Swindon Borough Council is – according to its own website – ‘keen to hear your views’ writes Graham Carter.
Well here are mine. They are specifically about libraries and heritage, but I suspect they might also apply to other so-called ‘consultations’ that allow the council to pay lip service to the idea of local democracy.
Graham Carter, right, pictured, by Richard Wintle of Calyx
I am variously connected with heritage groups in Swindon, being a member of some, a co-founder of one, and the editor of Swindon Heritage.
So you might think I would be keen to take part in a ‘public consultation’ to decide how library services, including our fabulous Local Studies collection, will be handled in the face of financial challenges.
One of the questions you will be asked, if you take part in the ‘consultation’, is about the importance of staff “helping people research family or local history”.
Don’t spend too long thinking about it – because the decision has already been made.
Long before this consultation began, one part-time member of the Local Studies team was axed, and although that may not sound like much, it’s a 25 per cent cut in the service.
Not that we didn’t see it coming. Before Christmas, staff celebrated the tenth anniversary of the opening of Swindon’s wonderful Central Library and used it to inform our MPs, councillors and senior officers about their work.
A number of local history groups were also asked to give up their time to mount displays which underlined their reliance on the work of the Local Studies team, and answer questions.
Only one councillor made any effort to find out why we were there.
Days afterwards, when the redundancy in the Local Studies team was confirmed, local history and family history groups joined together to condemn the decision in an open letter published in the press. That was ignored too.
And so was the council’s own Heritage Strategy, which, when published in December 2013, recognised the Local Studies department as one of Swindon’s ‘key heritage assets’ – part of a plan to promote Swindon’s heritage and cash in on its economic potential.
We might expect councillors to make wrong, short-sighted and contradictory decisions, but dressing the process up as a ‘consultation’ when it is clearly a fait accompli is not only patronising but also undemocratic.
It comes at a time when the council is desperate for an army of volunteers to come forward to help run services, including libraries. If this ‘consultation’ is anything to go by, then there is a lot of goodwill that needs to be generated first.
Hearing is one thing; listening is another.
Pictured: Graham Carter, right, with Robert Buckland MP, left, and the co-founders of Swindon Heritage Graham Sutton and Fran Bevan.
Photo by Richard Wintle www.calyxpix.com