What You Can Get Away With » libraries

For what sins committed in a previous life have we found ourselves inflicted with Eric Pickles in this one? I’ve written many times about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, each time sure that he’s reached a new nadir, that he can go no lower, and then every time he confounds expectations to find an even lower common denominator. Indeed, so bad has be been at DCLG that he makes councillors I’ve met from all parties positively wistful for the days of Hazel Blears.

One of the main problems I have with Pickles’ reign at the DCLG is the centralist localism he’s continually prescribed. The paradox in that description is intentional – Pickles et al talk about a new age of localism for local councils, but it only means that you’re free to decide locally which shade of his policy you wish to implement. It’s a ruse to try and get councils to take the blame for centrally-imposed funding cuts that will reduce services to the bone. See for instance, the Barnet Graph of Doom, or Birmingham’s Jaws of Doom for a view of how perilous the situation is. As council leaders are warning today, things are dire, and a further 2% cut could be catastrophic.

In this light, the fact that Pickles could find £250m from his budget to pay for councils to keep weekly bin collections does seem an odd priority. (Full disclosure: Colchester Borough Council is receiving money from this fund) It’s right that MPs question this – as Tristram Hunt did in the House of Commons on Monday. Their exchange is worth recording:

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): In towns and cities across England, local authorities are being forced to close museums, shut care homes and end library provision, but the Government found £250 million to empty the bins more regularly. What kind of abysmal, philistine, reactionary Government put dustbins above library books?

Mr Pickles: The people who are putting dustbins above those things are people who care about the general service provided to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a luvvie, so no doubt he is looking intensely at the drop in culture, but that is a matter for local decision, and he is wholly wrong. People should look at how an authority can get more money in by exploiting and using its cultural heritage. Frankly, he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies. He should listen a little bit more.

There we have it – bin collections are part of ‘the general service provided to the electorate’ but libraries and culture are just something for ‘a bunch of luvvies’. That’s the Pickles view of the world, where weekly bin collections are sacrosant, but the work of libraries is irrelevant. Who needs culture when you can have a black plastic sack instead?

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Still no details of the consultation, but Essex County Council have now published the papers for their next Cabinet meeting which will discuss reduced hours of opening for libraries and other cuts (pdf file) – including 21 staff – to save nearly £2m a year from the libraries budget.

A further paper indicates how many hours will be cut from each library. Of local interest:

Colchester Central Library: Currently open for 67.5 hours a week, will reduce to 59 (a reduction of 8.5)
Greenstead Library: Currently 38, reducing to 34 (reduction of 4)
Prettygate: Currently 47, reducing to 34 (reduction of 13)
Stanway: Remains at 16 hours per week
West Mersea: Remains at 23 hours per week
Wivenhoe: Remains at 19 hours per week

As far as I can see, there’s been no consultation on these reductions and the consultation that will take place will be entirely on how you want these reductions in opening hours to take place, not whether you want them to happen at all.

I’m off to find out more, but please let me know what you think about these reductions using the comments.

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I was in Colchester Library this afternoon picking up some books and noticed a poster there from the County Council about a forthcoming consultation about reducing the opening hours of libraries to make budget savings. No real details on what’s being proposed or consulted on, but the consultation’s apparently not starting until February 14th – no details yet on the Essex Libraries website or the County’s consultation portal, though.

I’m asking around to see if I can get some more information, but for now I thought I’d put it up here to see if anyone out there knows anything about it that they want to share.