Croydon UNISON Libraries Consultation Meeting with Cllr Oliver Lewis Monday 8th February 2021

Croydon UNISON Croydon Libraries Consultation Meeting with Cllr Oliver Lewis on Monday 8th February 2021

Time: 2pm – 3pm

Attendees: Cllr Oliver Lewis, Yvonne Green, Dawn Gibbons, Dominque Andrushkiv, and Gary McMahon.

Introductions: Dawn Gibbons, Croydon Central Library, Dominique Andrushkiv, Sanderstead Library. Gary McMahon, UNISON Officer from region.

Dawn started the meeting and as lead UNISON libraries rep on the library consultation, put the following questions to Cllr Oliver Lewis, Cabinet member for Culture & Regeneration.

 Question 1: The total libraries expenses for the year ending 2020/21 is around £3,300,00 with the running costs of the 5 threatened libraries being around £540,000 so this equates to a need to make savings of around 15%.

Are other council services under such pressure to cut their budgets?

Also it would be very bad PR for the council considering how the public at large feel about libraries in their local community. Many areas are struggling to keep shops open in their high street so we need residents to visit their local areas. By having a local library it attracts local people to the area making use of local shops and cafes. Also according to CIPFA statistics for London, which we can send you, Croydon is already at the bottom of the table for money spent on libraries per householder. These cuts will only make these figures worse.

In the Library Plan 2019-2028 it states that we have nearly 2 million visits a year. Foreword by yourself. At our staff conference in 2019 you had spoken about the £4 million that would be invested in libraries.

Reply: Cllr Lewis was unable to confirm that the percentage savings stated above were correct as he had no specific figures to hand, but stated if the figures were taken from the libraries consultation document which they were, he agreed it was a fair assessment. Cllr Lewis stated that a number of council services that were not statutory, unlike the library service which is a statutory service, are being deleted completely. He recognised that libraries were an important hub in the community and made reference to a number of them currently being used for COVID19 lateral flow testing. He hoped that some or all libraries under consultation may become community libraries.

Yvonne Green asked if the decision to close the 5 libraries would be reversed if Croydon Park Hotel and/or Brick by Brick were sold. She also asked why these 5 libraries were chosen. Yvonne talked about the difficulty of library users in travelling to other remaining libraries either by bus with added expenses for many or having to walk longer distances.

Cllr Lewis replied that previously he hoped that may have been the case. However, the council’s financial situation is very stark and the council is now trying to get money from the government and we need to show that we are making the right decisions. Adult and children’s social care can make more savings, however, this takes time as there is a 2 to 3 year lag as cases have to be reviewed. Hence the tough cuts in Place.

Yvonne Green stated there was no appetite by the staff and the public to cut libraries as it is seen as an important service in the community. Cllr Lewis agreed with this.

Yvonne commented that the vulnerable and disabled in the local community would not being able to travel to other parts of the borough due to lack of money.  She also mentioned about the closure of the threatened libraries and the impact for children whose parents do not have a computer for them to do their homework at home.

She also talked more generally about the continued use of highly paid consultants and also the high number of staff fraudulence cases that were still occurring. These issues needed to be addressed to save money.

Cllr Lewis also mentioned that being an outer London borough, Croydon receives £200 per head less than the inner London borough of Lambeth. This accounts for around £70 million which is equivalent to the council deficit for the year ending 2021/21. These rates paid to local councils by central government were calculated in the 1970’s and have not been reviewed. This is despite the fact that the Croydon borough now has the highest levels of needs. This is due to lower paid people moving out of inner London due to the high cost of accommodation and other living costs, putting more pressure on the borough.

Dawn asked if local councillors and MPs were working hard enough together to get this issue addressed and for more money from Central Government to be given to Croydon. Cllr Lewis said the council had lobbied on this issue and he would consider working with UNISON on this issue.

Cllr Lewis said the Colonades and the Croydon Park Hotel were bought as investments to pay for council services.

Yvonne commented that staffing cuts have been at the bottom and not many at the top. Cllr Lewis replied that the management restructure was currently being reviewed.

Yvonne also asked about Bench marks – How does Croydon compare with other boroughs in regard to library provision? Yvonne asked if a comparison was done in relation to a borough of this size and the number of libraries in the borough that was compared to ours.

She also mentioned about accountability?

