This week we have agreed some quite significant changes to the library service in St Helens Borough, which include the closure of some council-run library buildings: https://www.sthelenslabour.org/latest-news/2022/07/14/libraries/
There is no doubt this is one of the most difficult choices we’ve ever made. I’ve been a councillor since 2013 and every single year we’ve had to make cuts to services because of central government funding cuts. In that time we’ve done a good job overall of protecting frontline services and shielding our most vulnerable residents from the worst of it. We have always tried to provide the best services possible with the resources we have, and that’s the same approach we must take with the library service.
There are two reasons for reviewing library services now: first, we continue to have to deal with huge budget cuts and have no choice but to make savings across all council services. We’ve been in this situation since 2010 and frankly we’ve done well to keep 13 library buildings open and protect the service from significant cuts for so long.
Across the country around 800 libraries have closed since 2010 because of government funding cuts – it’s a tragedy, and the blame for it lies at the door of this government which has systematically dismantled essential public services. The credit for keeping services running goes to the council and its keyworker staff who day in, day out are expected to do more with less.
Second, the way people access library services in general has shifted in recent years. More digital loans are made, and fewer hard copies. But libraries are more than books, and the other services they provide/host can increasingly, or potentially, be accessed elsewhere – schools, community centres, parish halls etc.
So while budget cuts are absolutely the primary driver of these changes (insofar as if we could I’d want us to open more libraries/hubs in every part of our borough) there is also no doubt there is a need for the service to modernise and we will do everything in our power to make the best of this situation and provide the best services possible with the resources we have.
The proposals align with our new Localities Model, and we will have one library building/localities hub in each of the 7 localities, each providing tailored services and outreach to communities, each providing better quality than the current buildings.
Where there is currently more than one library building in a locality (such as in the Rainhill and Bold locality, for example, where we currently have libraries at Rainhill and Chester Lane) the proposal is to keep the one nearest to areas of greatest deprivation so that we can better target support and services to those who most need them.
Where the council will cease to run a library building, but where there is a desire to maintain a physical library building, the council is willing to continue discussions it has already begun with parish councils, community groups and others about community asset transfers, volunteering, grant funding applications and more.
Our aim is for every single resident to continue to be able to access an outstanding, modern library service, and for us to target our increasingly limited resources at those residents and communities who most need support.
I completely understand this is an emotional subject for residents, and in lots of ways it’s the most tangible, visible evidence of austerity we’ve seen here in 12 years.
By reducing the number of hubs and increasing the quality of service at each, and providing targeted support to the communities most in need, we can try to do more with less as we have done since 2010 and as we will continue to do.