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Cheese-paring library cuts show a lack of ambition and are harming Birmingham

Cheese-paring library cuts show a lack of ambition and are harming Birmingham

🕔15.Jun 2015

Slashing the opening hours and staffing levels at the Library of Birmingham suggests a city seriously lacking in ambition. The library should be prioritised, not cast adrift to wither on the vine, argues Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale.

There is probably slightly more chance of hell freezing over than the leader of Birmingham council, Sir Albert Bore, admitting he made a serious strategic mistake when drastically reducing opening hours at the city’s new library.

But if Sir Albert was to take the time to reflect on the speeches he has been giving lately, rightly drawing attention to the strengthening Birmingham economy and “buzz of excitement” around huge city centre regeneration schemes, he would surely come to see that damaging cuts to the library budget are cheese-paring at its worst and reflect very badly on Birmingham.

The £1.3 million chopped from library spending this year is small beer in the context of the council’s revenue budget which stretches to just under £1 billion. But the consequences have been severe with more than 90 library jobs disappearing and opening hours at the stunning Centenary Square building cut dramatically.

The library does not open until 11am during weekdays and Saturdays, closes at 7pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and at 5pm Wednesday to Saturday. It is closed on Sundays. Over the weekend, therefore, one of the best libraries anywhere in Europe is open for just six hours.

Now, to take Sir Albert and his cabinet at their word, they expect the economic boom Birmingham is enjoying at the moment to translate into jobs, wealth, and in the course of time for this to position the city as the place to be in Europe and the UK.

Much time is being spent on developing what Sir Albert and council chief executive Mark Rogers like to call a “narrative” about Birmingham, which I think we can safely refer to as a story. The story is of a post-industrial city that has turned itself around and is finally going places.

We are told that firms are falling over themselves to relocate here from the expensive, over-heated economy of London and the south-east. Young professionals are moving out of the capital in huge numbers to resettle here, take jobs in the financial services, digital and medical research sectors, and by night populate our Michelin starred restaurants and smart bars.

There is talk of Birmingham matching Frankfurt and Zurich as a major European financial centre. Snow Hill is being marketed as a new Canary Wharf. The hyperbole machine will probably burst into flames and explode when the Paradise office blocks are completed.

This is all fine and dandy. Birmingham deserves a break after so long in the doldrums.

But where in this narrative do the mean, and frankly unnecessary, cuts to the library budget fit in? Cities like Frankfurt and Zurich do not have grand civic libraries that open for only half a week, nor do other major European cities.

Here in Birmingham on any day of the week it is possible to see scores of people queuing up to get into the library, waiting patiently for the doors to open at 11am as if they are in some shabby east European city circa 1974. On Sundays, visitors continue to arrive in significant numbers expecting the building to be open. Some are from abroad and have come to see the best of what Birmingham has to offer. They are sorely disappointed.

Persuasive PR campaigns and communications narratives have to be constructed carefully and patiently over a period of time, but the positive message can be destroyed very quickly by avoidable and stupid mistakes. The debacle in Centenary Square should sound the alarm bells because it risks sending out a laughing-stock message – Birmingham, the city that spent £189 million on building a library and then decided a year later it couldn’t afford to run it.

Sir Albert, in his leader’s policy statement to the city council this month, said the following:

We are determined to ensure that Birmingham retains its world class arts and culture offer. We must find new ways of doing this as an integral part of our economic strategy.

Later, at the first public meeting of the independent Birmingham improvement panel, Sir Albert was asked how he could justify cutting the library budget by £1.3 million.

He replied that the cost of running the library is £22 million a year, which is greater than the whole of the council’s economic development and skills support budget.

So what? No reasonable person would conclude that, just because it costs twice as much to run and pay for a library than to fund economic development then the library should suffer. This is not a justification for condemning the library to a slow, lingering death – don’t be under any illusion, unless there is a change of heart at the top of the council the library budget will be cut again next year, and the year after that.

The fact is, sadly, outrageously even, when the Labour group of councillors sat down last year to thrash out the 2015-16 budget and decide how to implement the spending cuts forced on to Birmingham by the Government, the library did not have many friends.

Built on the watch of the 2004-2012 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and paid for almost entirely through borrowed money, the library is regarded by a great many Labour councillors as an expensive vanity project forced through by the Tory former council leader Lord Whitby.

Those taking this view should step back a little and consult the history books. If Labour had not lost control of the council in 2004 Sir Albert Bore would certainly have pressed ahead with a plan to build a new library at Eastside, to be designed by Lord Rogers. And as we all know, buildings with the Rogers hallmark on them are magnificent, but hardly cheap.

Birmingham desperately needed a new library to replace the expensive to maintain and unfit for purpose monstrosity in Paradise Forum. An Eastside library would have been great. The Centenary Square library we ended up with is one of the most remarkable civic buildings of the early 21st century and, an over-used word I know, has brought an iconic architectural statement to Birmingham.

The Library of Birmingham says something about the scale of ambition that the council must have for a city of one million people. Its facilities ought, in my view, to be absolutely the last thing to be cut in times of austerity. If it’s a toss-up between subsidising athletics at Alexander Stadium or bunging a few quid to get the Tory conference here again, or maintaining the library budget, then the library would get my vote every time.

As for the notion that anyone angry about what is happening to the library should blame the Government for cutting the council’s budget, this is a lazy assertion. Yes, the Government grant has been decimated. But at the end of the day it’s the council cabinet and controlling Labour group that decides how to spend the money it has left, not the Government.

Sir Albert’s claim that only children’s social care can be exempted from cuts and therefore the library has to suffer some pain is somewhat disingenuous. These are his rules and he is playing to them, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

He has been talking about the end of a salami slicing approach to setting the budget for three years, but there is no sign yet of a zero-budgeting approach under which a fresh piece of paper would be used to decide what is most important to the council.

As he is 10 years older than me, Sir Albert may remember Nye Bevan who famously told the Labour conference that the “language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. He was talking about the NHS. But he might as well have been referring to libraries, for there can be little of greater importance than encouraging reading and lifelong learning, especially in Birmingham where the workforce is not over-endowed with skills and qualifications.

Is it too much to hope that Sir Albert and his comrades might take the time to ask themselves ‘what would Nye have done’, and restore all or at least a significant proportion of the library cuts. To do so would be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.

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