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Last night the Labour Cabinet placed Camden libraries on “death watch”.
In a rare glimmer of good news, it was at least confirmed that Queen’s Crescent Library seems to be safe following a huge local campaign which saw the establishment of a new Friends group. But the council plans to wash its hands of much loved Heath, Belsize and Chalk Farm libraries, with Highgate massively chopped down; Camden Town and Regents Park left with very uncertain futures, and opening hours slashed across the board.
This is all despite a massive campaign that saw thousands of petition signatures and dedicated library users marching on the Town Hall. At a special meeting on libraries called by the Liberal Democrats, every single Labour councillor present voted against our motion to keep libraries open, even those who had a library on their patch. So perhaps, sadly, we shouldn’t be that surprised at this final blow this morning. In fact, the true picture is not that far away from council officer’s original plans to scale down to just four libraries, dismissed by Labour as wild rumour at the time.
So, what next for our libraries? The campaign will continue, and rightly so: public pressure has helped save some libraries. It may be some local groups can scrabble to put together a convincing case to run a library on their own.
Most importantly, we have to keep challenging Labour’s assertion that there is no other way. Camden people are savvy enough to see through this spin. There is no law that says councils have to close libraries: indeed every single Liberal Democrat authority, and many Labour ones, have been able to protect their library services. Camden needs to go back to the drawing board and do the same.
With the future of Camden’s libraries hanging in the balance, next week backbench Labour councillors have the chance to vote to keep every local Camden library open.
The maths is simple. Just four Labour councillors would need to vote with all opposition councillors for the motion to pass. Twenty-two Labour councillors have libraries in their wards. If every Labour councillor who has a library in their ward voted for the motion, Camden’s libraries would be saved.
Of course, we do need to make savings, but closing libraries is the lazy and most damaging option. We need to start by getting a firm grip on back room costs and investigating partnerships with other councils or local groups.
When I was growing up, libraries were simply a part of my life. I used to pop in with my Dad on a Saturday morning to choose a new book for the week. When I was a little older, I would sit for hours in the peace and quiet of our local library to do homework. These experiences fostered a love of books and reading that has set me up for life: and this opportunity should be available for the generation of Camden children growing up today.
It’s fair to acknowledge that councillors of all parties have expressed solidarity with those residents who are fighting so hard to save their local library. However, it’s votes in the council chamber that really count. Let’s hope Labour councillors have the courage to vote with their convictions on Monday.
With pressure growing on Labour to protect local library services, the friends of our libraries have organised two events in the next few weeks. 5th February will see a peaceful “sit-in” event at Belsize Library, and on 8th February there will be a public meeting at Hampstead Town Hall.
The Friends of our libraries are absolutely right to be making their point in this way. In fact, the Camden Public Libraries Users Group (CPLUG) was set up as a direct response to Labour’s plans to close libraries the last time they were in power in Camden. With the council having banned petitions or even surveys in libraries, for reasons unfathomable to me, residents are having to shout louder and louder to make their voices heard.
Instead of trying to stifle debate, the council should be encouraging it. We need to work with the community to look at how library services could be delivered differently. More than a third of the libraries budget is currently spent out on back room, central costs – a far higher proportion than in the rest of London. This should be the first place to make savings, rather than reverting to the misguided, knee-jerk solution of boarding up our libraries.
Drop me a line if you’d like more information on the events that are planned.
People who live or work in Belsize Park will be pleased to hear that, after a lot of hard work by local residents and our Liberal Democrat colleagues over the border in Belsize, postal services are set to return to the area.
From 4th October this year, Budgens on Haverstock Hill will be home to a 12-month trial of the ‘Post Office Essentials’ service, which provides most post office services. People who work will be particularly pleased to know that it will be open until 11pm Monday to Saturday and also on Sunday afternoon, so people will be able to access postal services outside of the standard opening times for most post offices.
The last Labour government closed post offices on Haverstock Hill, England’s Lane, South End Green and Belsize Village. We collected hundreds of signatures to make sure the government kept their hands off the branch in Queen’s Crescent. Meanwhile, Camden Liberal Democrats promised not to give up working to bring a post office back to Belsize.
It has taken a while, but thanks in a very large way to local residents and to Andrew Thornton, the community minded owner of Budgens, we have got there. Hopefully the trial will be successful and similar schemes can be opened in other areas that have suffered from post office closures.