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Library Services: Thornton-Cleveleys

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016

[Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered library services in Thornton-Cleveleys.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries—a first for me, I think, but a pleasure none the less. Thinking about the issue of libraries in my constituency, it is hard to start without resorting to clichés, but of course clichés always serve a wider truth, so when I say that libraries change people’s lives, it is because they certainly do. I remember my involvement with my local library in Weaverham in Cheshire. It opened a whole new world to me. It may have been a small, prefabricated building in a small village in the middle of Cheshire, but it was my gateway to a wider world. I looked up to the librarians who staffed it. They were not just there to shelve books or move them around; they were trained professionals, and when considering all the different options we have for how libraries are provided, we should not overlook that fact. They are trained and they are talented. It is not just a matter of moving books around.

Libraries are not just book repositories, either. They are there for far more than that. As a friend of Thornton and Cleveleys library wrote to me just the other day:

“The nurseries in both areas utilise the provision, parents and their children, the young people that use the library for their Wargaming group, children’s trailblazers group, poetry meets, flower arranging, craft and chat, Shakespeare and literature workshops, scrabble groups, IT club with support from a tech coach, knit and natter”.

The list is endless; it goes on and on, and that is in just two small libraries in Thornton and Cleveleys. In the Minister’s excellent White Paper on the arts—the first proper one since the 1960s—he rightly emphasised that culture should be accessible to everybody. It should not be a matter of how much someone can afford or how close they happen to live to the capital; culture should be available for everybody, including those who live in coastal areas such as mine. So the Minister can imagine my intense frustration and the local anger that has been generated by Lancashire County Council’s proposals to slash the number of libraries across the county to just 37, with a further seven self-service locations. That is down from 73.

In particular, two of those libraries are close to my heart because they are in my patch: the library in Cleveleys, which has a very popular children’s centre as part of the building, and the library in Thornton, which lies just a few yards outside my constituency boundary. My constituency covers part of the car park but not the library itself, and although my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) is a Minister and so cannot participate in this debate, I know that he none the less joins me in expressing the sentiments I choose to express today.

Of course, it is not just local MPs who are frustrated by this; it is all of our constituents, too. Let me quote from Nicky Frankland, who wrote on my Facebook page earlier this week:

“I home educate my daughter of 5 who has Asperger syndrome, the library is a vital part of our lives or should I say her life. It gives us the references we need along with the means to have a friendly and calm place to go which we struggle finding elsewhere. Having said that I have used Thornton library with all my children since they were a few weeks old. It amazes me the extent of activities available and how important it is to have a library in the community for all ages. I can’t understand why a decision would be made to get rid of such an important service.”

That is very true. I was out in the torrential pouring rain last Sunday at Thornton-Cleveleys gala, yet there were still dozens of people wandering around trying to get signatures for the petition to keep those libraries open, such is the local passion for retaining those vital services.

The council’s rationale is essentially to save money—a point I will touch on later—and that people will still be able to travel to Fleetwood or Poulton to utilise the library services retained there. There is a hidden irony in that, because the recent wholesale withdrawal of subsidised bus services means that getting to Fleetwood or Poulton is now almost an impossibility for many of my most elderly constituents because there are fewer buses. Many have expressed their frustration to me that they fear they will become prisoners in their own homes.

It is not just older residents, either. I have received a letter from Emily Rogers, Calise Goffin, Tegan Hood and Oliver Preston from Northfold primary school’s school council telling me that:

“It has come to our attention that many of our local libraries, including Cleveleys, are under threat of being shut down. We have close links with this library as many of our pupils take part in the Lancashire Reading Trail. We enjoy it when the librarian, Brenda, comes into school to talk to us and give out prizes. Many of us enjoy taking part in events and activities at the library during our school holidays, and we would greatly miss this if it was no longer there”.

More than 300 of the school’s friends, pupils and their parents have signed a petition desperately asking for the library to be kept open.

Clearly, there is a political angle to this debate. I have no doubt that on social media right now someone will be tweeting that it is all my fault, because the nasty Conservative Government are cutting budgets somewhere. That will be appearing on Facebook in response to this debate as well. It is such a serious accusation that it is worth taking head on. I do not deny that all councils up and down the country face challenges over their budgets. They will choose to meet that challenge in differing ways. Some will do a better job than others at making those spending reductions, but one thing I am quite clear about is that every single council, whichever party happens to be controlling it, needs to be held to account for how it chooses to make spending reductions.

