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Cash cuts may force Birmingham community libraries to close, city council admits

Cash cuts may force Birmingham community libraries to close, city council admits

🕔02.Oct 2013

Some of Birmingham’s 39 community libraries may be forced out of business by public sector spending cuts, the city council has admitted for the first time.

In the latest discussion paper setting out how service delivery must change in future, the council’s Labour leadership is calling for a radical rethink of library provision.

Sir Albert Bore, council leader, is demanding a fundamental re-evaluation of “what a modern library service is” and warned that dwindling resources would have to be concentrated on parts of Birmingham suffering from the highest levels of social deprivation.

The new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square, built for £189 million and opened last month, will spearhead work on remodelling service provision with outcomes linked to literacy and helping specific groups such as older people, long-term unemployed and school children.

Proposals being worked up could see a range of services, including libraries, move from existing buildings to share premises with other council services in community hubs.

The discussion document, a green paper, addresses the challenge of developing successful and inclusive communities against a backdrop of £825 million of savings the council must make by 2017.

Most of the difficult decisions will be made by councillors on devolved district committees.

But the committees’ budgets are to be “re-prioritised” based on need, Sir Albert revealed.

He intends to juggle the districts’ £52 million budget with the result that areas with the highest levels of deprivation, typically inner city wards, will be given more money while wealthier areas like Sutton Coldfield will have to make do with less.

Sir Albert said: “It is possible some community libraries may close, but this is a decision for the district committees to make. It will be for the districts to look at their budgets and see how they wish to spend the money they are allocated.”

The prospect of community library closures sparked a bitter row at a recent meeting of the council’s ruling Labour group.

Councillors fear political fallout, particularly since Birmingham’s 2004-12 Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration made it a policy commitment never to close a community library, although the coalition did reduce opening hours.

Sir Albert is understood to have told his backbenchers that the council’s financial crisis is so great that it is no longer possible to give guarantees about retaining existing services.

The review points to a bigger role for volunteers who will be expected to give their time for free to help run a range of services including local libraries and parks.

The green paper states: “The review has challenged whether it is appropriate for the council to deliver each service across the city and to all citizens or whether they should be targeted at the most vulnerable in society.

“It asks services to consider only delivering services which make a significant difference to outcomes for the citizens of Birmingham.”

Proposals in an ever-desperate fight to identify cash savings include:

  • Sewing slow-growing grass in city parks to reduce the number of mowing sessions each year.
  • Charging for car parking at parks and investigating commercial sponsorship of flower beds.
  • Selling many of the 4,000 buildings the council owns, some of which are surplus to requirements.
  • Disposing of council-owned car parks in Birmingham’s district centres.
  • Remodelling the Youth Service to target areas of low third sector provision.

Cabinet member Brigid Jones, who led the review, said that there was “no point” the council replicating private sector provision in the current financial climate.

She added: “We have a fantastic voluntary network. How can we scale back what we as a council do and let local people take on some of these roles.

“We are talking about some of the most visible and best-loved council services here. This is where the jaws of doom will begin to bite communities.

“We have to decide how to rationalise and make a lot of 20th century service provision fit for the 21st century.”

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