Somerset & Glos Library Closures in High Court

A High Court challenge is being launched over public library closures in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

The challenge will focus on the legality of proposals drawn up by county councils to cut the numbers of libraries in their areas, says legal firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL).

The application for judicial review is expected to be the first of its kind and questions the ability of David Cameron’s Big Society, with its “vague notions”, to deliver statutory services to the public.

PIL, acting on behalf of local library users, has sent a letter before action challenging the reliance of the two shires “on Big Society community-transfer initiatives” which conflicts with their “clear statutory obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone wanting to use it”.

The firm’s lawyers also argue that the councils did not consult properly with local people prior to making the decision to cut, or pay proper attention to the needs of vulnerable groups.

PIL said in a statement: “Gloucestershire County Council proposes to reduce the number of libraries with full opening hours from 38 to nine, and to cut the mobile library service for persons in rural areas entirely.

“Somerset County Council initially proposed to cut 20 of 34 libraries and to reduce mobile libraries from six services to two.

“They have since announced that the cuts will be reduced to one third of libraries, but without showing how this would be financed.”

PIL solicitor Phil Shiner said: “Councils cannot pin their hopes on vague notions of the Big Society when they are required by Parliament to maintain a comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone in the county.”

The application for judicial review is expected to be launched at the High Court in London within a few weeks.

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Libraries: about so much more than just books

When we think of libraries, we often think of big rooms full of shelves of books, with industrious scholars poring over dusty tomes and officious librarians wagging their fingers and shushing anyone who dares to make a noise. For the modern rural library, nothing can be further from the truth. Libraries are dynamic community centres, where people of all ages and all walks of life come together on an equal basis. And they are portals into new realms, new worlds of knowledge beyond anything we might imagined.

I grew up in a remote rural area where the town library was my window onto the world. I visited it every day after school, browsing the stacks of books and sometimes just reading the titles, and I still recall the impression this made on me. It was only a small library, and I think I must have read every book in the place; at least, it felt like I had, by the time I finished school and went on to university. But it was that little library that I first cultivated my own love of reading and writing.

Now, many of our rural libraries are threatened with closure. Has anyone stopped to ask: what will people who desire knowledge do now? It is simply not good enough to say, ‘use the Internet’. For a start, many rural communities have limited or no broadband access – and often, those communities who have no broadband are the same ones that are threatened with the loss of their nearest library. And the Internet is only one resource. It has its strengths; it also has its weaknesses. People use libraries to gather information in very different ways that then do on the Internet.

Cut people off from libraries, and you cut them off from knowledge – and this at a time when we are being told that our best chance of being competitive as a country is to increase our stocks of knowledge, become more creative and innovative, become inventors and innovators. And all the evidence we have about the ways that people learn suggests that those who learn to read early and are comfortable with books are those who learn most rapidly in later life. Give a child a computer and you will amuse him for a day. Teach a child to read and he is ready to face life.

We should be investing in libraries, not closing them. We should be turning them into true multimedia portals of knowledge that reach out and embrace our entire country. By offering people access to knowledge in ways that are meaningful to them, ways where they feel comfortable and are able to learn, we would be helping to secure the future not just of communities but of the country. Take away people’s ability to learn – I would go so far as to say, their right to learn – and what is left?

Morgen Witzel Honorary Senior Fellow

University of Exeter Business School

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Why I am a library campaigner.

Up until December 2010 I would say I was more of a library supporter and library user than a library campaigner.

In fact if someone would’ve asked if I was a library campaigner I would have said that that was something someone else will do.  And blogging – I was just amazed that other people had time to blog.  All credit to them I thought, but it’s not for me.

I use the library a lot and I suppose the best I could say is I was a library supporter, because where I live, we have been trying to get our library, which isn’t open full time, moved to a better position.

It was in an inaccessible building on the bend in the road that runs through the centre of our town.  The narrow pavement in front of the old library meant that a parent with a pram had to block the pavement while they opened the top and bottom bolts on the old wooden double doors. Other people passing would have to step into the road while this was going on. Then, to turn the pushchair into the library, the parent had to back into the road, watching (because we are in rural West Somerset) in case a tractor going through town was on it’s way or checking that a bus  (hourly at the moment but facing cuts) wasn’t coming. Sometimes vehicles went on the pavement, which isn’t ideal, even if you are quite quick on your feet.

Inside the library there was space for one, maybe two prams but that was it. From the outside you couldn’t see in through the leaded windows.

Crowded and cramped, but well used and welcoming, the library was restricted in meeting its potential as a service to our community by those responsible for it.

