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Libraries (Harrow)

Volume 596: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of libraries in Harrow.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time in this Chamber, Sir David.

I want to set out the case for the continuation of public libraries in the London borough of Harrow, part of which I am privileged to represent. Over the past 25 to 30 years, I have had great involvement in libraries in both Brent and Harrow. When I was first elected as a councillor in the London borough of Brent, the Labour administration in the borough at the time tried to close libraries. That attempt was overturned after a long campaign by the community.

When I became leader of Brent Council in 1991, we invested in public libraries and turned them into assets that were used to the ultimate. In fact, I was almost considered a revolutionary because I opened Willesden Green library on Sundays so that students could study. Sadly, in 2010, the Labour administration in Brent decided to close four libraries and create a new civic centre library. That resulted in a long community campaign that eventually led to a community library in the ward that I used to represent reopening as a community-run library. That demonstrates how much the public want libraries to continue.

In contrast, in the London borough of Harrow over the same period, only one library has closed: the Gayton Road library. I will return to that later, because it is important in the current context. Over the past five years, the library service has been put out to tender and various aspects have changed, resulting in the diminution of the services provided to library users. When the budget process started last year, the Labour administration in Harrow claimed that it needed to find £75 million in budget savings over four years. That would have been okay, but the next day it reinstated its chief executive position, with a salary of £160,000 per annum. It then went further by rehiring the same chief executive whose post had been deleted some six to nine months earlier. It could have saved £1 million over four years—quite enough to fund all the borough’s libraries. The council has changed its view and now says that it needs to find savings of £83 million. We are not sure whether the figure is £75 million or £83 million.

As part of its saving drive, Harrow council proposed the closure of a swathe of public facilities, including Harrow’s only arts centre and Harrow museum. Of course, there was a huge backlash. I joined forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) to prevent the closures, and I am pleased to say that the council has backed down on closing the arts centre—temporarily, at least—and alternative funding arrangements are being made. Nevertheless, the urgency of the situation is demonstrated by the fact that from 5 pm on 13 June, four of Harrow’s 10 public libraries—the Bob Lawrence, Hatch End, North Harrow and Rayners Lane libraries—will be closing their doors, despite the local protests.

Harrow Council undertook a consultation on the current proposals between 24 November 2014 and 19 January this year, and found that 71.48% were against the closure of the libraries. Of course, that has not stopped Harrow’s Labour-run council from wanting to close them. In fact, the consultation was flawed, because it specifically suggested that, as alternatives, library users in Edgware could use Kingsbury library in Brent or Burnt Oak library in Barnet. I am not sure whether the council tax payers of Barnet or Brent would welcome Harrow’s council tax payers using their libraries free of charge, but there is also another issue: Barnet council is currently consulting on the closure of Burnt Oak library. The consultation was therefore completely flawed. There is a strong feeling locally that the decision had been made before Harrow council’s consultation started and that the process has just been one of rubber-stamping the council’s decision.

All campaigns against the current situation are being ignored. There was an excellent campaign in Edgware to preserve Bob Lawrence library. Campaigners gathered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from people who want to keep the library open. Both my hon. Friend the Minister and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), visited Bob Lawrence library to see how it is used and the good work done there. It is not only a centre for reading and lending books; it is a place where young people study. Students and young people at school who do not have facilities at home can go to the library to do homework and project work. Indeed, members of the public visit the library for various community events.

The local community put together an excellent business case for keeping the Bob Lawrence library open and fully funded, with a revenue stream, and identified a number of income streams, including social enterprise funding. They even proposed taking over the library as an organisation under the community right to bid. Sadly, the problem is that the council decides whether such a bid is allowed to proceed. Surprise, surprise, the council rejected the business case without giving any specific reason—it just said that the case did not pass muster.

Those currently running Harrow Council want to place the blame at the Government’s door, but that is disingenuous. It is worth pointing out that, thanks to the work put in when Harrow council was run by an Independent Labour and minority Conservative administration, the council had a balanced budget for 2013-14 and 2014-15, and delivered savings of £22.8 million over those two years. That shows that it is possible to achieve savings without closing public facilities.

In March, the Prime Minister came to Harrow and this subject was raised with him directly. He made the point that, actually, Harrow council had spent less than its budget envisaged and its budget for 2014-5 was higher than it had been the previous year. The council has reserves—it has the capability to fund the libraries if it so chooses. There is no need for libraries to be closed on this scale.

The council has recently announced a new library for Harrow town centre, with

“state of the art facilities and self-service technologies”.

That proposal is currently being considered, but, on closer inspection, the site has not yet been redeveloped and no planning permission has been granted. The planning application is extremely controversial, because the proposed building would be very tall. There is a lot of local opposition to the consideration of the planning application itself, let alone to the setting up of a new library. The site under consideration is that of the old Gayton Road library—the proposal is merely to replace the library that was closed with a new state-of-the-art library.

According to the council, as of April 2014 total library membership in Harrow was 146,661 people, about 40% of Harrow’s population. That, I suggest, means that the people of Harrow greatly value their community libraries and do not want to see them close.

According to demographic information completed at the time of joining, in August 2014 46% of active borrowers were under 18 years old and 13% were aged over 60. Given that the Office for National Statistics states that 20% of people in Harrow are under 16 and 14% are over 65, those figures represent huge levels of use from both age groups. Libraries are vital resources that must be retained for schoolchildren, older people and all groups who want to use computers but do not have them at home.

Furthermore, Harrow Council’s own data in 2013-14 show that there were 1,104,846 visits to Harrow libraries and that 1,147,630 items were loaned. Harrow is always ranked in the top quartile of outer London boroughs for book loans and it is ranked fourth out of 18 for that period. Local residents want to use their libraries for study purposes, recreation, computer access, social activities and, importantly, to access council information. It is vital that those facilities are provided and that that continues. One of my concerns is that if the Bob Lawrence library were to close, the nearest library to it, the Kenton library, is some two miles away, which would be a long journey on foot for elderly people and a challenge for younger people as well. There is also no direct bus or train service between the two.

It is quite clear that Harrow Council cannot blame the Government for its decisions on cuts and spending. The Government commissioned the independent library report, led by William Sieghart, to advise on the future of libraries and one of its central recommendations was to increase the number of libraries with internet and wi-fi. As a result, £7.4 million was allocated in the 2015 Budget to deliver that. The Arts Council, supported by Government funding, has also allocated £6 million to help libraries increase the range of facilities they provide to visitors. Some libraries have chosen to stage exhibitions of paintings by local artists to increase the number of visitors, which shows that entrepreneurial spirit can make a difference.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my Harrow neighbour, for giving way. He is making an interesting argument and, similarly, I hope that North Harrow library can be kept open. I think he went a tad too far in suggesting that the Government cannot be held to account at all, given that potentially Harrow Council will be hit with £83 million of cuts over a four-year period. That inevitably means that, on the tough decisions that it has to make, it is between a rock and a hard place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for that intervention. As I said at the beginning of my speech, Harrow Council seems to want it both ways: it cannot seem to make up its mind about whether it faces £75 million or £83 million of reductions. If it cannot make its mind up about £8 million of savings, the council must have a really serious problem at its heart. If it offers, I will take up the challenge of reorganising its budget, but that is another matter.

As has been demonstrated, local authorities can make efficiencies without closing community facilities. The council received two community takeover proposals, which related to the Bob Lawrence library, which I mentioned before, and North Harrow library, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that the North Harrow library proposal is still being considered, but the Bob Lawrence library proposal has been dismissed out of all regard. I wonder whether there is a political reason for that, because while the proposal for the North Harrow library is being led by a former leader of the council who was also a notable Harrow Labour councillor, the Bob Lawrence library proposal is led by a former mayor of the borough who has fallen out with the Labour group on Harrow council.

