Upper Norwood Library faces an uncertain future
Despite the recent £1.2 million refurbishment, confusion and uncertainty over cross-borough commitment to funding continues to plague the future of our popular Upper Norwood Joint Library. The situation has reached crisis point with a bleak and ominous future looming on the horizon demanding immediate attention if we are not to lose this rare and valuable community resource.
Double standards and frozen funding
UNJL is reliant on joint funding by Croydon and Lambeth under an agreement that specifies equal funding from both councils each year. But inconsistencies between the financial support given to UNJL by Croydon and Lambeth began in 1984/5 and have continued ever since. In recent years Lambeth has made increased efforts to meet its financial obligations to the library, although even their funding falls short of what is required.
Croydon’s funding to UNJL in 2005/6 was at the same numerical level as in 1992/3 and they have confirmed no change in 2006/7. The cost of Croydon’s own library service in 1992/3 was £4,586,000. In 2006/7 it is £8,012,000 – a staggering rise of 75%! The resulting severe under-funding from both councils for UNJL compares poorly with the funding provided by the boroughs for their own libraries, which generally continue to benefit from inflation-linked funding and capital funding.
A fair deal?
Croydon Council are pressing the government for parity in the grants received by local councils. If Croydon were on an equal footing with Ealing for example, Croydon would receive an extra £40 million per year.
The Upper Norwood Library Campaign is advancing the same argument. In 2006/7 Croydon’s library spend per resident is approximately £24 whilst UNJL’s is around £12 in total, meaning that residents in Purley, Coulsdon, Norbury, Thornton Heath, Central Croydon etc are enjoying investment in their library services at twice that of Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood residents. This shortfall sees Upper Norwood residents’ council tax payments subsidising library services in other parts of the borough.
The previous Croydon administration pledged in their Library Strategy: 2005-2009 that they would “provide an additional £30,000 per annum to UNJL starting in 2005/6”. However the money earmarked for 2005/6 and 2006/7, totalling £60,000, has never been paid and Croydon’s commitment has now been withdrawn, compounding the serious deficit under which the library has to operate.
During the past ten years, Croydon has transferred spending on museums, arts and other services to other departments, despite this transfer of responsibilities the Croydon library budget has not been reduced.
The resulting extra money has helped to meet increases in the operating costs for Croydon’s own branch libraries but unfairly none has come the way of the Upper Norwood library.
The serious and unfair under-funding pressure put on our local library is not experienced at libraries within the boroughs of Croydon and Lambeth who are not expected to work within the confines of a continually frozen annual budget.
The demand for, and popularity of, the Upper Norwood library was recognised when the much needed, publicly funded refurbishment took place. The end result was a re-launch with great fanfare. Even then, little thought was given to the economic sustainability of the ‘new library’ with levels of core revenue funding for this library being the lowest in London since at least the early 1980s.
The new facilities, such as automatic doors, improved lighting and heating of the building, IT provision, public lift and toilets and a host of other improvements, have led to increased servicing and maintenance costs which are not being met by current funding. Other financial pressures include annual inflation affecting every area of the service. This includes salaries, energy costs, insurance, refuse collection, cleaning costs, rates, audit fees, library books, magazines and newspapers, equipment, stationery, telephone expenses and many other increasingly expensive demands. There are additional costs arising from new government initiatives and legal requirements that the library has to meet.
Despite government guidelines and support for the principle of a local library, it is hard to see how the Upper Norwood library can continue to function in any meaningful way while facing such arbitrarily imposed financial handicaps. Comparing library spending in 2002/3 across all London boroughs, saw Camden spending £40 per head on its library services, Croydon £15.75 and Lambeth £16.27. Upper Norwood comes in lowest with just £9.63.
On this basis our library faces a bleak future with the likelihood of severely reduced levels of staff and services, and possible closure and substitution with a limited mobile library service.
The UNJL with proper financial backing – in line with that offered to library services in Lambeth and Croydon – would be able to expand its services even further rather than being forced to consider redundancies, cuts in opening hours, a freeze on new books, newspapers, magazines, curtailment of activities for children and school class visits, staff training, caretaker cover and other basic elements that provide the ‘core’ public library services that every Croydon and Lambeth taxpayer has a right to expect – including those who live in Upper Norwood.