Not the end of the story for Birmingham libraries

By on 17/12/2014 in Blog, Budget Views, Cllr Holbrook

Cabinet Member for Skills, Learning and Culture, Cllr Penny Holbrook, reflects on one of the big talking points from the ongoing BrumBudget15 consultation.

Since the budget white paper was published on 10 December, there’s inevitably been a lot of focus on the Library of Birmingham. I completely understand that and wanted to explain the situation we sadly find ourselves in.

We are proposing to reduce:

  • the number of staff and services at the Library of Birmingham
  • the opening hours from 73 to 40

Some people have looked at the proposals in the budget white paper and suggested the Library of Birmingham was a waste of time and money but I disagree. It’s a world-class, gold standard library and the staff do a brilliant job. The ambition was fantastic and I don’t think we can describe that as a huge waste of money.

What we can say is that the decisions taken previously, under a different administration, decisions that saddle us with a huge amount of debt for the building were less than advisable. If we were making those decisions today – with the financial challenges we now face – we may well make very different choices.

But we are where we are and we need to be honest about the fact that we can’t afford to continue to do everything that we have done as a council, no matter how much we want to. Therefore the choices we make about what we do next have to be about access to services for the biggest number of people in the city, where those services are needed the most.

We can be really clear that the cuts to the Library of Birmingham are devastating – not least for the staff and the people who are closest to the library. But we are not closing the library.

That said, we’re past the days of ‘if you can’t deliver the best, don’t deliver anything at all’. We are going to deliver a good library service. The problem we have is that we cannot continue to fund services that are as expensive as the Library of Birmingham was designed to be. We cannot continue to have parts of the council that are untouchable.

So what does the future look like for the Library of Birmingham? While there’s not a lot of wiggle room, this is a consultation. We’re looking to reduce to 40 opening hours a week. What we don’t know at this stage is the exact detail of what that will look like.

We’ll look at usage figures. We’ll look at the times that people use the library the most and we’ll look at the fairest spread of those hours in terms of people being able to use the services that they need. Whatever the opening hours end up being, they will reflect the best fit for when people need to use the library.

It’s also important to remember that library services in Birmingham are about more than just the Library of Birmingham. One service that many of our residents value the most is community libraries. Some of our poorest residents rely on these community libraries, so, if we think about that in the context of this budget, we cannot protect one fantastic library at the cost of the others.

When we think about the jobs and skills conversation that we’ve had as part of this consultation, one of the reasons why some of the poorest communities struggle to access those jobs is because of literacy and numeracy levels. So clearly when we are making choices about services and libraries, we have to think about where they’re needed the most and who they serve the most.

The other thing to remember about community libraries is that they sit within our district structure currently. So, although we know there will have to be some cuts to community libraries, we have to have that conversation, led by local councillors in districts with their local communities.

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