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Suffolk Libraries Consultation “The only thing that was clear was the lack of clarity,”

Theo Clarke, Chantry and Stoke (Ipswich)  
Library Manager
Suffolk County Council's Scrutiny Committee heard evidence from Theo Clarke, Manager of Chantry and Stoke Libraries in Ipswich about the effect of the library consultation on Suffolk's library staff. He explained that staff had been reduced to tears on occasion.
“We heard one day the libraries were closing, the next they were saved, and then that they were threatened again.
The only thing that was clear was the lack of clarity"
Later a County Council spokesperson told the EADT:

“Our directors have an open door policy, especially when it comes to important matters involving staff. 
“We are therefore very surprised that the manager in question has not used the opportunity to raise any issues until now. We want our staff to be part of the work we’re doing to build a library service fit for the future.’’

However library staff that have spoken to me over the past six months have said much the same as Theo and after his comments all staff I spoke to strongly supported what he said. Many staff are still afraid to speak out in public for fear of the consequences and praised Theo for speaking up for them.

At the start of the meeting it became clear that discussion of flaws in the consultation process would be discouraged which was disappointing to campaigners and members of the public who had come to raise such concerns. However in fact the meeting did end up discussing the consultation.

There were common themes in evidence given by the 5 people (including myself) asked to give evidence and from the public gallery in a meeting very well chaired by Colin Hart the new Scrutiny Chairman. He gave a fair opportunity for public comment and stopped the cabinet members (other than of course the portfolio holder) that for some reason decided to come and sit in the public gallery from speaking too much and dominating a meeting that is supposed to be holding their decisions to account.

I had earlier described how the consultation process felt like a "gun to the head" of local communities with the message that we either ran our library or it had to close and this view was shared by most people who spoke with the notable exception of a representative from Aldeburgh who sounded like he had been dealing with a different County Council. There were also numerous complaints about the reliability of the data and the scope of the consultation.

I described the situation in Stradbroke where we raise £26 000 a year in parish precept yet the library costs £70 000 to run. Cllr Eddy Alcock said the situation was almost the same in Debenham and even Aldeburgh said they would need substantial ongoing public funds to run their library. The idea that libraries could be run at zero cost by big society fairies seems to have been completely abandoned.

I raised the issue of "double taxation" and this seemed to resonate with the Committee. Double taxation is when some people end up paying twice for the same service particularly when others do not - so for example if we in Stradbroke have to raise our parish precept (which is just part of the Council Tax) to pay for our library but maybe in Bury St Edmunds the County continue to pay for the service. Stradbroke residents would then be subject to "double taxation" as we are still paying for a County library service we wouldn't be able to use as well as the local service.

Later in the meeting we heard more from Judy Terry about her plans for a "Community Interest Company" or some form of social enterprise as it is now described. It was clear this would be an arms-length organisation providing central services such as books an IT to all libraries and also distributing a budget to each library.

In response to questions to Judy Terry it was very clear that these plans are very much at an outline stage although she promised full details would be published with the Cabinet Papers on 7 July. Somebody has a lot of work to do before then not least to explain why such an arms length organisation is needed at all and just what the benefit will be to running the service in-house.

Mark Bee promised the details of the CIC would be released within two weeks on 15 May on BBC Radio Suffolk but halfway through June not only have the details not been released but it is clear that plans are not yet ready to be released.

Library Campaigners outside Endeavour House
Colin Hart at one point described the situation the County Council were in as "a bit of a hole" and he himself was under the impression that the so-called County libraries were safe. Judy Terry made it clear that the attempts to group libraries into County and Community had been abandoned. Colin Hart cautioned Judy Terry against relying on the very few comments on the mobile library service by saying that such users thought the service was safe.

I think the Scrutiny Committee did its best within its terms of reference but many campaigners left frustrated and confused as yet again policy seemed to be being made on the hoof. As we left I heard an opposition member of the Committee say "they are making it up as they go along" and this still does seem to be the case.
Theo Clarke 1052446320974581094

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