their services might be run;
- the policy on mobile libraries be clearly stated in the report to Cabinet;
- the Council provide absolute clarity to communities interested in running their libraries on issues they were likely to raise such as finance, staffing and legal issues;
- the Council must satisfy itself on the financial viability of the plans put forward and that they are sustainable.
- further expressions of interest are welcome and will be considered.