I do not want to make today’s debate about which party happens to be controlling a particular council. It is about how they choose to make those decisions, the factors they weigh in that balance and the extent to which they put the needs of the people they represent at the forefront of their minds. Councils need to take responsibility for their decisions, and of late we have seen some spectacularly bad decisions by Lancashire County Council, including mismanaged contracts that have wasted millions of pounds. The Conservative group on the county council discovered an unknown £15 million the county council never knew it had. That would have been enough, with £1 million to spare, to allow all the libraries across the county to be saved, but the council chose not to use it to that end. It wasted £7 million by not going ahead with a new fleet management service, for example.

The list could be endless, and it would be otiose to continue to read examples out, but it makes the point that Lancashire has not been well managed financially for a number of years under the people who currently run the council. It is the people of Lancashire who are paying the price for those mistakes and that poor governance. Because the council has not done a good job, we all have a price to pay, including my constituents. I recognise that that political debate does not save a single library or change a single mindset in county hall, because there are political blinkers on and this has become a political debate. What frustrates me is the unwillingness of the county council to sit down with borough councils in the county to discuss differing ways to deliver library services. In Wyre borough, which covers both Thornton and Cleveleys, they are trying to come up with innovative solutions that would enable the county to save the money that it knows it needs to save, as well as retaining all of Wyre’s libraries.

It frustrates me that the county council will not sit down and discuss those ideas, not least because they are ideas that have been implemented by other councils around the country that are run by the same party that controls the county council. It is clearly not a party political issue at all, because other Labour councils have been equally innovative, and I would like to see Lancashire be as innovative. Wyre would like to see all the councils in Wyre essentially become community interest companies. That would release savings that could be used to maintain all seven libraries, rather than having to shut three of them. Of course there will always be devil in the detail, but surely all sides can at the very least sit down and hold that discussion while the consultation process is under way.

In York, which is one of the main models that Wyre is drawing on and is a Labour-controlled council, they have an industrial and provident society called Explore, which is one-third owned by the staff and two-thirds by local people. Local people pay a notional £1 toward their membership—which is actually not even collected by Explore—that allows them and the staff to have a say in the delivery of library services. That is just one of the many examples up and down the country of councils that have tried to take a more creative approach to delivering library services that has not been dependent upon wholesale closure.

I know that Arts Council England has a library development fund. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what support it might be able to give to the county council, Wyre borough and the community taskforce—the Friends of Thornton and Cleveleys Libraries—who are looking at alternative models of provision. In the same way, what help can the Government’s libraries taskforce give to those seeking to develop and change the model of provision in the county?

More fundamentally, will the Minister reflect on the use to which we can put the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964? My fear is that what Lancashire is planning to do places it in breach of the provisions of that Act. I know that under the last Labour Government, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at the time, chose to refer Wirral Council for a public inquiry because he believed that it was in breach of the Act. It had failed to carry out a proper assessment of need and had relied too much on a property-based assessment. I fear that Lancashire is treading an identical path, not least in its attempts to focus provision on the most deprived areas. I do not dispute for a second that deprived areas require a greater proportion of public resources, but under the 1964 Act library services are meant to be a universal service. Access to them should not be dependent upon levels of deprivation. If that is the scheme that the county council is seeking to adopt to assess who deserves to have a library service in Lancashire, I fear that it may be in breach of the 1964 Act.

I attended the public inquiry in Wirral back in 2009. It was a very interesting two-day experience and the lady who conducted it, Sue Charteris, did an excellent job of distilling, down to the bare essentials, what the Act required councils to do, how to justify what was a comprehensive service and what that meant in practical terms for the residents of Wirral. If Lancashire presses ahead with its current halving of the number of libraries, I urge the Minister to seriously consider whether to refer Lancashire for a public inquiry to assess whether it is doing the right thing by the 1964 Act.

I do not argue that savings should not be made, nor do I think that the Government should step in and somehow make up the difference to ensure that Lancashire can keep its libraries open, but I wonder why libraries always seem to be such a soft target for councils of all persuasions that are making rapid spending reductions. I would argue that Lancashire in particular has failed in its duties to provide a comprehensive and fair library service for all our residents. The Minister has a chance to influence Lancashire’s decision making during the consultation period. I urge him to make it clear that what it is currently proposing is wholly unacceptable and that it is in on the wrong path—that it risks sharing the fate of Wirral, which was forced to go back to the drawing board.

In summary, I hope the Minister has clearly heard the views of my constituents as I have expressed them today. Those views will be replicated not just in my part of Lancashire, but across the county as a whole. I hope he can respond to my specific queries and emphasise to Lancashire that it is on the wrong track and ask them to think again please.