The County Council eventually negotiated the move 20 metres across the road, into a shop in the square that had stood empty for years, with a wide pavement in front. I think that the negotiation took over four years. It might have been longer.

We had an extended period of the new library standing ready, fitted out and full of shelves, but no books, during early 2010. This was followed by a period with no library at all while the books were transferred from old to new. Then we looked through the windows at books on shelves, because it couldn’t open due to computer problems.

The opening took place six months ago. Little things made an immediate difference – the automatic door opening button improved traffic flows in and out, visible use of the library by all parts of the community, witnessed through clear windows, marketed what was inside. Library membership increased. One hundred and twenty five new members joined in the 6 months since the move, compared to twelve or so in the first half of the year. The move cost in the region of £66,000. And the old library building – well, the shop next door moved into it. That shop has better access around the corner, so they simply knocked through the wall and the old doors are now locked and unused.

We knew the County Council had been holding focus groups and that one of their promises was to make local Government smaller but we didn’t know that as a consequence of these promises and subsequent spending cuts that the Council would plan to lock the doors of our new library for good.

Like many communities across the UK our County Council’s Christmas present to us was an ultimatum – pay for and operate the library yourselves or it will close.

Now that might seem like a good idea, a community run library. As a community, like others, we are active in volunteering. In the summer our community runs, funds and operates an outdoor swimming pool for 4 months and all year round the ten parishes in the area are served by a volunteer run community radio station. We have scouts, guides, brownies and cubs; a community recreation ground; two schools with active PTFA’s and exchange links; the WI, Rotary and a local branch of the Royal British Legion. There are many other volunteers. Then there are retained firefighters and emergency first responders. Most people are doing their bit already and doing it at the same time as paying for the council to do theirs.

In our community library members are the biggest membership organisation – over 2500 people. The library isn’t just for members of course, so there are probably many more users who are not members. Visitors use our library for tourist information. The library is the main interaction that many people have with the County Council – using it is like using local county maintained roads – it is an infrastructure service for the whole community. And like the roads are vital to the well being of our county, so are the libraries. Whereas the roads help people on journeys of daily life our libraries contribute to the journey of life. From after school stories to homework; job seeking to new business research; book club borrowing to random browsing; or retirement reading to entrepreneurship, libraries are vital to different people at different times and to our society at all times, most especially in hard times.

Geert Hofstede wrote in ‘Cultures Consequences’ that ‘the stability of national cultures over long periods is achieved through constant reinforcement’, saying that societal norms reinforce the perception of what that society is. This perception is transferred from generation to generation in family, education and early life socialisation. Libraries in communities are a means of achieving this transfer. Libraries offer accurate knowledge or access to it at the heart of our communities, access to both sides of the story in an age of endless information, not press edits, Google ratings or political spin. When you go to a library you access the knowledge heritage of our nation to prepare for your future. Libraries help us all respond to Thomas Paine’s message from the eighteenth century. He said ‘every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require’.

But now this generation is witnessing a Government Minister sitting on his hands with his eyes closed waiting for 2000 requests for inquiries into 2000 out of 4500 closed libraries and cut mobile services before expecting the tax payer to foot the cost of those inquiries. That Minister, Ed Vaizey promised a Renaissance for Libraries but what his inaction will deliver beyond disproportionate cuts and small savings is immeasurable damage to the prospects of future generations. It also seems that the Prime Minister and his Deputy are either watching or are oblivious to the Minister presiding over local Councillors engaging in one of the most comprehensive attacks on innovation, knowledge, life long learning and culture that the UK has ever seen. Many MP’s remain silent.

When the late Pete Postlethwaite talked about ‘The Age of Stupid’ he thought the major battle in our new century was going to be the one for the environment. It might still be the major one, but the defining moment, which will determine when and how we win in the future, is now – the Battle for Knowledge. It was said of the Few in the Battle of Britain that some common and unassuming young men held the future of mankind in sweaty palms, and did not let go. We now understand how they were backed up by people from all walks of life from the Royal Observer Corps to the NAAFI wagon. That was their finest hour.

Will this be ours?

All around the country, what ever their political leanings, small groups of people are talking and questioning. They are asking, not what cuts are necessary, but what must be left intact for essential growth and what parts of our infrastructure are so important to us all that they should not be attacked in difficult times nor managed badly in good times.

When the Viscount Tonypandy left the speaker’s chair of the House of Commons in 1983 he entrusted Parliament, ‘the bastion of our democracy,’ to ‘defend the liberty of our nation’ and ‘to protect the heritage of our fathers’ –  these are the things he believed made the UK a ‘great parliamentary democracy’.  He was right and Parliamentarians have often stood at the forefront of the battle for truth in our democracy. But it goes further than that. If the bastion of our democracy cannot be trusted to protect a foundation of our culture, the real foundation of a great parliamentary democracy, the people, must be heard. At that point, ordinary people, from all walks of life, must act together aiming to achieve remarkable things. Without guarantee of success, without reward, just knowing that what they are doing is right and that it must be done.

