We have seen in Herne Hill over the past two weeks an extraordinary expression of support for a much loved and valued local facility, the Carnegie Library. I have received almost a hundred emails and many tweets from constituents about Carnegie, and the strength of feeling has come as no surprise. People have told me all of the things that they love and hold dear about Carnegie – a valued local library for both adults and children, the beautiful listed building, the wealth of activities that take place there, access to books and the flights of imagination, possibility and opportunity which flow from them, the quality of the light and the spaces inside, access to computers – particularly for young people who need space to study independently - and perhaps most of all, and capturing all of those things, the fact that Carnegie is a space which brings people together – young and old, from all backgrounds in a world in which such spaces and opportunities are increasingly limited.
I have been representing the views of local residents on the Carnegie since I was elected last May, and over the past two weeks I have been in meetings and conversations about the Carnegie every day, continuing to discuss the views and circumstances of all of the different stakeholders who have an interest in Carnegie and working with the different groups on what a future might look like which secures the things that we most value about Carnegie, on a sustainable basis, for the long term. I have endeavoured to reply to everyone who has been in touch with me by email on this issue and I have met with residents in my surgery to discuss it.
I have met with and held many telephone conversations with Lambeth Council. Much has been written already about the extent of the cuts that the Council has experienced at the hands of this Tory government and its predecessor Tory-Lib Dem coalition and the difficult and unpalatable set of choices that it is presented with. There are some I have spoken to this week who do not feel that even in this context, the Council is making the right choice by seeking to change the way that its neighbourhood libraries are run. I respect those views, but when I look at the national picture, it is difficult to see how continuing the current system without change is possible.
Across the country, when faced with swingeing cuts to their budgets, Councils are making difficult choices, and it is clear that libraries are one of the biggest casualties of this process. The latest Lambeth budget report makes sobering reading and I’d encourage everyone to read it at http://tinyurl.com/LBLBudget, together with the independent assessment of the proposed staff mutual model at http://tinyurl.com/S-CMutual.
The BBC produced new research last week which shows that across the country 343 libraries have closed, of which 132 were mobile services and 207 were based in buildings. A further 111 closures are planned this year, and a quarter of all jobs in libraries have been lost, and in many libraries across the country opening hours have been reduced.
These cuts and closures are a national scandal, and a crisis within a public service which plays such a vital role in opening out access to information and opportunity, as well as bringing people from all backgrounds together. This is not a Lambeth-specific issue. This is a consequence of governments since 2010 which are committed to reducing the size of the state at any price to local communities.
In this context, the question is therefore how we can achieve the best possible future for our libraries, and how do we campaign together to put pressure on the government to ensure that the national policy context provides more protection for library services.
In common with many other local authorities across the country, Lambeth Council is seeking alternative ways to keep our local libraries running, with new sources of revenue funding. I am very clear that the Council has not engaged the community in Herne Hill as well as it could have over the past six months in relation to Carnegie Library. I have been asking them to do so, and I am pleased to hear that they will lead a new engagement process very soon. But it does seem clear to me that a building which is as large and beautiful as the Carnegie, must surely have the capacity to generate new revenue from alternative sources, without impacting on the provision of the key services which so many people value.
I have met with the local Carnegie Trust following previous discussions with trustees. The idea of the local Trust emerged slowly several years ago and the trustees have been doing a great deal of work to prepare plans for the future of the building, pre-dating the Council’s more recent consultation. It is clear to me that the Trust must have a breadth of representation, both at trustee level and within a wider membership. The current trustees are aware of this and ready and willing to begin recruiting additional trustees and inviting everyone in the local community to join as a member. The trust model has many advantages in my view, the top two of which are the opportunity for local residents to be involved in running the building directly, and the opportunity to bring in new sources of funding – from grant-making foundations, the Heritage Lottery Fund and business tenants within the building – some of which are simply not available to the Council.
And I have met last week with some of the Friends of Carnegie Library and other local campaigners, again continuing conversations that I have been having with them since being elected last year. I have heard the frustration at the lack of engagement on the building to date, the concern about the challenges that some of the community groups which use the library have faced in finding alternative accommodation, and a very deep concern that the rich diversity of activities which take place at the Carnegie should not be adversely affected by the closure and future plans. I am determined that this should not be the case.
