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Monday, 9 January 2012

Everything's rosy in Wandsworth

Wandsworth is working with Croydon to conduct a joint procurement exercise to outsource their network of libraries.

The Guardian's Local Government Network blog carried an article written by Wandsworth's deputy leader, Councillor Jonathan Cook, under the modest title of:

Wandsworth opens the competition to save London's libraries

Quite a claim, and what a very rosy spin Cllr Cook puts on the situation!

You can read the full text here:

In the post Cllr Cook refers to bold steps and big ideas.  The stated aim of the exercise is to improve delivery whilst reducing costs. He gives, what would appear to be, very firm assurances by stating that both councils will remain in control of their libraries.Contract specification will be tight, defining every aspect of the delivery and there will be close monitoring against clear performance targets. The post, oozing positivity, also offers up that,
"If another organisation can do a better job, we will open the door." 
What the article doesn't say is that, whilst Croydon residents were patiently awaiting the outcome of the "genuine" consultation on libraries, and told the delay was to allow a full and careful analysis of all comments,  Croydon was actually hot-footing it to Wandsworth  to set up a deal to work together.

Campaigners spoke to thousands of library users across the borough yet no one can recall any resident suggesting this approach.  Certainly Croydon are very reticent and have denied an FOI requesting the breakdown of the responses that they claim informed the decision. You can find the FOI details here:

It is curious, with all his big ideas and bold plans to improve the service, that Cllr Cook fails to mention the basis of the selection process. This is referred to in the council papers as 'MEAT', the Most Economically Advantageous Tender. Not a mention of maintaining or improving the service on offer, just financial advantage to the councils as highest priority.

Given Croydon's current situation, now at breaking point, over the running of Upper Norwood Joint Library (UNJL), only a fool would try to negotiate another joint council deal. Yet, despite being incapable of working with Lambeth on UNJL, Croydon was silently setting up this deal with Wandsworth and forge ahead with their plans.

There was outcry from Croydon residents who finally heard of the plan when it was announced.  We suspect this is why, even to date, no notice has gone up in any Croydon library to advertise the plans. Many still think libraries have been saved.

It is interesting that Cllr Cook slips in,
"Wandsworth and Croydon will each have a separate contract for their library networks – but only bids to run both services in tandem will be considered.(our italics) This allows both councils to benefit from shared overheads and buying power while maintaining local control and accountability."
This is a shift from the proposal approved in Croydon in the September Cabinet meeting. The full papers are located here :, but the particular part we refer to is here, in point 6.5:

It seems clear, at least as far as Wandsworth Council is concerned, that whilst interested parties may bid for Croydon and Wandsworth separately or jointly, Wandsworth will not entertain considering anything other than a joint venture, with the winning contract covering the running of both boroughs' libraries.

It cannot help escape notice either that, whilst Croydon is keeping all information close to their chest, their partners at Wandsworth are keen to share.  Is the relationship already showing the strain of joint working, we wonder?

Cllr Cook continues to effuse,
"At the end of this process the bedrock of our service will be unchanged: great books, comfortable surroundings and skilled staff."
A statement perhaps far more dubious than merely curious.  

Let's put the real situation in context.

Croydon have already admitted realising savings in the region of £350K through an internal reshuffle, one that resulted in the loss of many of the most experienced staff and qualified librarians, leaving Croydon libraries under staffed and unable to cope, despite the valiant efforts of the remaining staff.

A list of the real and measurable effects of these back door cuts, as noted by residents across the borough, was presented to Cllr Sara Bashford at a shadow cabinet meeting.  Although indicating publicly that she took these very seriously and offering to investigate the issues she then had a lapse of memory and responded on only two very minor points raised at one location only. Being reminded of her promise, she then requested the details in writing which a campaign spokesperson was happy to provide, along with further examples that had occurred since the original shadow cabinet meeting. Despite this, Cllr Bashford seems not only incapable of responding to the points but appears to actually have struggled to comprehend the issues put to her, or their significance.

Wandsworth, in the Library Service Market testing paper (Paper No 11-683) here:,
which you can read in PDF form here: already refers to the rather more substantial savings made of £900K!

This was realised through reduced opening hours, presumably including the turning York Gardens over to the community, who need not only find volunteers in sufficient numbers to man the library but fundraise to the tune of £70K per annum to keep it running. Savings were also made in reviews of senior management (that's job losses of senior experienced and professionally qualified staff in less rosy terms) and savings on book stock.

The specifics from the document are as follows, so readers can verify the astonishing details and figures for themselves.

Dare we mention to Cllr Cook that when he refers to, "the bedrock of our service" being unchanged this is hardly inspiring when residents in both boroughs have already seen a drastic reduction in the service on offer?

It's inspiring to refer to, 
"great books" 
being on offer, but Wandsworth already admit publicly to the reduction in their book stock and many residents in Croydon have mentioned the cull in book stock going on at several locations in the borough.

Then there is the reference to,
"comfortable surroundings"
Not hard to improve on when the fabric of most of Croydon's libraries has received very little investment for many years. Perhaps we should suggest Cllr Cook share some of his magical positivity and suggest to Cllr Bashford that she sell it to Croydon residents and prospective bidders as shabby chic a la Croydon.  

And Cllr Cook, on a high, digs himself in even deeper, finishing with the promise,
 "and skilled staff."
 If Croydon or Wandsworth had any intention of valuing staff they would not have eroded the one valuable resource their libraries did have. We can't speak for Wandsworth but Croydon campaigners know only too well how much residents value experienced library staff and qualified librarians, many having been lost in the internal reshuffle.

It really saddens library users to see the valiant attempts of the existing staff, doing their utmost to make libraries work, under very difficult circumstances.  We can't possibly know the internal workings and changes that have been made.  What we do know though is the measurable impact it has had on the service on offer and we are very concerned for the well-being of all library staff left.  Again this concern was shared with Cllr Bashford at the shadow cabinet meeting.

So there we have it.  Two councils embarking on working together, already showing the strain of this new relationship, with Croydon desperately trying to shake off their existing tie with Lambeth.

Cllr Bashford was so out of her depth to start with she was even announcing to residents in public meetings that libraries were "a nice to have, not a must have" and referred to them as "non statutory" or "discretionary" until residents pointed out the small matter of the 1964 Act. It would appear she was trying to convince Croydon residents that they were in no way entitled to a library service.

And, probably most worryingly, we have two councils who, by their actions, are actively dismantling their library services, but are unable or unwilling to see the impact of this and the problems that this is causing. Yet they feel they are well equipped to not only  pass judgement on the proposals put forward from those bidding to run the service but are capable of monitoring this effectively.

But let's not let reality put a dampener on their bold steps and big ideas.  We leave you with the final words of Cllr Jonathan Cook,

"Competitive tendering has reformed many town hall services –he end of this process leisure centres, refuse collection and meals on wheels to name a few. The results have been improved delivery, new innovation and better value for money. This is what we are looking for with our libraries. 
We should not stop here. We must rationalise the public library services at a regional level. In London, eight million people are served by 33 different library services with 33 sets of overheads; this makes no sense, and is no longer affordable.
First we will team up with Croydon, next we must look to share our costs and buying power with more of our neighbours. Councils still considering a library closure programme should follow this process closely. We believe there is another way."
It appears Cllr Cook really believes he can save not only Croydon and Wandsworth libraries but that he can save London libraries too!

Next step, he'll be saving the world, no doubt!

Should you wish to support Friends of York Gardens Library to fundraise or volunteer or follow them on twitter at @SaveYGLibrary

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