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Reduced opening hours and job losses at Library of Birmingham likely as council considers budget options

Reduced opening hours and job losses at Library of Birmingham likely as council considers budget options

🕔03.Dec 2014

The Library of Birmingham is facing the possibility of drastic cuts in opening hours and significant job losses at the £187 million building which was opened to international acclaim only two years ago.

Chamberlain Files understands the city council’s controlling Labour group is refusing to bail out the library in Centenary Square which faces a budget shortfall of about £1 million.

At the moment the library is open seven days a week but underfunded heating and lighting costs make it highly likely that operation of the building will have to be scaled back.

A white paper setting out council spending plans for next year will be published next week.

Final decisions about the 2015-16 budget will be made by Labour councillors at the end of January following a period of public consultation.

Birmingham’s 10 district committees are certain to see their spending allocations sharply cut, which could result in reduced opening hours or closure of some community libraries.

It will be up to individual district committees to decide on priorities and whether to protect libraries against other services.

The financial crisis is the latest stage in the Government’s austerity approach to public spending, which is expected to result in £150 million of cuts to city council spending next year.

Labour council leaders are stepping up attempts to outsource community libraries and the Library of Birmingham, possibly into a mutual company run by library staff.

However, deputy council leader Ian Ward insisted Birmingham was “nowhere near” taking a decision to offload the libraries. He stressed that the possibility of setting up a public service mutual company remained just that – a possibility.

Responding to questions from the public at this month’s full council meeting, Cllr Ward said that while he had given “informal” support to explore transferring the libraries from council control to a mutual, no decision had been taken to do so and the point had not yet been reached where the “mechanics of any procurement process have been investigated”.

His comments will not satisfy the Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham pressure group which believes that the council’s Labour cabinet is moving swiftly forward with the mutualisation plan and intends to have the transfer in place by April 2015.

The Birmingham Libraries Campaign has been set up to fight to keep community libraries under direct council control. Establishing a public service mutual is simply a short-cut to privatisation and is likely to result in closures and cutbacks, according to the campaign group.

There are also concerns about the poor condition of many library buildings. A year ago the council revealed it faced a £4 million repair bill to bring community libraries up to standard.

The idea of a mutual came from a group of librarians keen to protect the libraries from public sector spending cuts. Cllr Ward seized upon the possibility as the only feasible way of protecting community libraries from an increasingly desperate search for savings which could see the council cutting its total budget by more than £100 million next year.

Cllr Ward told the council meeting: “No one wishes to see libraries in the city close. But the council has to review its services, including libraries, because of the budget cuts imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.

“Staff in the library service have come forward to explore the development of a staff mutual. I have given my informal support to develop this. It may have a sustainable future.

“No decision has been taken to transfer the community library service into a mutual. If such a proposal is taken forward, it is not the intention of the council to set up a mutual to fail.”

The librarians behind the mutual proposal are developing a business plan with the help of an £80,000 grant from the Cabinet Office, according to the Birmingham Libraries Campaign. A tender to support and process the move to a mutual was awarded to Birmingham law form Anthony Collins Solicitors.

The campaign website describes the promotion of mutualisation as “coming from the deepest heart of the Conservative part of the coalition”.

The website puts the case against mutualisation: “Although the move to set up a library mutual in Birmingham was initiated by a small group of librarians with the wish to protect local libraries, the political intent of the national Government is to break-up public services provided by local councils.

“Local authorities have a duty under the Public Libraries Act 1964 to deliver a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service.” The key question for the proposed mutual is how spinning off community libraries will ensure the future delivery of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service in the city. “Further there are significant questions as to how public interests are to be represented within a mutual owned and run by staff on behalf of the council.”

The campaign group is calling for a public debate about the future of Birmingham library services.

In a statement, the group said: “Community libraries are the epitome of a truly local service. Moving community libraries into a mutual creates a removal from local democratic decision making.

“It runs counter to the constitutional thrust towards the greater devolution of services in the city and greater responsibility for decisions over those services lying with the districts. By operating a single pooled budget how and who will make decisions on the re-allocation of library resources between districts?

“Importantly, will district committees have a decision as to whether to commission services with the library mutual or continue to run their local libraries in-house?

“The move to commission library services via a mutual is a possible first step to privatisation. At the end of the first five year contract with the Library mutual can the council assure us that these services will not be re-tendered via a procurement process open to competing bids from private library providers.”

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