Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Suffolk to divest itself of its libraries... sort of...

Today's announcement that Suffolk County Council will transfer all of its library service into the care of a newly created Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) is merely the latest stage in the efforts of local Conservatives to wriggle off of the hook created by them when they announced plans to slash and burn the county's libraries under the leadership of the late and rather unlamented Jeremy Pembroke.

Whilst the devil is in the detail (as so much is with Suffolk County Council), the numbers are interesting. The IPS will cost about £600,000 to set up, but will save about £2.5 million per year, without having to close a single library.

Now, there is a catch. The savings include those gleaned from cutting management tiers and central staffing costs, which sounds good. However, what that means is that, for example, the apparent cost of running Needham Market library included a chunk of the Chief Executive's salary. I would argue that this is entirely legitimate, but if you take the service out of the hands of the Council, you don't need such things. So, if a volunteer group want to run it, a la 'Big Society', a huge saving is generated quite easily. Of course, this means that the remaining county-run services look even less cost effective, unless you ditch, or transfer, all of the staff costs that were assigned, a task which becomes more difficult as economies of scale are lost.

Another issue is the aim that local library organisations will be expected to find 5% of the running costs, £100,000 in total, and it is proposed that they do this through fundraising, membership schemes and income generation (whatever that means precisely). This might not be easy, and I wouldn't be surprised to see local businesses tapped up for sponsorship, potentially displacing other recipients.

The Portfolio Holder for Libraries, Cllr. Judy Terry, is predictably delighted, saying that, “We want to free the library service from unnecessary council bureaucracy so that it can thrive and move with the times. Giving people a genuine say over how their library is run is also important and this model does exactly that."

I would be tempted to ask Cllr. Terry what she now has to do, given that she won't have any direct responsibility for the libraries, and, as Portfolio Holder for 'the Greenest County', she has divested all of the county's nature reserves and country parks. However, as I wasn't wildly impressed by her on the occasion that we met, perhaps the less responsibility she has, the better.

Meanwhile, the proposal to take an axe to the mobile library service is likely to be approved in the coming weeks, halving the frequency of visits, and cutting out those stops where there is a 'real' library within the community. Yes, it will save another £200,000 or so, but as far as a village like mine is concerned, it's just another link between villagers and their county council broken. Ah well, at least the council tax will be frozen...

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