She then gave her apologies as she had to leave the meeting as she had to attend a CSC meeting.

Cllr Lewis replied about bench marking that no report had been produced and they had not compared Croydon to any specific borough but used slides. He said that as the borough has 13 libraries, Croydon currently has above average the number of libraries for a London borough which is 11, with Croydon being the second highest. Dawn replied that is not unusual as we have the second highest population of the London boroughs.

Cllr Lewis commented on accountability saying that Katherine Kerswell, the new CEO was reviewing the staff structure including Culture.

He also made reference to the fact that the council only get £4 million towards the cost of helping unaccompanied asylum seeking children coming into the UK from abroad. Kent recently said they were “full” despite having lower numbers of UASC per head of population. Croydon is acutely impacted in this regard because it is a base for the Home Office

With regard to the capitalisation project central government may put conditions on receiving funding.

Question 2: By closing these 5 libraries would it not cause hardship to areas such as South Norwood and Broad Green with high numbers not having access to their own pc and internet connection at home? Computer use at South Norwood is one of the highest used in the borough after Central Library. Computer facilities are used not only by school children but by a wide range of library users including job seekers and the elderly who cannot afford their own internet costs. Other libraries like Sanderstead and Bradmore Green may have a higher proportion of the elderly using them and would find it difficult to travel to other libraries in the area, perhaps needing 2 bus journeys if they do not have a car. All libraries serve local schools with regular school visits to the library when children can walk to them. How is this going to happen with local libraries shut? Mums with young children regularly attend Rhymetime sessions and other children’s activities across the borough. There would be more pressure on neighbouring libraries to provide these services and also provide more computer access. Would local school children want to get on a bus after school to visit their local library to do their homework? Many council services are all on line now and we are always getting visits to libraries saying the council has sent me here to complete this online form and I need help to do it.

Reply: Dawn again highlighted the importance of keeping all local libraries open and that by closing them there will be more pressure on those remaining and the pressure put on staff supplying children’s activities and computer usage which are already well used. Cllr Lewis did recognise that more pressure would be put on the remaining libraries.

Question 3: The consultation is during a period of lockdown when all libraries are shut to the public and most of the contact with the public is online. There have been a number of completed questionnaires sent in so far. Is the council doing enough to make use of online methods to hold a discussion group with the general public? We can’t hold public meetings but we can hold them still on line. Are we getting enough paper questionnaires out to all library users who are not on the internet? Questionnaires are going out 2nd class and also there are delays in the Croydon Postal Service due to COVID19 staffing issues. Does this show a lack of urgency by the council?

Reply: Dawn updated the meeting with the number of questionnaires that had been returned at the time of the meeting. These being 1,080 to date with 60 posted out to 27 addresses.

Cllr Lewis felt the number of completed questionnaires was good as we were not that long into the process.

Question 4: Have the Equalities Impact Assessment been completed on all five threatened libraries? If not, should it not have been completed before the start of the consultation?

Reply: Cllr Lewis said this was on going and started at the beginning of the consultation. Different authorities consult in different ways and we have been consulting with MHCLG & others to inform our process.

Question 5: Are all the cost of repairs quoted in the questionnaire really all needed in the next two years?

Who produced these costs – were they in – house? Were different quotes taken and if not, could a competitive tendering process be put in place?

The questionnaire quotes a total of £270,000 for repairs over next 2 years for 4 libraries. This excludes South Norwood Library with £420,000 for the old library and £890,000 for the new library. Is has been suggested that the old library needs a new boiler and new windows – is this really a 2 year necessity? Is it due to a general lack of money spent on library buildings over recent years – could repairs to the windows have stopped the need to replace them?

With regard to ongoing repairs could the libraries adopt a “Sponsor your Local Library Scheme” similar to “Sponsor your local roundabout scheme” that we currently have in the borough. Perhaps asking local builders to undertake repair work for free or reduced prices in return for free publicity? A sign and or flyer could be displayed at the relevant library. It may be good PR to local builders feeling left out of the Brick by Brick set up.

Reply: Cllr Lewis said that the majority of library repairs are organised by Graham FM who may then contract jobs out. He felt that certain jobs may cost more due to the levels of red tape that the council has to go through, with many jobs given out on contract for specific periods, so difficult for other contractors to step in with more competitive quotes.

