The Wirral saga

The Wirral council chiefs who decided to close 11 of its branch libraries (half of its network) at once didn’t even know what services the libraries provided, says the official inquiry into the fiasco. Sue Charteris, a former council chief executive turned public policy consultant, reported a string of failures and deficiencies to culture secretary Andy Burnham:

  • Wirral MBC’s decision was “in breach of its statutory duties” under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. These duties boil down to the need to “provide comprehensive and efficient Public Library services for all persons desirous to make use thereof” – its statutory duties to children, to disabled people, older people, deprived communities and adults ie everyone! 
  • The council “failed to make an assessment of local needs.”
  • The council failed to meet the specific needs of adults. The groups mentioned in the Charteris report are the disabled, older people, those living in deprived areas and the unemployed.
  • The council failed to meet “the general requirements of children.”
  • The report condemns the “absence of a strategic plan” for the borough.
  • There was “no clear understanding of the extent and range of services” provided by the Library Service on the Wirral.
  • There was a specific failure with regard to “deprived communities.”
  • There was no “adequate plan for and commitment to comprehensive outreach services.”
  • There was a “lack of logic” about which facilities to close.
  • The ‘approach focused specifically on the issue of asset management and cost savings’.

Too close to home for comfort.

The report says that the letter-writing campaign had an influence on the inquiry’s conclusions. It also states categorically that just because certain libraries are not mentioned, this is not a red light to move against them. The report is rigorously argued and is a clear signal to library campaigners that their arguments can have an effect. Two significant pointers to the future, which should figure in thinking about libraries: 1. There should be a needs assessment before any major changes take place and 2. There should be a thorough-going consultation process.



How this point was reached was not due to the largesse of Andy Burnham, whose first instinct was that he was ‘not minded’ to launch an inquiry. But public pressure changed that – hundreds attended the council’s fake, fig leaf consultation meetings to make their views known, a thousand marched, thousands lobbied – 50,000 signed petitions and bombarded Burnham with letters. Campaigning works and victories can be made in the face of the squeeze on public spending.

The closure plans were withdrawn and Charteris wants Wirral to be obliged to produce a proper library strategy within six months.

The DCMS review is starting to feel horribly like a damp squib. Amid the gobbledegook talk of empowering, informing and enriching, the key questions of leadership, engagement with the community, the resourcing of quality services, the development of up to date environments and the professional development of the librarians working with the public don’t feature much. The Culture Secretary, Margaret Hodge, blatantly ducks the report’s conclusions, giving the impression that campaigners will have to fight harder to see the principles set out in the report truly inform Government thinking. Surprise, surprise!

In the meantime, just to show that the threat to libraries has not receded in spite of the Wirral report, in Northumberland six small branch libraries in the county face the chop to save just £28,000.