Libraries provide a vital service, offering people the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills and opening up new possibilities in work, education and culture. Harrow is a rapidly growing area, so we will see greater pressure on school places, at primary school level in particular, and we need additional public knowledge facilities that our children and elderly people can access.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says:

“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

The Act imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act.”

Given the large number of people using the services, the extreme dissatisfaction with the consultation phase and the apparent unwillingness to look at alternative strategies, there is a case for reviewing the decisions made by Harrow Council to ensure that those statutory requirements are being met.

I would be grateful for confirmation that the Secretary of State will pursue that. I have written to him today on that subject, inviting him to call the decision in and to ensure that the libraries do not close next Saturday. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our reasoned arguments.

It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Sir David. Indeed, this is the first debate in which I have taken part in this Parliament, although I did participate in oral questions last week.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his excellent speech, which set out the position in Harrow. Before I turn to that specifically, with your indulgence, Sir David, I will talk a bit about libraries in general. In the 21st century, no one should underestimate the importance of libraries. Last week, I spoke at a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians, and I made the point that in a digital age libraries are arguably more important than ever.

Perhaps the threat to libraries is about nostalgia. Many commentators on libraries perhaps benefited from them greatly in their youth by going in and borrowing books, but they now offer a huge range of other, equally important, services. In essence, and without downplaying at all the importance of borrowing books, reading and literature, they are important community spaces and hubs.

I agree with what the Minister has said thus far. Given his comments about the future of libraries, does his Department have any sort of library modernisation fund that could be accessed by those who are trying to turn North Harrow library in my constituency, which the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) referred to, into a community library, to help move things forward?

That is a useful point, which I will come to in a second. However, I want to make it plain first that under the 1964 Act, every library authority is required to provide a

“comprehensive and efficient library service”.

It is open to the Minister to call in any plans to alter that library service if they think, prima facie, that the duty is not being carried out. It is important to emphasise that that power has been exercised only once: in 2009 in respect of Wirral libraries. That was useful, because the Sue Charteris report that emerged from that was a good guide for local authorities who are undertaking reviews.

As far as libraries are concerned, the Government have not stood still. Libraries are provided and funded by local authorities, as has always been the case, but the Government can and should play a role. One of the first decisions I took as Minister was to merge the functions of the then Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with those of the Arts Council. That merger was long overdue; when the 1964 Act was being debated, the role of libraries in local culture was emphasised, so it was important to put the Arts Council and libraries together. There is a £6 million lottery fund; it is not for the modernisation or transformation of libraries per se, but allows libraries to host cultural events. Much of the money has been used, but some is still available.

We also commissioned William Sieghart to look at e-lending. In a digital age, more and more library users may want to borrow books digitally, but it is important to get the right balance between libraries and the needs and legitimate concerns of publishers running commercial businesses. From that process emerged a second report, as we commissioned from him a wider report on the future of libraries, which made a number of recommendations. One was to set up a task and finish group; it is chaired by the Local Government Association and has a chief executive, Kathy Settle, who is on secondment from the Government Digital Service. That group is looking at real practical measures to help libraries. It called “task and finish” because it is time-limited and focused—it is funded for the next two years—so as to make a real impact.

William Sieghart also called for all libraries to have wi-fi. In the last Budget before the election, the Chancellor awarded £7.4 million to libraries to help them put wi-fi in. That answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) to a certain extent, although I appreciate that the fund that he is looking for would perhaps be wider.

Were North Harrow community library—supported, I am sure, by Harrow Council—to put in a bid to the lottery fund for some of the £6 million pot that the Minister alluded to, and to write to him with the details, would he be willing to consider writing in support of that request for finance?

It is important that such decisions are taken independently. The fund will be managed by the Arts Council and the criteria for applying to it—whether applicants should be local-authority-provided libraries or could be community libraries—will be established by the council in the coming weeks. The fund will go live in July. It is important to emphasise that the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidance for community-managed libraries. It is also incumbent on me as a Minister to make sure that community libraries are aware of potential funds from tangential sources—the kind of community funds that the DCLG oversees.

