What next for Croydon libraries?

By - Monday 24th March, 2014

Sean Creighton assesses the future of the borough’s libraries and whether residents should engage with the private contractor Carillion

Image by Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons licence.

On Thursday 13th March I attended a meeting between representatives of Norbury’s resident associations and managers of Carillion’s library operation for Croydon Council.

Following the publicity in the local press about Carillion, the purpose of the meeting was to find out direct from its representatives what plans they have for Croydon’s libraries and Norbury Library in particular. Neil Simpson and Elaine Collier, from its not-for-profit subsidiary CCS which runs the library contract, explained the company’s structure and experience. They evidently have a very experienced team, most of whom have been librarians. Collier has a respected librarianship background.

As reported in the press there have been redundancies – none compulsory, all voluntary. CCS has already spent £50,000 on new book stock and will soon be spending a further £50,000 but want to make sure they buy the right books for the demographics of the library users. It is recruiting for a senior library manager, hopefully from within existing staff. Volunteers will only be used to enhance the service and give added value. They would never replace staff, as a not-for-profit CCS is able to apply for grants and other available funding. They recently procured £45,000 from the Arts Council. The upkeep of the fabric of the buildings remains the responsibility of the council. I came away from the meeting with the impression that Collier and Simpson are committed to seeing real improvements but I am waiting answers to a list of 24 questions I gave them.

Discussing the library service with Carillion may seem a betrayal to some

There will be legitimate areas of disagreement on what improvements are needed, how they should be implemented and timescales. There can be agreement on understanding the needs and interests of residents in each library’s catchment area, to support the staff to become more engaged with the public through advising them, helping them with using the computers, etc, and opening up the buildings to more community uses. 

The idea of discussing the library service with Carillion may seem a betrayal to some. The original plan to close some libraries was defeated by campaigners. The Carillion contract is the new reality for the next few years. The ongoing aim continues to be how to reverse the rundown inherited from the council and improve the service. As the council makes budget cuts over the next few years it may well want to reduce the annual funding to Carillion, thereby forcing it to makecuts. Campaigning will be needed to try and prevent this.

It is only through engagement and detailed monitoring at each library that we can ensure that the service is defended and improved. It would make sense for Carillion to encourage friends groups and engagement by residents associations. These will need to meet together because each library is only part of a wider service. Any problems that are unresolveable through engagement can be reported to the council for it to consider action under the terms of the contract or renegotiating elements of the contract.

The big challenge facing libraries across the country is how to attract a continual flow of users

I have seen the advantages of engagement through my involvement as a historian on the Heritage Wandsworth Partnership. This now meets under the convenorship of the library and heritage service manager (GLL – also not-for-profit). Members include a councillor cabinet member and a senior council officer. While the partnership focuses on the work of the heritage service, general issues of how libraries operate are discussed. Members can also raise issues in between meetings as I am doing at the moment.

The big challenge facing libraries across the country is how to attract a continual flow of users. This can only be done by a proper analysis of the composition of the residents of the catchment area that each library has. In parts of the borough where the population turnover is very high advertising the existence of libraries is difficult, but an email newsletter can be set up. Publicity through residents association printed newsletters and emails can help. But both libraries and associations have a problem with those not on email. While it may seem attractive to reduce the frequency or end the publication of council magazines they are delivered to most households enabling library information to reach all residents.

There are other issues that need discussion:

  • Can opening hours be improved especially for those who return from work after current closing times?
  • Are all the primary schools using their local library and if not, why not?
  • Given the concentration of council services at Bernard Weatherill House can libraries become access points for information about services?
  • Can specialist council officers hold advice surgeries at them?
  • Can libraries become places for greater community use?

Labour leader councillor Tony Newman wants to end the contract if his party takes control of the council in May. This could be very expensive unless Carillion fails key requirements and notches up enough penalties to warrant ending the contract. Staff would have to be TUPEd back to the council, this would ensure the protection of their jobs after the transfer. Issues will have to be resolved as to who owns the new computers and IT system that have been installed, and the new book stock that has been purchased. Transfer back could well cause more chaos to the service and cost a lot more than continuing it with sharper monitoring. 

There is nothing to stop a Labour controlled council negotiating to buy CCS, and turn it into a worker and community mutual

Newman says that Labour “would look to the model of Upper Norwood Library which is community-run but a modern library has to offer more than just the traditional book-lending service.” He cites meeting the needs of the elderly and young people and for childcare. This can of course be done by re-negotiating the current contract.

Given that Carillion runs the library service through its not-for-profit subsidiary, Labour needs to be clear why this is not acceptable if Carillion derives no financial profit. There is nothing to stop a Labour controlled Council negotiating to buy CCS, and turn it into a worker and community mutual.