Question 6: Staffing issues – if the 5 libraries were to close would this have an effect on staffing numbers which is currently FTE 63.65? Would there be job cuts as we want to protect jobs for our members?

Reply: Cllr Lewis hoped that no jobs would be lost but would be difficult to confirm at this stage of the consultation. However, there would be a need to move staff from those closed libraries to work at those remaining open.

Question 7: If the libraries were to close what would happen to their contents such as books and computers? Also what would they be used for as some are locally listed buildings such as South Norwood Library. Others may also be listed.

Are there intentions of adding any of the library buildings to the council’s asset list of buildings to sell next year?  I presume they are not included this year?

Reply: Cllr Lewis stated that the library buildings are not on the current asset list.

Question 8: There have been a number of public online meetings to discuss the library consultation none initiated by the council. Have you attended any so far?

The Croydon Communities Consortium have had a number of “Save our Croydon Libraries” online meetings which are open to the public to attend including councillors. I have attended two but have not seen you attend either of these or any other Labour council members for that matter.  However, shadow council members have attended. Oni Oviri, the deputy shadow minister of Culture being one of them. There is another meeting due, would you consider coming to this if sent an invite?

Reply: Cllr Lewis said that he had attended 2 online meetings about the consultation. One organised by We Love SE25 and a second one by Sarah Jones Croydon Central MP. He did say that there were plans to have council run webinars. Dawn queried this if this would be for the public at large. Cllr Lewis said that they also had intentions to make use of local newspapers and other media outlets

With regard to the “Save our Croydon Libraries” meetings, due to ongoing issues with the CCC, Cllr Lewis has taken the decision not to attend any such meetings at present. He regretted libraries being used for political means.

Comment was made by Dawn that when libraries were previously undergoing a review over 10 years ago, a Conservative run council out sourced the services to Carillion with disastrous results, leading to the libraries having to be returned back to council control after Carillion went bankrupt in 2018. She hoped there would be no plans for outsourcing in future.

Question 9: In respect to the South Norwood Renewal Plan money was given by the GLA (Greater London Authority) and was to be matched by Croydon Council. However, Croydon Council have since pulled out of this. The money has to be spent by early 2022. It appears that the GLA don’t want any of their remaining share to be spent on any statutory services already supplied by the council but surely it would be better to use some of that money to help the old South Norwood Library stay open? Some of the money was to spend on a community kitchen, would keeping the local library open be a better option?

Would you be prepared to discuss with the GLA to see if they would say contribute £100,000 from the fund to keep the South Norwood Library open and put towards urgent building repairs due to the council’s financial problems?

In terms of the new South Norwood library could these plans be put on hold until better financial times but keep the old library until then?

Reply: Cllr Lewis spoke about South Norwood and made reference to an active group in the community who were keen to save their library. He was unable to agree to have a meeting with the GLA as he felt it better that the local community through their local councillors would be better placed to ask GLA for any financial contribution towards maintaining their library. Even if an amount was given to cover emergency repairs it would still leave the ongoing problems of maintaining an old building and the cost of refitting a new building.

Question 10: Would you come to our own online UNISON Save Croydon Libraries Rally on Friday 26th February from 2pm to 3pm?

Local community groups will be invited and other invited guests.

If so would you be prepared to answer questions or just make a statement? A library isn’t just about how many books are issued any more but a community asset where local people can go to interact with their community and get valuable help when needed.

Reply: Cllr Lewis replied he would be happy to speak at the Rally and to answer questions from the audience. Dawn said invitations will be sent out in due course.

Question 11: Croydon is going to be the London Borough of Culture in 2023 – how is cutting 5 libraries supporting this?

Reply: Cllr Lewis said that when the council applied for this, it was before COVID19 and the financial crisis at the council. However, it will still be going ahead but any money given to the council from the Arts council will be spent on new projects and not on keeping any of the threatened libraries open due to the conditions of the funding.

Question 12: Under the new restructure the Place department which libraries are currently under will be under a new section. Can you provide some update on this?

Reply: There has been no formal announcement on this so Cllr Lewis was unable to give many details but the Place department would be renamed and libraries would be under this. On reviewing documents sent our under the general staff consultation Dawn noted that Place would be renamed Public Health & Public Realm.

The meeting ended with Dawn thanking Cllr Lewis and others for attending with the hope of a follow up meeting to be arranged in the future to discuss further updates.