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Birmingham has ‘world class gold-standard library that it can’t afford to run’

Birmingham has ‘world class gold-standard library that it can’t afford to run’

🕔18.Dec 2014

The loss of 100 jobs and slashing opening hours almost by half will be a devastating blow for the Library of Birmingham and its staff, the cabinet member responsible for enforcing a drastic cost-cutting programme has admitted.

Councillor Penny Holbrook said the library was a world class building but it could not be “untouchable” given the scale of the financial crisis facing the council.

The city could no longer afford to “fund services that are as expensive as the Library of Birmingham was designed to be and could not protect a “fantastic building” at the expense of neighbourhood community libraries.

Opening times at the new library will be reduced from 73 hours a week to 40 to save £1.5 million a year and 100 out of 188 jobs will go if recommendations in a budget white paper are accepted by the controlling Labour group.

The cabinet member took a sideswipe at the council’s former Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition responsible for delivering the £188 million building in Centenary Square, which opened in September 2013.

Cllr Holbrook (Lab Stockland Green) questioned whether the coalition was wise to borrow to finance construction of the library, leaving the council facing a £1 million a month bill in debt charges as well as £833,000 a year running costs.

In a statement released on the Birmingham Newsroom website, Cllr Holbrook said: “What we can say is that the decisions taken previously, under a different administration, decisions that saddle us with a huge amount of debt for the building were less than advisable. If we were making those decisions today – with the financial challenges we now face – we may well make very different choices.”

However, she rejected claims that building the library had been a “waste of time and money”.

“The ambition was fantastic and I don’t think we can describe that as a huge waste of money. It’s a world-class gold standard library and the staff do a brilliant job.

“But we are where we are and we need to be honest about the fact that we can’t afford to continue to do everything that we have done as a council, no matter how much we want to. Therefore the choices we make about what we do next have to be about access to services for the biggest number of people in the city, where those services are needed the most.

“We can be really clear that the cuts to the Library of Birmingham are devastating – not least for the staff and the people who are closest to the library. But we are not closing the library.”

Her remarks came as the Independent Library Report for England predicted that libraries across the country were “on the brink of disaster” with 324 closures since 2011 as council cuts continue to bite.

The Government-commissioned report recommends a complete “reinvigoration of the library network” for the 21st century, with every library in the country fitted with wi-fi to attract people who would otherwise spend time in cafés. A drive to make libraries truly digital could also lead to the creation of single national library card and catalogue, allowing readers to withdraw books across the country.

Cllr Holbrook insisted the council would continue to deliver a good library service, “but the problem we have is we cannot afford to continue to fund services that are as expensive as the Library of Birmingham was designed to be. We cannot continue to have parts of the council that are untouchable.”

She added: “So what does the future look like for the Library of Birmingham? While there’s not a lot of wiggle room, this is a consultation. We’re looking to reduce to 40 opening hours a week. What we don’t know at this stage is the exact detail of what that will look like.

“We’ll look at usage figures. We’ll look at the times that people use the library the most and we’ll look at the fairest spread of those hours in terms of people being able to use the services that they need. Whatever the opening hours end up being, they will reflect the best fit for when people need to use the library.

“It’s also important to remember that library services in Birmingham are about more than just the Library of Birmingham. One service that many of our residents value the most is community libraries. Some of our poorest residents rely on these community libraries, so, if we think about that in the context of this budget, we cannot protect one fantastic library at the cost of the others.

“When we think about the jobs and skills conversation that we’ve had as part of this consultation, one of the reasons why some of the poorest communities struggle to access those jobs is because of literacy and numeracy levels.

“So clearly when we are making choices about services and libraries, we have to think about where they’re needed the most and who they serve the most.

“The other thing to remember about community libraries is that they sit within our district structure currently. So, although we know there will have to be some cuts to community libraries, we have to have that conversation, led by local councillors in districts with their local communities.”

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