Swindon Council leader Cllr David Renard writes:
There has been a degree of misunderstanding about the future of the Borough’s libraries and the report Cabinet will consider on Wednesday 10 February.
There is one fact that I urge everyone to keep in mind: the Council is not proposing any closures this year. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong.
What Cabinet is being asked to do is to the start the process of developing a new library strategy and to examine if there are different ways to provide the service. We will be running many engagement sessions so that residents can join in and help shape ideas about what that service might be. The report contains lots of useful information about how libraries are actually used, both nationally and in Swindon.
For example, in the 19th Century it may have made sense to have lots of small buildings scattered across the area. In the age of the internet and rapid convenient, transport is that still valid? We should be asking what is more important: ease of access to library services or the buildings themselves?
To understand why we are having this debate, I have to return to our overall budget challenge. Demand for our services is rising either through a growing population or the need to invest more in protecting the vulnerable members of our community. At the same time, grants from central government are being cut as part of the wider, necessary programme to continue to reduce Whitehall’s budget deficit.
This means we will have to save £19m in 2016/17 on a £134m budget, and similar amounts for the next two years. Of the money that remains, nearly 70% will have to be spent on providing adult social care, addressing public health issues, or protecting vulnerable children. These are not just statutory obligations; they are fundamental duties for any local government.
Our challenge is what to do with what is left to provide the widest possible range of services. Many of these functions are historical and the fact that they are the responsibility of the local Council is merely the accident of legislation. Looking at the library service in particular, for many decades it fell to parishes, especially rural parishes to provide libraries. In 1964, Parliament decided that a different tier should bear the responsibility and it is half a century old legislation that dictates things now.
We must look at new ways of doing things, because we can’t afford not to. We are open to ideas from anyone.