Much of my time as Minister with responsibility for libraries has been taken up with concerns about library closures. I should emphasise that despite the mood music provided by some library campaigners the scale of closures is not what people would have us believe. Fewer than 100 static libraries—effectively, library buildings—have closed. It is a sad reflection on them that five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour authorities as by Conservative ones. At the same time, there is good news. Lots of libraries have been refurbished and many have reopened. Indeed, some Labour authorities—Liverpool and Manchester—have refurbished their central libraries, and Birmingham has built the largest library in Europe, although that was started under a Conservative council.

The specific situation in Harrow, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, is somewhat depressing. I forgot to mention that I was privileged to spend some time with him in his constituency earlier in the year. It was a pleasure to spend time with such a hard-working local MP, and although it may have surprised some people, it did not surprise me at all to see his majority increase at the last election; that was well deserved. I was privileged to visit the Bob Lawrence library with him and meet the people working there, as well as some of the library users.

When one looks at what Harrow is proposing, a number of questions arise. As I said earlier, although books are important, libraries are about more than just books; they are community hubs. What has the council done to look at other services that it could provide through libraries? What has it done about providing, for example, homework clubs for children, or adult education opportunities, or perhaps the opportunity for community nurses to talk to people about their concerns and give advice? Is it planning to apply for the wi-fi fund? Indeed, do all its libraries have wi-fi—libraries that do attract many more users?

Are the council’s libraries fully integrated into all its services? Has it looked, for example, at how its libraries could work with jobcentres to help people who need to use a computer to apply for benefits online or to brush up their CVs? As my hon. Friend said, is the council providing opportunities for young people to study? Has it worked hard enough with the community to allow the community to take over a library? I was concerned by, and will look in more detail at, what my hon. Friend said about the bids to take over a library under the community right to bid. Community libraries are an important aspect of library services, and where the community is prepared to step forward it is incumbent on councils not to shut the door but to open it and welcome the community in.

Has the council looked at different models for how it could run its library services? In Suffolk, an industrial and provident society took over the libraries, kept them open and extended the opening hours. Has Harrow Council looked at mergers with other library authorities? Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea merged their library services a few years ago, saving £1 million and keeping all the libraries open; in fact, I think I am right in saying that one of the authorities opened another library. There are a whole range of options and features that it is now incumbent on library authorities to look at. Important though it was, the Charteris review took place some five or six years ago, and we have moved further forward in the past few years in terms of the ways in which libraries are seen, and the huge opportunities that they now have to play a role in a fast-moving society in which more and more people rely on becoming more digitally literate and engaged.

As I mentioned, library closures have not been on so great a scale as some library campaigners would have us believe. However, importantly, every single proposal by a library authority to change its library service is looked at by Ministers, and we get independent advice on whether it is appropriate to call a proposal in. Up until this point I have not done so, because a lot of library authorities have undertaken careful reviews, but it is important to put on the record—I have always said this—that I have never taken the position that I will never call in any proposal. I will always look closely at any and every proposal for significant change to a library service.

Coming back after the election, I have engaged once more with the Society of Chief Librarians, an excellent organisation, and talked to library services that are enthusiastic and ambitious. Perhaps my vigour has been further renewed—spurred on by the excellent task and finish group that William Sieghart prompted us to establish, led by chief executive Kathy Settle—for banging the drum again about the importance of libraries, and for encouraging local authorities to see libraries for what they actually are. They are neither a burden nor something at the front of the queue for cutting, but an enormous asset for councils, through which they can engage with communities and provide citizens with a huge range of opportunities.

My hon. Friend is a hard-working MP who represents an extraordinarily diverse constituency. In a diverse community, there can be no more important place than a library; when people come into a community and want to put down roots, there can be no better thing for them to do than walk through the doors of a library to find a warm welcome and a map to navigate their new life. I will certainly look at Harrow’s proposals, and we will come to a decision as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.