Out of these meetings, the many emails I have received from local residents and the dozens of discussions that I have had since being elected last May, it is very clear to me what the red line requirements are for the future of the Carnegie. The ground floor of the Carnegie must remain in library and community use. There must be free access to computers. It must be possible for children to use the library and study space unaccompanied. Community groups which have used the library as a meeting place must be able to continue to do so on a low cost basis. Arrangements must be in place to support groups who have been using the library to find the means to continue to hire space at a low cost. There must be a children’s library. The building must be staffed in a way which enables the library to function properly and which creates a warm and welcoming environment in which all of the activities can flourish. I firmly believe that it is possible to achieve all of these things.
I’ll say a word now about the proposal to put a gym in the building. I have been vehemently opposed from the very beginning to the suggestion that a gym might be introduced on the ground floor of the Carnegie Library. This is simply because I could never imagine how a gym on this floor would be compatible with library and community uses, and how it could possibly leave enough space available for these uses to exist in a meaningful way. It is not because I believe that gyms in themselves are inherently bad things and I do not think that most library campaigners believe this either. One of the biggest set of challenges we have as a community relate to public health – finding solutions to issues like diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety is absolutely vital, and we know that exercise has a really important role to play in this. Gyms are not a panacea in terms of public health, but they are warm, dry and well-lit throughout the year, open on dark winter evenings when parks are closed and rain might discourage all but the hardiest of runners, so to my mind gyms have a clear role to play in encouraging more people to take up regular exercise. Other gyms in my constituency provide dedicated timetabled sessions for women only, and exercise sessions on prescription from GPs for those with health problems, both of which I would like to see replicated.
I am pleased that the Council has now clarified that a gym will only be introduced in the basement at Carnegie. This ensures that a gym would not encroach into the library and community space, and also avoids potential conflict in terms of noise. I think that a gym on this basis could be a positive addition to the building, bringing in much-needed revenue following a single one-off capital investment, and providing a facility from which some residents can benefit.
I have always been a passionate advocate on behalf of local libraries and I am very clear about the strength of feeling about the Carnegie. It is critical that over the coming weeks and months we must focus on coming together as a community with the Council to work out the detail of the plan for the future. Further focusing on where there are disagreements is not going to bring in more funding for libraries in Lambeth, nor find a workable solution for the Carnegie. Notwithstanding that feelings are running very high on Carnegie, I have witnessed some behaviour from different sides in the debate which has been simply unacceptable. There can never be any excuse for shouting and swearing in public meetings, personal abuse or insensitive flippancy on social media – these things entrench division rather than help to find solutions.
I would like to see a process in which local residents can participate, as well as physical and spatial plans of the Carnegie that clearly show the configuration of uses, the access arrangements and the physical work which is necessary to secure the building for the long term. We need the Council, the Trust and the Friends to work together, to re-set the dial on some of the conflicts of the past, and to focus now on an inclusive plan for the future. There is much energy and passion in relation to Carnegie and we can use this to achieve the best possible outcomes.
We also need urgently to escalate the national scandal that it is happening to libraries across the country. Locally we will see Carnegie reopened and sustained, but in many areas across the country that is not the case. Library closures, where they are occurring, are devastating for the fabric of communities and access to opportunity, and this is a debate which must be had at a national level. We need creative ideas – some of the international internet companies which have paid far too little tax in the UK in recent years – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – provide free access to information in a digital age, have benefitted from the role that libraries have played over many years in making access to knowledge, information and literature available to a wide audience and more recently have also benefitted from the free internet access available in libraries across the country. Should we now be asking the government to introduce a windfall tax on these companies and others like them, to create a national endowment for libraries, or a national levy on internet advertising to provide a protected revenue stream for libraries? Such proposals could help to ensure that, whatever the ups and downs of local government funding in the future our libraries will be there for our children and our children’s children, to be the spaces where people come together, where people can imagine and dream, and where opportunities can become realities.
I will continue to do everything I can to represent the views that have been so strongly expressed to me over the last year since being elected, and especially in recent weeks, to bring people together to work out solutions for the Carnegie which secure its future for the long term, and to champion the vital role that libraries play in communities across the country.