For some Newman’s suggestion will be another form of privatisation of publicly owned assets, but for those of us who have for several years supported the case for worker and community mutuals running some council services it will be an acceptable way forward. As Labour has not carried out a public consultation on its library ideas, if it does win control it will need to convene a public meeting at each library in association with the Save the Libraries Campaign and residents groups, and then a borough wide meeting to assess the issues and ideas that emerge from those individual meetings.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • http://friendsofoldtownlibrary.co.uk Shirley Burnham

    “Carillion runs the library service through its not-for-profit subsidiary” > That’s odd. What’s in it for them, then?

    • Sean Creighton

      I have no idea what the original motive of Laing was in setting it up. It certainly seems it can apply for funds that a private company could not. Perhaps the two managers mentioned in my piece can provide the answer once they have read my piece – I have drawn it to their attention.

      • http://friendsofoldtownlibrary.co.uk Shirley Burnham

        Perhaps it was set up by JLIS, to attract tax breaks etc – then
        inherited by Carillion ? The phrase “not-for-profit subsidiary” sounds philanthropic, but most likely it ain’t.

        By the way, have *you* seen the contracts? You suggest the public should be vigilant when it comes to monitoring performance, but how is that feasible if they don’t know what was agreed. Will the contracts be published?

        • Sean Creighton

          No I have not seen the contracts. They are not public documents. They are subject to the rules governing ‘commercial confidentiality’ which is something that has to continue to argued against.

          • http://friendsofoldtownlibrary.co.uk Shirley Burnham

            Sounds like a labyrinthine mess. The public don’t know what’s been agreed, so they are scuppered. Machiavelli a particular hero of members in Croydon, is he? He seems to be preferred reading for numerous councils now. #democracyfail

      • Elizabeth

        I take it they have made no attempt to reply to this Sean.

  • Anne Giles

    If a Labour Council bought CCS, then our Council Tax would go up.

    • Sean Creighton

      Not necessarily as it is Council money that is funding the operation anyway. As it is a not-for-profit subsidiary Carillion should not be able to argue that it needs financial compensation. The financial implications would have to be carefully examined before any decision was taken, so if it did require an increase in Council Tax, the idea can be dropped. Is your objection to Council Tax rises based on sharing the view of progressives that it has always been a regressive tax taking more from those on lower incomes than those living in much better off high value properties?

      • Anne Giles

        Why on earth would I want to pay more Council Tax? I am an OAP.

  • Elizabeth

    A spokesperson for a Norbury RA sold out on libraries when the the council wanted to outsource them, and now Norbury act alone again. Croydon library service is a borough wide service. Acting alone helps no one and this post shows that acting alone has resulted in buying into and regurgitating the Carillion spin.

    It’s a little late to raise questions of Carillion on issues that residents and library users have been voicing concerns about now for years. There is no will to improve library services.

    Library hours have been cut, including evening opening hours. You now can’t even get through to a library, even if it is open, after 5pm.

    The outreach work with schools was lost long ago as staff had to scale back activities when so many jobs were lost. They did not even have sufficient resources to liaise with schools re book stock let alone go into schools to promote libraries, Summer Reading Challenge and so on. We went through a period where staffing was so thin that the absence of just one library assistant meant that a library could not open.

    Libraries have always been access points for information. The fact is though that it is harder now to get community information into our libraries as staff change and JLIS and now Carillion put in new structures and procedures, made staff redundant and reshuffled staff so they do not know the community they serve – knowing the community being a point key to delivering services to meet needs, now lost by the actions of Carillion.

    Carillion are not advertising libraries and have no desire to do so. Most residents are completely unaware of the Reading Activists activities being run, using funding from the The Reading Agency, for example, meaning low numbers accessing this valuable scheme aimed at youth 11-19 years. But the funding is still taken and continues to be taken.

    And a giant like Carillion is running library services for love, not money? They derive no financial benefit. Just like the shiny new council offices that Laings built at nil cost, I suppose. Lucky us!

    • Sean Creighton

      Elizabeth.You gave me some detailed comments on an earlier draft of this posting which helped me with the final version. There is no point being critical of a person who is no longer actively involved. Since there has been no co-ordinated Borough-wide initiative to find out what is going on in each library, the Norbury initiative sets an example for users of all the other libraries, leading perhaps to a joint get-together to compare notes and decide on tactics. Some may wish to wait the outcome of the local elections in case there is a change in political control. Perhaps the Croydon Communities Consortium which you chair could hold a special meeting on Libraries after 22 May, inviting Carillion to do a presentation, modelled on the Consortium’s excellent meeting on rubbish.

