Wrexham Councillors met today to discuss a report into the future provisions of the local library services and associated cost savings required.
The meeting was observed by Denbighshire County Council and the Welsh Audit Office who were conducting peer reviews into Wrexham’s scrutiny processes.
All the proposals (Table 1 in Appendix 1 of this report – PDF) aside from the library closures (Items 9, 10 and 12) were put forward as recommendations by the Scrutiny Committee.
A further addition was created by the Council today, proposed by Cllr Alun Jenkins, to ‘not accept the principle of closures, unless a more cost effective facility can be found’. The basis of this idea being that if a library was to close it would only be if another suitable, more cost effective method could be found to provide the service. Although not referred to in the resolution Mr Jenkins did specify he did not see mobile library services as an acceptable alternative.
Councillor Hugh Jones, Lead Member for Communities, Partnerships and Collaboration, presented the report to the Homes, Environment & Communities Scrutiny Committee initially paying tribute to members and officers for the current achievements of the library services. Mr Jones said “A lot of hard work and effort has got us to this point.”
Regarding budgets he pointed out that although ‘investment has clearly resulted in the increase of usage’ (…) “The reality is central funds are diminishing.” He went on to give an overview of the report saying that it was not just concerned with current issues but ‘the changing face of libraries with ebooks and use of computers in the 21st century presents challenges to providing a library service’.
The role for members was outlined, with Mr Jones pointing out there were a number of options before posing a question to the group: “What do you believe is the right level of service?”
“There are some very very tough decisions that have to be made.”
“Collectively we have to make a decision to say where our priorities lie. If you think there are other ways to deliver the service then now is the time to say so.”
“We can have a series of meetings where we talk about the great things that occur. There is no disagreement in the room these are valued services. The question is we have to make £34,000,000 of savings and if not here, where do we make them?”
A general theme of the meeting was the broad support for current service provision however a lack of will to implement cuts. Mr Jones addressed these saying “We need to listen but at some point there has to be a decision that is recommended to the Executive Board”.
Cllr Arfon Jones was first to speak, pointing out that alongside library closures there are cutbacks to transport provision, therefore people being pointed to other libraries may not be able to actually get there.
Cllr Hugh Jones replied “There is no intention of closing libraries, so there is no need to start those alarm bells ringing.” He went on to pose the question to members if an enhanced mobile library could ‘fill the gap’, and that any such transport issues would also impact other community assets.
Cllr Alan Edwards pointed out that “We expect more people to use the internet, that is essential, we assume everyone has a computer at home and have money for it. To me giving people access to computers is a high priority.” Cllr Jones agreed, “computers are a facility that attracts people to use libraries.”
Cllr Derek Wright followed the IT based topic later in the debate, asking if the report was produced before or after the new Welfare Reform Act as a cornerstone of that is the use of internet based services to interact with services. Cllr Jones said “the report indicates the dates and sequences” (…) “it was done in full knowledge of the reform act”.
He went on to say “There is a danger we will go through the list and say everything is important. If it was ideal situation we would keep building up the library service, what we have to do is choose between good things.”
Cllr John Pritchard observed “If anything closes pressure increases on mobile libraries, however the report says they would make less stops, so some communities will be affected regardless.”
The debate continued in the same manner, prompting Cllr Hugh Jones to say “There are a number of options, we want today a view from the members that we can best follow. We are not in a position today to say ‘this is the answer’, we want your views on the range of options, or, any other options that are not in the report.”
Cllr Alun Jenkins adopted a straightforward approach, remarking “the value of libraries goes without saying. To me there is one principle we should not accept, and that is of closure.”
Speaking on the figures presented in the report his view was that the libraries were taking a ‘bigger and earlier hit’ than other areas. Mr Jenkins referred to the report as ‘the worst case scenario’, and ‘there may not be a need for the proposals here’.
“I would not want to go along with the closure of any library in any village. Once its gone its gone, virtually forever. We need to be very cautious on any closures.”
“The key to this is in the asset review and the share of facilities.”
“What worries me is this is a quick fix, the whole of it in one year, whereas in the council as a whole its a gradual process over five years.”
Mr Jenkins went on to propose the wording for the principle the committee later adopted regarding not supporting Library closures.
Other information emerged during the meeting regarding issues faced by library services on ebook provision and the problem Amazon creates by their near monopoly on the formats with it being said “If we find a way of dealing with amazon we will be able to provide a better service”.
Cost savings involving partners already exist, however it was pointed out that with Glyndwr University and Yale College there can be ‘the same books on similar shelves inside half a mile of each other’ so further options will be explored.
Members Encourage To Debate Not Tweet
Wrexham.com was tweeting from the meeting, after the Chair gave permission. Prior to the Library debate the Chair asked if there were any objections, as he was “happy to allow the use of social media”. The Chair did ask members of the committee not to tweet, although did not ban it, saying he would prefer them to partake in the debate rather than tweeting, adding “If I know you are doing it I will be indifferent to involving you in the debate!”.