Very shortly, Shropshire Council will launch a review of the six hub libraries – Shrewsbury, Oswestry, Whitchurch, Market Drayton, Bridgnorth and Ludlow. I’ll write more about the review when I know more. But I do have a firm view on what the result of any review should be.
We know we will have to work hard to sort out a future for the hub libraries in a time of local government austerity. But I don’t think it helps that we set to spend time looking at transferring these libraries to communities or local councils. The six hub libraries provide an integrated service that can’t easily be split up. I cannot see how we can retain that with more than one hub provider, not without creating a lot of bureaucracy to oversee any future arrangement.
We have seen with the commissioning of youth services that Shropshire Council can make the process of change more complex than need be. In Church Stretton, the council’s decision to move the library site and manage it differently will soon be examined in the high court. There is a better example at Bishop’s Castle, where the transition to a community run library seems to be going well.
But Bishop’s Castle is community library, not a major facility like Ludlow.
Local communities and town councils must have a bigger say in how their libraries are run and the services they provide. I never want to see a repeat of what happened in Ludlow a couple of years ago. Then exhibition areas were closed and community spaces were invaded by Shropshire Council staff without any consultation. But I don’t think that town councils should take over the hub libraries.
Of course, we will have to make changes. The tough budget cuts to come will squeeze arts, culture and learning hard. But I feel uncomfortable with this review.
It is the style of review that would have taken place when Keith Barrow was in control of the council. He had an ideological obsession with creating a commissioning council, a body that managed services delivered by others. It never seemed to matter to Barrow whether it made sense to transfer services out of the council. If they could be transferred they were and if they couldn’t they were hived off into the council’s private company ip&e.
The new council leader, Malcolm Pate has already suggested that fewer services will be commissioned from external providers. I hope he and the new portfolio holder Stuart West will take a good look at this review of the hub libraries. Is this really what the new administration wants to do? Or is it simply a project left over from the Barrow era still continuing under its own steam.
I have a firm idea on what should happen to Ludlow and the other five hub libraries.
The county’s six hub libraries should be run by a single service provider. That provider will have a track record of delivering services. It will show a clear understanding of the importance of libraries and customer service centres to our communities. It will need to be innovative to thrive in a time of cuts.
I can think of one organisation that fits that description perfectly.
It’s called Shropshire Council.