      • http://friendsofoldtownlibrary.co.uk Shirley Burnham

        I am personally grateful to Elizabeth who, in her leading role with The (national) Library Campaign has ably represented me at numerous conferences etc which I have been unable to attend for personal reasons. But, here, with her Croydon resident’s hat on I do think it is important that she has commented about the situation ‘on the ground’ in Croydon. Very important. I rather doubt, though, that she will want to snuggle up to Carillion, given the deterioration in service that she describes.

        Incidentally, I love “modelled on the Consortium’s excellent meeting on rubbish”. Brings all sorts of images to mind! Best wishes to you both. S

        • Elizabeth

          Thanks for your kind words Shirley.

          The situation in Croydon beggars belief. What seems patently obvious to most is that Carillion will have loved the opportunity to claim to have increased their community engagement through this meeting. It seems there is a core in Norbury who are not interested in engaging with the rest of the borough, yet Save Croydon Libraries Campaign is in touch with Norbury residents who are not being represented locally.

          I did give you comment on your article Sean before it went to print and we accept. I hope, that we do not see eye to eye on many points, but you, like I, very much value libraries and what they provide for all sections of the community.

          You’ve been a great supporter of Croydon Communities Consortium (CCC) Sean. The meeting on Rubbish – the term I prefer, as opposed to the Rubbish meeting ;) – brought a lot of positive feedback and greater understanding of the issues of fly-tipping, refuse and recycling blighting the lives and environments across the borough of Croydon. It offered a platform to share information, highlight issues and give feedback. It also dealt with several issues, such as clarifying foot access to the centre in Factory Lane, which residents had been struggling with for some time, highlighting the existence of schemes such as Freecycle and Freegle, the need for trade waste agreements and so on.

          If you’d like to propose a meeting on Libraries after the local elections, and there is sufficient interest, then that’s exactly what CCC will be happy to do. I’d certainly be all for it.

      • Elizabeth

        Great idea for a public meeting on libraries. I’ve commented in detail on a further comment of Shirley’s, below.

        The point I was trying to make here though is that the service has deteriorated drastically, even before Laing, then Carillion, took over.

        This occurred as communities were divided, left with a consultation that sought to divide communities further by asking that respondents chose which of six libraries to save or close.

        Bear in mind that those who responded came up with all sorts of ideas, ideas that were just ignored by Cllr Bashford and co. Whole swathes of the community were not consulted at all, yet all now have to live with the consequences of outsourcing library services to a firm better known for construction, roads, and their dire reputation as an employer.

        How did this happen? Because the council sought to divide communities? That’s why campaigners and library users came together to form Save Croydon Libraries Campaign, but there are some who seek to work alone. The Council and now Carillion must love it.

        Nobury can hold a meeting, as can Bradmore Green and Sanderstead, but these meetings will achieve little and have little impact unless we pool resources and information and refuse to be fobbed off.

  • Sean Creighton

    Last night’s Council meeting has provided us with information on current staffing levels in the libraries. It looks as if 22.38FTE staff have been shed since
    the Council managed the libraries, either by not being transferred across to
    JLIS or through redundancy or ending contracts since. This figure is calculated
    by totalling up the staff under the Council’s organisational structure of areas
    against the Carillion figures for library based and specialist support staff. The
    Council employed 90.07FTE staff; Carillion 67.69. At last night’s Council
    meeting Tory Cabinet member Tim Pollard started off his answer to a question (CQ264-14) from Labour’s Tim Godfrey by stating: ‘Direct comparison with historical data is not straightforward as new ways of working, such as the roll-out of
    self-service are being introduced; and historical data is based on area
    structure not branch information, as is currently the case.’ The staff in each library
    varies (each figure is for FTE – full time equivalent):
    In former North area (21.72) now: Broad Green 1.69, Norbury 4.94, South Norwood 3.5 and Thornton Heath 4.13; total: 14.26.
    South area (25.38) now: Bradmore Green 1.75, Coulsdon 3.61, New Addington 3, Purley 3.44, Selsdon 4.69, Sanderstead 1.41; total 17.9.
    Central area (42.97) now: Ashburton 3.75, Central 19.2, Shirley 2; total 24.95
    Library based staff are supported by 2 onfrontline duties, 2.88 homework helpers in the libraries underlined above, and 5 librarians who spend time working in libraries every week. ‘Despite the differences in staffing levels,’ adds Pollard, ‘the changes in organisation, for example the extension of self-service approaches means that the service levels have been maintained and improved in some areas such as IT.’

  • Sean Creighton

    I was perhaps over optimistic about the possibility of constructive dialogue with Carilion. As they have not replied to me, even after reminders, I posted an update on my blog:

    Need for more transparency by Croydon Council Part 2 – Carillion and the
    Library Service