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Enfield Council is to start looking for suitable partners to take over the majority of the borough's libraries.  These libraries would become "community libraries", offering a restricted range of library services, and would be co-located with other types of service provided by the chosen partners.  However, despite the use of "community" in the designation, a recent document suggests that chosen partners might include the commercial sector..

The libraries affected include Winchmore Hill, Southgate Circus, Oakwood, Ridge Avenue and Bowes Road.  Palmers Green Library would, however, be among those retained, becoming a "Flagship Library".

Potential partners

The proposals for the future of Enfield's 17 libraries are contained in a document prepared by the Director of Finances, Resources and Customer Services, which was considered by the Council in late March.  The document seeks the go-ahead to begin exploratory non-binding discussions with potential partners who would host the community libraries.

Public consultation - two options

The proposals draw on the results of a public consultation which ran from November to February.  Members of the public were asked to choose between two options.  Under Option 1 the Council would retain only four large libraries - Enfield Town, Edmonton Green, Palmers Green and Ordnance Road - as "flagship libraries" with extended opening hours and improved services, all others becoming "community libraries".  Option 2 would be a modified version of the proposal:  two more libraries - Oakwood and Ponders End - would be retained, but not upgraded to "flagship" status, and to compensate for the cost of these libraries the opening hours of the flagship libraries would be shorter than under Option 1.

Both options would involve the replacement of many professional librarians by unpaid volunteers.  They would also discontinue the mobile library service, replacing it with delivery of books to people's homes (using volunteers) and the introduction of "pop-up" libraries.

For more details of the proposals that were put out for consultation, see our report from November 2014 and the Council website.

Commercial sector

When referring to potential partners who would host community libraries, the original consultation document uses the following wordings: 

  • "community-based organisations"
  • "other services or voluntary groups"
  • "community groups or alternative services".

These would be organisations that had

"a purpose and ethos that is sympathetic to the core library vision and the Council’s aims of fairness for all, growth and sustainability and strong communities."

However, the recent document introduces the idea of using "commercial sector" (ie for-profit) partners:

"The Council will seek expressions of interest from a wide range of organisations with the aim of encouraging interest from a broad range of community, statutory, voluntary and commercial sector partners. Each site will also be assessed for its location, structure and local needs as the model of a community library may vary across the borough."

Responses to the consultation

The recent document reveals that there were more than 2000 responses to the consultation and states that 62 per cent of respondees were happy with the principle of community libraries and co-location with other services, providing that the partners were acceptable.  Only 18 per cent were opposed.

Curiously, the document does not state which of the options was favoured by the respondees or provide any more information about the responses. In any case, the responses are unlikely to include views on the suitability or otherwise of private sector companies as community library hosts, since this possibility was not mentioned in the consultation document.

A freedom of information act request to see the responses was submitted in February and should have been answered within 20 working days.  However, at the time of writing it appears that the answer has not been provided, meaning that Enfield Council are in breach of the act.

Opposition

The library changes are presented as an attempt to "reinvigorate" and "deliver a broader and deeper range of core library services", and no doubt will do so in certain respects, mainly benefiting users of the flagship libraries, though imaginative pairing of library and other services in community hubs could also yield benefits.  However, it is clear that the main driver is the need to make substantial savings to the Council budget in response to swingeing reductions in money provided by central government.  There are obvious downsides:  smaller holdings of books in the community libraries, the withdrawal of the mobile library service and redundancies of professional librarians and their replacement by volunteers.

Public opposition to the scheme includes a petition which has been organised by a 14-year-old schoolgirl and the charge by the Enfield Alliance Against the Cuts that the changes will have the greatest negative impact upon people who are already disadvantaged.

If private sector businesses are selected as partners, that will also raise difficult questions about how unpaid volunteers will fit into businesses which are making a profit from services provided on behalf of the council.  There is already growing concern in some quarters about the use of the voluntary and community sector to provide central and local government services and the pressure on the sector to adopt commercial relationships, which was the subject of a national enquiry into the future of voluntary services carried out by the National Coalition for Independent Action

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