The Endeavour House Meeting

Today Suffolk Library campaigners from Stradbroke, Leiston, Bungay and Debenham attended a meeting at Endeavour House to discuss the library consultation process and the future of Suffolk Libraries. Suffolk County Council fielded no less that 12 people led by Cllr Judy Terry, Cabinet Lead and officers Guenever Pachent and Anna McCreadie.

Suffolk's Head of Communications Simon Higgins was also at the meeting which started quite badly when the first thing he said to us (rather than welcoming us as guests) was to tell us no filming and recording would be permitted at the meeting and then to react very badly when it was decided to re-arrange the room layout which had been laid out like a classroom into a more meeting-like layout. We (and this included a County Councillor) had just assumed it was laid out from the last meeting and re-arranged it....

So the meeting started and there were the usual introductions and we all said what we wanted to get out of the meeting. I am not going to detail every part of the discussion but summarise the main points as I saw them.
  • Suffolk CC admitted that their overall budget cuts are around 19.6% over the next three years but made it quite clear that they would not even discuss the reasons or any prospect of changing the 30% cuts proposed for libraries. As far as they are concerned it is a "done deal".
  • We heard time and time again that this is just a consultation and interestingly (and this is either a change or something I have missed) that there will be further consultations before any libraries would be closed or contracted out.
  • Suffolk tried to close down any discussions in flaws with the consultation process but did admit that it could have been better handled. They would not accept the case to re-run the consultations as a result but did agree that there was a need to do a further needs assessment and provide additional information to prospective community library groups.
  • Suffolk admitted the distinction between "county" and "community" libraries does not really work and they have effectively already abandoned it except for Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury. Whilst this is welcome it does mean that the proposed "county" libraries are under more threat than they might have thought.
  • Suffolk stated they did not expect to employ any library staff directly once the divestment process ended
  • There was an interesting discussion about divestment with several groups saying that they favored a complete handover of budget and service (like the academy model for schools) if libraries were to be run locally. Any services needed from the County could then be bough back by the local group that would have an agreed budget from the County. "Give us the money and we will run the service" was the point.
  • Suffolk stated that they started the consultation believing that the proposed County Libraries would be enough to satisfy their legal obligations under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. They seem less sure now and wanting to watch the judicial review pending and I think they are aware that the consultation process so far wold not stand up to scrutiny. However they have now said there will be more consultation and we will hold them to this!
  • Suffolk claimed to be genuinely surprised at the strength of feeling and how much people love their libraries. The point was made that if they had read their own surveys and listened to their own staff they would have known this.
  • We made the point that most people we have spoken to still think that Suffolk should run libraries but they continue to say this is not an option and that we should effectively give up trying. The point was made that this was said about forests....
  • It was suggested that Suffolk pilot the community library idea with a number of interested groups to see how well the model worked and his idea seemed to get general acceptance around the table on all sides.
The meeting was certainly interesting! Suffolk still seem to be at the stage that they are trying to control everything and seem ill at ease dealing with the campaigners who also all had another hat on as potential community library managers. I think they were trying a bit of divide and rule and were perhaps surprised that those protesting and those suggesting community library models were saying similar things and wearing both hats.

On a personal level I don't think I am the most popular person at Endeavour House. Cllr Judy Terry at one point accused me of:
pursuing a political agenda and not having an interest in any particular library
Ann Kerr, Chairman of Stradbroke Parish Council had to point out this was completely untrue and (as anyone with a web browser would be well aware) I have been a leading member of the Save Stradbroke Library campaign. I don't have a political agenda unlike the conservative politician called Cllr Terry!

So it remains to be seen where things go but I think that we have at least opened a dialogue and got a commitment to carry out a better needs assessment and further consultations. I hope we will see a pilot or pilots of community libraries emerge. I think we are all prepared to work with Suffolk County Council but we will keeping a close eye on them and have not ruled anything out if it becomes clear that our libraries are still under threat.

Also well worth reading is Andrew Grant-Adamson's Wordblog Post on the meeting he also attended the meeting and is a campaigner from Debenham
Suffolk County Council 2362268728574204666

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