On Tuesday I received an invitation from the Women’s Institute asking me if I’d be prepared to participate in a debate at their annual general meeting in Liverpool on 8 June. They want me to speak ‘in opposition to a motion urging central government to maintain support for local libraries’.
You have to take your hat off to the Labour party spin machine. It has successfully propagated the myth that the government is directly responsible for the closure of local libraries. In my reply to the WI, I said I’d be delighted to speak in its debate but pointed out it was a bit nonsensical to urge the government to continue to do something it’s never actually done. Isn’t the WI aware that councils are responsible for the upkeep of libraries? Evidently not. Take the Kensal Rise Library in Queen’s Park. This fine public institution, which was opened by Mark Twain in 1900, is one of six libraries in the London Borough of Brent that’s been earmarked for closure. Needless to say, the Labour-controlled council blames these closures entirely on ‘the cuts’, claiming it has no choice but to shut down these much-loved libraries, given the amount by which the Department for Communities and Local Government has slashed its budget. ‘Don’t blame us,’ is the message coming out of the town hall. ‘Blame Eric Pickles.’
Clearly, this is yet another instance of a Labour council choosing to cut public services for purely political reasons. This cynical ploy is particularly inexcusable in the case of the Kensal Rise Library because there’s a well-organised group of local volunteers in Queen’s Park who’ve offered to take it over.
As part of its ‘consultation’ over the future of this and the five other libraries in the borough threatened with closure, Brent Council invited various local groups to submit proposals as to how they might be saved. The Friends of Kensal Rise Library, a group that includes numerous successful authors as well as lawyers, accountants and businessmen, submitted an 11-page plan detailing how they would reduce the running costs through a combination of fundraising and volunteering. Under their proposal, the cost to the council of running the library for three years would be £163,670, a reduction of its current running costs by two thirds and less than the annual salary of Brent’s chief executive.
On Monday, the council produced its considered response in the form of a 178-page ‘supplement’ to … well, it doesn’t say. In addition to having no table of contents and no index, it has no title. It’s just a ‘supplement’. After wading through it, I discovered the proposals are dealt with in ‘Appendix Six’ and it reads like a parody of small-minded local government obstruction. First, it sets out the seven criteria by which all of the proposals are to be judged — and it goes without saying that none of the groups had the slightest awareness of these until now. (Number four is fairly typical: ‘The extent to which the proposal promotes inclusion and diversity.’) Then it painstakingly goes through each of the proposals, including the one from the Friends of Kensal Rise Library, and dismisses them all on the grounds that they fail to comply with these criteria.
As you’d expect, phrases like ‘CRB check’ and ‘health and safety’ crop up with mind-numbing regularity and nearly every proposal is judged wanting for not being politically correct enough. For instance, the Friends’ plan contains a glaring omission in the eyes of the council because it is ‘silent’ on the vital issue of ‘ensuring that the stock does not include… offensive or racist material.’ So now we know. Kensal Rise Library is going to be closed because the volunteer group who wanted to take it over did not propose to ban Enid Blyton.
The fate of this historic institution now rests with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which can step in if it believes a local authority is failing to comply with its statutory obligations under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Ed Vaizey, here is an opportunity to hit a political home run. If you insist that the People’s Republic of Brent work with this local group and keep Kensal Rise Library open, not only will you strike a blow for the Big Society, you’ll be sending a message to Labour councils everywhere: stop playing politics with our libraries.
You’ll also show up Glenda Jackson, the local Labour MP, who hasn’t shown the slightest interest in this campaign. Given that she has a majority of precisely 42, that would be a smart move.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator