Friends of Hungerford Library – February update

This post has been superseded by recent (positive) events in the early summer of 2017. These are summarised at the post which can be found here.

The text below has been retained for those interested in seeing how dire the situation appeared in early 2017 and how much work has been done since.

 

No formal reaction has yet been received from West Berkshire Council regarding the possible solutions proposed by the Friends of Hungerford Library in its January update. A meeting is planned for early February and this post will be updated as soon as the details are known. Any news will also be circulated on social media and in the next Penny Post newsletter.

An announcement on 30 January 2017 from West Berkshire Council appears, however, to pre-empt this meeting and to restrict the options that will be presented to Full Council on 7 February. The press release is reproduced here in its entirety.

A re-designed library service in West Berkshire will see library staff working alongside volunteers at each of the seven branch libraries under new plans announced today (Monday 30 January).

The library service was reviewed last year to allow West Berkshire Council to explore new ways of delivering the service at a time when local authority budgets continue to be squeezed. Following the review Councillors will consider changes to the library service when they meet next week. Under plans for the service:

• Eight libraries will remain open, each staffed by at least one librarian and supported by more volunteers
• The At Home service will continue providing a service to people unable to visit their local library due to age, disability or other special circumstances
• One mobile library will be retained to continue providing an easily accessible service in more isolated communities
• Wash Common library will close and a new stop be included on the mobile library route subject to any alternative proposal to run the library being put forward by the community

The new plan has been developed following engagement with local communities, library groups, staff and consultants who conducted a needs assessment on behalf of the council. In addition, almost 1,300 responses were received as part of a public consultation on different options for the service. Overall, 58% supported keeping library staff at all branches rather than more volunteer-led options, which is reflected in the final proposal.

West Berkshire Council has also asked town and parish councils to support the library service with a donation of £1 per resident in recognition of the value communities place on their libraries. These discussions have already started and the responses from those town and parish councils we’ve met with so far have been encouraging.

Councillors will discuss and vote on the new plan at a full Council meeting at 7pm on Tuesday 7 February 2017 at the Market Street offices in Newbury. The meeting is open to the public.

Speaking ahead of the meeting Councillor Dominic Boeck, Executive Member for Culture said: “Our communities love their libraries and in redesigning the service we’ve worked hard to keep as much as we can. However, the grim reality we face in terms of squeezed budgets is that we can no longer afford to run the service as we’ve done in the past. Our new plan allows us to keep eight libraries open and continue the important outreach work we do delivering books to those of our residents unable to travel to their local library.

“It is because our communities love their library service that we are proposing to invite more people in to volunteer and help us maintain the best service possible. When responding to the consultation more than 120 people said they would be willing to volunteer which is very encouraging for us and a credit to our residents. Volunteers already support libraries and work has started in earnest to recruit more and harness the goodwill we know is in our communities.”

There are already 11 different volunteering opportunities within the library service and more will be available soon. West Berkshire Council has produced an online form to help match those interested in volunteering with suitable roles. The form is available at www.westberks.gov.uk/volunteer

The Library Service Volunteer Co-ordinator will also be at Speed Volunteering day next month and which has been organised by the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire. The event is held on Thursday 9 February between 10am and 3pm at Caffè Nero on Northbrook Street, Newbury.

The report is available to read here.

Helen Simpson, Hungerford Town Councillor and spokesperson for the Friends of Hungerford Library, was unimpressed by both the timing and the content of this announcement. “I’m shocked that not only does this announcement dismiss two of the three options suggested in last year’s Red Quadrant report into the Library Service but also makes no mention whatsoever of the other suggestions that have since been offered. The Friends of Hungerford Library is run voluntarily but its members include several experts in corporate, legal and municipal matters as well as, of course, a large number of people who value our library service in our town. Both the content and timing of this document suggest that West Berkshire Council has no interest in even acknowledging FoHL’s opinions. Ever since the funding crisis became a reality in late 2015, the public has been told that imaginative and innovative solutions need to be found. The Friends of Hungerford Library has suggested some. These have been ignored. West Berkshire Council cannot claim it has a certain answer – how can it? Nothing like this has ever happened before.

“I’m also disappointed that neither the Friends of Hungerford Library, nor Hungerford Town Council, nor the Hungerford Councillors were sent this press release – we happened to pick it up on social media and from Penny Post.”

The above report says that discussions with local councils about funding the library service through a ‘donation of  £1 per resident’ have been ‘encouraging’. Less encouraging, as West Berkshire Council must surely agree, has been the reaction of the Berkshire Association of Local Councils (BALC) – as reported in last week’s Local News in Penny Post – whose advice casts doubt on the legality of West Berkshire Council’s plans. As the section in the above-mentioned Penny Post article explains, this is only one possible interpretation of the various Acts of Parliament and, presumably, not one that West Berkshire Council shares. One likely upshot of the uncertainty – that of local councils receiving conflicting advice from the district council and their own membership association  – is that some councils will be unwilling to participate in this source of funding at all if it might be legally unsound. It’s not clear how West Berkshire Council expected the divergence between its own legal opinion and BALC’s to have had any other result, nor whether it itself sought BALC’s opinion before the suggestion was announced and was thus aware of the conflict of views. Nor is it clear what will happen if all local councils in the area do not participate in this fundraising.

Another possibility which merits consideration would involve the Hungerford Post Office (the current status of which is unclear) relocating to the Library. There may be obstacles to this but it is a once-only opportunity: the Hungerford Post Office and Hungerford Library are both facing an uncertain future and it is worth seeing if the two problems could find one (imaginative and innovative) solution. No mention of this has been made in the West Berkshire Council announcement.

At a meeting on Wednesday 1 February 2017 involving members of West Berkshire Council (WBC), Hungerford Town Council (HTC) and the Friends of Hungerford Library (FoHL), it was pointed out to, and accepted by, WBC that its recent communication could have been better. What is now clear – and which wasn’t clear in its press release on 30 Jan – is that WBC feels that the alternative option suggested by HTC and FoHL, which would maintain the service ‘with local fundraising (and) allowing the retention of more paid staff’ is ‘worth examining.’ (please see this document on the WBC site, section 7.3). The meeting was described as ‘very positive’ by Helen Simpson of HTC and FoHL: ‘Paul James, the WBC’s Culture Manager, was very well informed and supportive of our proposal.’ The proposal referred to would involve the Hungerford Library being converted to a CIC  and the building operated by the HTC. This is also a model that other libraries in the area might be able to emulate. This certainly seems to me by far the most innovative and imaginative solution which has been suggested. The main advantage is that, as a CIC, the library would have access to grants and other sources of funding which are not available under its current status. Through the Friends of Hungerford Library there is also a good number of motivated, informed and experienced people who can help make all this happen.

At a Full Council meeting on Tuesday 7 February 2017, Option A from the recent consultation (one staff member per library working alongside volunteers) was voted through. Although this wasn’t formally agreed, Penny Post understands that FoHL’s plan Hungerford’s plan for setting its library up as a CIC – which would give it access to additional sources of funding – will be investigated further. The FoHL, HTC and WBC will jointly be looking into this.

The 16 February 2017 edition of the Newbury Weekly News confirmed that the FoHL’s plan is seen by West Berkshire Council as a positive and innovative idea: ‘potentially an excellent pilot for community involvement in libraries,’ as West Berkshire’s Culture Manager Paul James expressed it. He added that it could quite possibly form a model for other libraries to follow. Town Councillor and FoHL spokesperson Helen Simpson agreed that the talks had been ‘positive’ and that previous communication problems (see above) had now been addressed. Discussions will begin soon to investigate this idea further: these will also include the possibility of relocating the Post Office to the library, either temporarily or permanently. You can read more about this issue here.

Please click here for the January update from the Friends of Hungerford Library.

You can keep up to date with news from the Friends of Hungerford Library by visiting its Facebook page.

Finally, news here (as previously reported in Penny Post) of how Surrey Council is proposing to cope with its funding problems, if its electors agree.

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One Response

  1. FOHL clearly WBC have decided that their decision is correct for the library service. It appears that again they have carried out due process and then ignored it. It appears the only option is for the PUBLIC TO DEMAND A REVIEW. When this all started it became obvious that WBC did not expect any significant reaction to the proposed closures. They were surprised by public reaction and now they have taking the easy option of of closures. I believe that WBC are working beyond their pay grade and therefore the situation needs to be passed up the government chain to the DCMS for investigation. Meanwhile WBC should put a hold on their action regarding the changes to the libraries.

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