I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and to appear in front of you, Ms Dorries, the Chair of this important debate. You are an extremely distinguished and best-selling author, and I gather that “The Angels of Lovely Lane”, the latest novel in the award-winning series that you have produced, is about to be—or has just been—published. It is certainly available to pre-order on Amazon. I just wanted to get that on the record because, obviously, libraries are about books—but, as my hon. Friend pointed out in his very eloquent speech, libraries are about a lot more as well. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on putting the case for libraries so strongly. Although he is obviously here to defend the libraries in his constituency and local area, a lot of what he said stands for libraries all over England as well.

I am the libraries Minister responsible for England—it is important to note that libraries are a devolved matter as far as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are concerned. I am lucky enough to have been the libraries Minister for some six years, and indeed to have been the shadow spokesman for the four years before that, so I am pretty familiar with most of the issues and I remember the Wirral inquiry well. Indeed, it was me who called on the then Secretary of State to call that inquiry. I asked him to call it because at the time—I agree with my hon. Friend—there had been no proper investigation of the library service. Wirral Council had effectively taken a survey of its buildings and decided which it should close, but it had not actually taken a survey of its library service and how that could be most effectively delivered.

Of course it is perfectly appropriate for councils to look hard at their library services. It is perfectly appropriate for them, in difficult economic circumstances, to look hard at all the services that they deliver to see whether they could be delivered more efficiently. In fact, across the country there are many examples of library services that are being innovative. For example in Suffolk, where library services have become an industrial and provident society, libraries are remaining open, they are more innovative, their opening hours are longer and they are more popular. The head of the library service in Devon, Ciara Eastell, who has recently retired as the head of the Society of Chief Librarians and has done a fantastic job in that post, recently presided over the move by Devon libraries into a mutual organisation.

Libraries have a bright future and I will always take the opportunity to talk about the success of the library service. Too often, as my hon. Friend pointed out, libraries seem to be at the back of the queue for many local authorities. Also, paradoxically, many of the people who claim to have libraries at their hearts and to see them as important spend their entire time doing down the library service and claiming that it is on the point of collapse and in crisis. Indeed, when I asked the then Secretary of State to call his inquiry into the Wirral library service, I made the point—as I have ever since—that at no point as the Opposition spokesman did I ever accuse the library service as a whole of being in crisis. I was quite happy to call out particularly egregious examples of local authority behaviour but I did not believe then, and I do not believe now, that the library service is in crisis. It is having to modernise.

We take library closures as an indication of the health of the library service and I bat figures between myself, library campaigners and, I am afraid, the BBC, which has not been as accurate as it could have been about the number of library closures. It is always difficult to have an accurate figure. That might sound surprising; most people would look at a library and say that they know what a library looks like, but people can have different interpretations of the definition of a library. As far as we are aware in the Department, just over 100 libraries have closed their doors and some 200 libraries are open but managed by the local community and volunteers. There are still 3,000 libraries in England that can count as part of the statutory service. Some £700 million is spent a year for libraries to provide the great service that they do to my constituents, my hon. Friend’s constituents and others.

My hon. Friend was quite right to point out his concerns about what is happening in Lancashire. As he also pointed out by mentioning the £15 million that Lancashire had discovered, councils are not all-seeing and all-dancing, and it is possible for them to make different decisions. However, it is also important to remind ourselves that libraries are funded by councils and run by councils. Central Government have never run the library service and have never funded the library service, but they do have the backstop of the statutory duty.

I want to look briefly at what is happening in Lancashire. I am afraid it has seen a decline in the number of visits. I gather that visits have fallen by a fifth, and the number of active book borrowers by around a quarter. I also understand that the two libraries in my hon. Friend’s constituency have experienced a significant decline over the same period—in visits by about a third, and in active borrowers by just over a quarter.

The council has undertaken two consultations this year on the future of the library service. The first was undertaken in January. The council consulted on possible budget savings for the next five years, and one of the options included a rather dramatic proposal to reduce the number of libraries from 74 to 34. The 40 that were due to come out of the council service would either be closed or run by local communities. Just as an indication of how popular and important to the local community libraries are, I point out that that consultation drew more than 10,000 responses. The council then considered the responses and is now undertaking a further 12-week consultation. That consultation is under way and, as I understand it, is due to end in mid-August. The proposals have changed slightly. Instead of only 34 libraries, the council now proposes 44 libraries: 37 fully staffed and resourced and an additional seven that would not be staffed but would have all the facilities of a council library, including self-service counters and the opportunity to reserve and return books. There would also be six mobile library vehicles, a home library service and the virtual library service.

The council is aware that there is interest from the community in taking on the responsibility for buildings or taking over the running of the parts of the service that the county council will not maintain, and it has invited expressions of interest. I understand that no final decision will be made on any of the proposals until the council’s cabinet has had the opportunity fully to consider and evaluate all the information gathered.

Does the Minister agree that it is vital that Lancashire talks to borough councils such as Wyre about its plans for the libraries if it is, as it says, open to new ideas?

I certainly agree with that. If the county council were not engaging properly with borough councils, I would find that extremely surprising and it would cause me significant concern. It is very important that county councils get out of their silos and talk to the local borough councils. Indeed, one of my hobby-horses is that councils should talk to their neighbouring councils, so the county council should talk to other councils outside Lancashire as well. There is a way councils can keep libraries open while reducing the back-office costs, the administrative costs, of libraries, and that is by sharing services. In fact, in west London, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham in effect merged the administration of their library service. That not only saved them £1 million a year in administration costs, but enabled them to open a library. The Conservative authority Windsor is also opening libraries because it runs its service so efficiently. It is possible to open libraries even in a difficult economic climate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that it is difficult for me to intervene while the consultation is still going on. There is some debate about my capacity or rather my willingness to intervene. In fact, this is the first Administration that has routinely looked at every single proposal from every council to close libraries. My officials investigate every proposal before them and test it against the 1964 Act, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and the duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service before deciding whether to intervene. Again, it may sound paradoxical, but sometimes councils may decide to close a library in order to run a more efficient service.

The first case that I had as the libraries Minister was Brent. On a political level, that was an open goal: it was a Labour council proposing to close six of its 12 libraries. However, when that was looked at in some detail by my officials, it was clear that the council should have been thinking about the future of its libraries some five or 10 years ago, but obviously the political hot potato that is a library prevented that council from making decisions that actually might have ended up meaning that it ran a better, more efficient library service, able to provide better services to more people, with more opening hours. Those are the kinds of decision that we have to weigh up, and we have to respect as well the role that local councils play in running a local service, but that does not mean that my hon. Friend is not perfectly entitled, and rightly so, to put the alternative case and to put it as forcefully as he has done in this place today.

In the minutes left to me, I want to say a few words about the national picture. I have made it clear that although Ministers do not run libraries and we do not fund libraries from a central Government fund, we have the backstop of the statutory library service. We have gone a lot further than that, however. Early on after the 2010 general election, we moved responsibility for libraries to the Arts Council, to a bigger organisation, joining up libraries with cultural provision, which was long overdue. The Arts Council had a £6 million fund to support culture in libraries, which has been very effective. Just before the 2015 election, we set up the leadership for libraries taskforce. At national level, that brings together key stakeholders—for example, the Local Government Association, the Society of Chief Librarians and my Department—and they work very hard to spread libraries’ best practice.

My hon. Friend asked what help Lancashire’s library service could get, should it choose to seek it, from central Government. One thing it could do is engage with the leadership for libraries taskforce. We have consulted on a draft vision, called “Libraries Deliver”, and we intend to publish the final document quite shortly. That will contain examples of best practice and of what innovation different library authorities can bring to bear in order to provide a more effective library service.

We have also been more practical still. For example, we spent some £2 million or £3 million ensuring that every library in England had wi-fi. It may surprise hon. Members to know that in a digital age—if one is looking for reasons to visit a library, surely one reason is the opportunity to access wi-fi and therefore do one’s homework or do some research on one’s tablet—more than 1,000 libraries in England did not have wi-fi. Now, thanks to us, they do.

We have published two best practice toolkits for libraries. We have brought co-ordination and focus to promote National Libraries Day—the one day in the year, in February, when we can talk about how important libraries are. We have invested in the enterprising libraries programme with the British Library. That allows key city libraries to work as hubs for entrepreneurs, updating the value that libraries bring to their communities.

On every level, we have tried to promote innovation in libraries; and the Society of Chief Librarians, for example, has promoted the value of books and reading not just in and of itself and for literature, but of course for health and wellbeing and a variety of other aspects. In an age when the summer reading challenge, for example, reaches more children than ever before, we see the library service evolving.

I for one think that the library service has an exciting future. I hear my hon. Friend’s perfectly legitimate and well-put concerns about the future of Lancashire libraries. I join him in urging Lancashire County Council, during this consultation, to think imaginatively, to look at new models of delivery that have been implemented elsewhere, to listen carefully to what he has said about the more efficient use of existing resources, to understand the passion and enthusiasm that the local people feel for their library service and to engage with the leadership for libraries taskforce about what opportunities there might be to learn from best practice elsewhere. As with every proposal to close libraries, we will keep this proposal under review, and if appropriate, we will act.