The IPS Launch at Bungay Library

Just over a year ago Mark Bee as the newly elected Leader of Suffolk County Council visited Bungay Library and was handed a “scrapbook”. He made a speech promising to listen to what was by that stage a very large number of people who had opposed the library plans that Suffolk County Council had proposed.

Indeed the success of the library campaign had played a big part in the sudden “retirement” of Bee’s predecessor as leader, Jeremy Pembroke. The discredited Chief Executive Andrea Hill was next to go.

What happened after that led directly to today’s signing of the contract between the County Council and the new Suffolk Libraries IPS.

On Friday Mark Bee returned with the scrapbook to a happier event. He gave a short and appropriate speech welcoming the fact libraries were still all open. I was particularly pleased to see that he recognised the work of staff.

But one person got a lot of credit. Sylvia Knights who a year ago was the person challenging Mark Bee. Now like several other campaigners she is a member of the IPS Board. 

So are the campaigners now “poachers turned gamekeepers?”. I don’t think so. Behind the scenes there has been a lot of work and a great deal of negotiation with the County Council. I think as more and more details emerge the deal they have struck with the Council will be seen to be a good one.

Josiah Meldrum one of the original Bungay campaigners is I feel right to point some of the irony out out in a paper available on Wikisuffolk Hurrah! The Libraries have been saved! (By the very people who were happy to see them closed…) 
Tonight I attended the signing of the contract that sees Suffolk County Council hand over some (but not all) of its responsibilities for libraries to a new Industrial and Provident Society (IPS). The new IPS has a board made up of representatives of Suffolk libraries and is chaired by Shona Bendix of SALC: it seems to be a very competent body and I wish it well. But as I ate canapés, drank wine and spoke with fellow library campaigners in the library tonight and I couldn’t help but reflect on how we came to be here in the first place and wondered if, in the end, it all been worth it.
Certainly for many of the local political elite it was well worth it. Mark Bee, the new SCC leader (who arguably and ironically only holds that position because of the work of campaigners fighting to protect Suffolk public services), is able to celebrate his success in saving the library service… from his own party. He describes the divested library service as a ‘national first’ – but doesn’t ask why we in Suffolk needed to be the first. Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, clearly has a lot of work on his hands if he’s to hang onto his marginal seat at the next election and any good news is, well, good news - so no wonder he was pleased to turn up this evening. Likewise Therese Coffey MP, who’s had a messy week defending herself for accepting Olympic tickets from those hero’s (and architects) of Andrea Hill and Jeremy Pembroke’s New Strategic Direction, BT.
And then there were our local politicians, County Councilor David Ritchie and Bungay Town Council. As soon as they heard about the library consultation they understood the threat and immediately sprang into action, forming a working group, challenging SCC and… no, hang on… that’s what you’d think if you were at the IPS launch this evening, but is that what really happened? Certainly new councilors like Sylvia Knights (on the Board of the new IPS) and Richard Vinton have always fully backed the library and are on the council in no small part because of their role in the campaign. But what about others? Current Mayor Terry Reeve has certainly always spoken up for the library and as part of the working group immediately fought hard for holding SCC to account and the previous Mayor Simon Woods is also a keen advocate and was involved from the start. 
Josiah’s paper has an interesting email trail of what really happened at the start of the campaign.
The truth certainly does not match the impression we got today. At whilst it is right to welcome where we have got to now, we need to be under no illusions that when services are under threat a strong campaign is going to be the only way to save them. The "great and the good” cannot be relied on to act without this.

Rosehill Readers continue to sound a note of caution in a statement issued to this Blog they say:
The emphasis from Suffolk County Council is once again on saving buildings “the Suffolk solution means all libraries have been saved”. Whilst this is excellent news for local communities throughout Suffolk, we can’t help but wonder if the council and the managers of the IPS realise that a library service – what happens IN the library – is just as vital as the building remaining open. They are making promises that the level of service won’t change but the cut of one third of total funding from the Council means that the service is being hollowed out with paid staff made redundant and not replaced at all; how can a library service fully function without a full complement of fully trained staff? How long before parts of the service have to be cancelled because the already stretched staff can’t spare the time to run them?
We hope that Suffolk County Council isn’t prematurely congratulating itself on a scheme that hasn’t been proven to work and wish all Suffolk library staff the best of luck in this new venture 
The challenge is going to be making sure SCC continue to fund the service adequately. If I am right and they have good a good deal now with the May 2013 County Council elections looming it might be slightly harder to achieve next time round. Indeed it took some personnel changes on the Board this time to ensure things progressed in the interests of the service.

The Board of the IPS deserve credit for the support they have already shown for Suffolk’s libraries. After the wobbles at the start they have achieved a great deal and long may it continue!
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