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Funding for libraries to shrink by 90%, as MP urges Government to treat Birmingham fairly

Funding for libraries to shrink by 90%, as MP urges Government to treat Birmingham fairly

🕔08.Jan 2014

Questions from the public at the January meeting of Birmingham City Council were dominated, not for the first time, by concerns about the future of community libraries.

Of all the cuts to services being considered by the controlling Labour group, the library issue continues to provoke the strongest views and deputy council leader Ian Ward has been put under considerable pressure to state that each of the city’s 41 libraries will be protected.

Cllr Ward was unwilling to give any such assurance. When invited to confirm that citizens would continue to enjoy unfettered access to local libraries from Mondays to Saturdays, the deputy leader simply stated that the future of these facilities would be considered on a case by case basis.

In fact, the fate of community libraries will be a matter for Birmingham’s 10 devolved district committees to consider – as long as what they decide fits in with broad policy guidelines laid down by the cabinet.

The bad news here is that the district committees must find about £50 million in spending cuts arising from the Chancellor’s austerity programme, and are already overspending their leisure budgets by about £6 million.

The council has a statutory duty to provide a library service, but this is almost certainly covered by the new Library of Birmingham, built in Centenary Square at a cost of almost £200 million and opened in September 2013. However, the LoB has its own problems and reportedly faces a £1.6 million funding gap in running costs for 2014-15.

What hope, then, is there for the minnows? Many community libraries are already struggling to make ends meet in costly and unsuitable buildings. Fewer staff and shorter opening hours would seem to be a dead cert.

Cllr Ward quoted research by the Local Government Association, an organisation which, as he pointed out, is Conservative controlled. If cuts to central government grant for councils continue at the current rate, funding for libraries, leisure centres and road maintenance will shrink by 90 per cent over the next six years.

It is difficult to imagine that these services will continue to exist after 2020, Cllr Ward said.

It seems fairly clear that Birmingham will not have 41 community libraries in 2020. The council is consulting on budget plans that could see some libraries transferred to the voluntary sector and some closed. It’s likely that the remaining libraries will be re-housed in shared ‘community hubs’ with schools, health centres and community organisations.

Meanwhile, the sheer scale of Birmingham council’s financial difficulties was raised in a Parliamentary debate by Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart (Lab).

Calling for reform of local government funding, Mrs Stuart urged Ministers to hand centralised budgets and tax-raising powers to cities like Birmingham.

She told MPs that Birmingham city council faced finding £840 million of savings between 2010 and 2018 – equivalent to more than half of its annual revenue budget.

Mrs Stuart said: “By the end of this Parliament local government will have taken 33 per cent of the cuts, whereas Whitehall will have taken 12 per cent.

“In Birmingham in 2014-15, using the Government’s preferred measure-that of spending power-we will lose £145.59 per dwelling, a cut of 5.3 per cent. The national average is £71.58. Leafy Wokingham-Wokingham is not popular in my constituency because of the comparison, although one of my local councillors comes from there and takes slight umbrage that we keep quoting it-gets an increase in funding of £5.20, or 0.3 per cent.

“In 2015-16 it will be even worse: Birmingham will lose 5.6 per cent and Wokingham will have an increase of three per cent. There is a whole list of shires and counties that are also getting an increase.

“At every turn, the combination of grant reduction and budget pressures widens to the point where-let us be clear on this-it is no longer a question of cutting services: some services simply will not be delivered.”

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