December 9, 2013 12.12 pm This story is over 118 months old

Lincolnshire libraries decision: Foul or fair?

False savings? County Councillor Stephen Palmer argues the decision to hand over to volunteers two thirds of county libraries will not create savings for the council for several years.

Has the County Council really made a good and balanced decision on behalf of the people of Lincolnshire over the way the library service is shaped for the future?

At the executive on December 3, a decision was made to change the look of the library service forever in Lincolnshire, resolving to accept the proposal that would see 30 community libraries, called tier 3 libraries, run by volunteers, but as a result making over one hundred people redundant.

Putting the issue of over one hundred Lincolnshire people being told their jobs have gone just before Christmas aside for the moment, the real question is has the result of this decision made on the presumption that it will save money from the budget really achieve this?

The aim all along, we were told, was to achieve the budget cut of approximately £2 million, and this was hammered home in all council press releases made during the consultation period. Various councillors, including the leader of the council Cllr Martin Hill and the executive portfolio holder Cllr Nick Worth, stated this over and over again.

The decision made on December 3 strangely did not achieve this much lauded figure, falling short by several hundred thousand pounds a year at £1.7 million.

It seems that in desperation to hive off the 30 libraries to volunteers, the executive have moved the goal posts and changed the game, as well as swallowing a lowering of the budget savings that had seemed so important in the lead up to this decision.

They have not yet said how the budget shortfall will be covered. It has to be said that if it was just the two to three hundred thousand a year that would not be unrecoverable, but what if it gets far, far worse?

Desperate to follow this volunteer model, the executive decision on recommendation of the senior officers in the Library Service can be shown to be costing the council a lot more both in monetary and people’s faith in the elected process.

Savings? What savings?

It has already been stated that the budget cut has missed the mark but further to this because not all libraries have volunteers ready to take over, the period has been extended for expressions of interest for a longer time.

This has had a knock on costs. It is estimated it will cost the council a further £1 million in the year 14/15, as the council keeps the 30 libraries open for a stated 60% manning time during the year 2014.

Then there is the cost of making staff redundant. Apart from doing this, even though shown it would not have to be done if a rival proposition had been taken up, it is estimated that the redundancy costs are up to £1.45 million.

Part of the transferring of libraries to volunteers is the offer of a one off grant to assist the start up of £15,000 per group.

The council have proudly announced that their target is to have 40 volunteer libraries, 10 more than the current provision. The down side is the exposure to risk of £15,000 times 40 libraries, equalling another £600,000 of expenditure.

It does not stop here, it has stated in the report to scrutiny on this proposal that £332,000 needs to be spent on the management system to allow it to be separated from the council data so volunteers can not access data they are not allowed to see.

Extra training and support for volunteers is reported to be in the region of £250,000 but it is unclear if this is a one-off cost or an ongoing annual cost. Even if a one-off, it still weighs on the savings that are supposed to be met by this change.

The consequences

The human consequences are just as important as the financial effects of making over 100 people redundant and the possible cost to the country, county and personal misery of the staff involved.

Politically, there is a growing disconnect with the electors, disbelief in consultations and growing feeling among electors that the County Council is flawed by allowing a system that governs in effect by nine councillors out of the 77 elected, and by doing so do not allow their councillors to vote on issues, unless you happen to be in an area where you are represented by one of the nine.

Of course, if the decision has made the savings, then this could possibly be reasoned to be ok, however it has not. The costs of missing the budget cut targets, the redundancies and other considerations mentioned above added up come to a staggering £3,632,000 and actually mean that the council could not break even until 2017/18 and then only start to save any money from that point on.

So why was the decision made? They could have explored further another proposal that seemed to save the full budget requirement and delivered on time, but that proposal would have kept the libraries in professional hands and in the fold of the County Council.

So why was this not wanted? The only thing the executive latched onto in opposition to this proposal was that it involved a charge to use the internet, however the proposal was only asking 50p, and most people would not have been put off by this modest charge. On top of that though there was a provision to provide free concessions to those in need, such as job seekers etc.

Could it be that the reason was political, pure and simple, and a done deal? One possible reason would be it will be easier to privatise or commission the running of the library service if it was slimmed down to 15 larger libraries in the larger communities and make them more interesting with more opportunities to make them pay by an outside body.

The one thing that has come out of this is the clear unarguable fact that the proposal accepted has not met the stated aims of the council.

It failed to meet the target of £1.93 million budget cut. It failed to be done on schedule. It will not save the council budget for libraries for several years. In fact, if the library service had been left alone, it would have been cheaper for the people of Lincolnshire for another three years.

An ex RAF aircraft engineer and ex businessman, Stephen Palmer became interested in local government late in life at 56 in 2011, when he was elected to Mablethorpe and Sutton Town Council. He was elected to East Lindsey District Council as member for Sutton on Sea North in 2012 at a bi-election in October. He stood for County Council in May 2013 as a Lincolnshire Independent and was returned as member for the Alford and Sutton on Sea.