Across the country the very same message about libraries is coming from one nation Conservatives campaigning alongside left wing activists and from people with little interest in politics or the press. With a single clear message from people from all walks of life common sense alone might dictate that Councillors and Ministers listen, understand and take a step back before acting.

As I read back over these personal views of mine I note how much I have been informed by visiting libraries. Without libraries I would not have encountered Paine or Hofstedte nor heard more of the voices of the Battle of Britain than my TV ever offered me.  So yes, it seems like thousands of others around the UK I am now a library campaigner. I just didn’t realise how important it was to stand and be counted as one until recently. Now I think it might just be one of the most important things I am ever asked to do. To stand up for knowledge, culture and society, not when it is threatened by external ideas or foreign power, but when it is being undermined from within by those we trusted to protect it and because we know how important it is to our common future.

Maya Angelou’s mother told her – if you are for the right thing, you do it without thinking. If a library means something more than just books to you, the call for a Public Library Service Inquiry is on Facebook or you can email at 

If the Government is not prepared to act – are you ready to hold the future in your hands? And not let it go?

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The Full Story

In my last blog I explained my position about why I am a library campaigner – in an age of bullet points and power point we sometimes forget to listen to the full story. That is exactly what the minister, Ed Vaizey is doing.
A brief statement in respect of exercising statutory powers on a case by case basis merits an equally brief reply.
The courts consider matters on a case by case basis in evidential terms. As the minister tacitly acknowledges, each case must be decided on it’s own facts. The courts also have the ideas of group actions and using discussion to narrow down the issues before a case reaches a final hearing.  A court hearing should be a matter of last resort. Lord Woolf’s reforms of the Civil justice system under the last Conservative administration introduced these ideas and they have served the country well since.
Yet now the minister expects the public to either wait for him to call public inquiries in the numerous counties around the country with libraries under threat? To waste public money on hundreds of inquiries. Or is the plan to wait, see how many calls there are and then say they’ll all be considered together or that the minister will only intervene in selected cases?
It strikes me that this is one of those plans that seemed like a good idea at the time – with long term unintended consquences that everyone is spelling out but the minister is not listening to. Minister – our concern is that there is nothing innovative about cutting jobs and services to demonstrate financial savings in the short term. The question we are all asking is whether it is actually socially and economically sustainable for the long term?
Finally, and importantly, a personal apology, to the people from Voices for the Library, Public Libraries News and all those who have been raising their voices to sound the alarm for such a long time.
I am sorry I didn’t listen or hear you. I really wish I had understood what you were saying earlier. I hope it isn’t too late to change things.
Minister – it’s actually quite easy – you can borrow those last four sentences  anytime you want. We will all think more of you if you do.

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“Wivey Leaks” – good news, but fight goes on


Campaigners in Wiveliscombe, Somerset, have been told that their local library and one other marked for closure will now be saved, although with reduced opening hours. County councillors confirmed the news on Saturday morning, as locals gathered at the library to read children’s stories.

Yet local people still pledged their support for a legal challenge and are calling for a national Public Library Service Inquiry as part of their support of Save Somerset Libraries. This coalition of local campaigns across the county wants to see all 20 libraries threatened with closure reprieved.

Campaigner Kay Hoskins, from Friends of Wiveliscombe Library, explains, “It’s the unfairness of it. Twenty communities would be carrying the burden of disproportionate cuts that would only achieve small savings for Somerset.”

Richard Chisnall, of the Friends of Glastonbury Library, said, “Whilst we welcome the report that Wivelscombe will stay open, there is no reason to lose any library in the County.”

The Somerset campaigns have widespread support from the general public, from celebrities, authors, and organisations such as the Royal Society of Literature and the Charted Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

The call for a national inquiry has drawn press interest from as far away as Brazil. “People all around the world are listening to what people in the UK are saying,” said library campaigner, Steve Ross “but local councillors and the Minister Ed Vaizey were not”.

Last week, on BBC Radio 4, the Minister said that he could not intervene because these “were local issues for local people about local services”.

“This is a real problem when local elected decision makers seem intent on making the wrong decisions despite widespread local protest,” says Steve Ross. “Library campaigners across the UK make the same complaint. Nationally the consultation process is at best flawed, and the impact on communities has been inadequately assessed as local councillors rush cuts forward. Consultation is being used to justify decisions not inform them.”

Richard Chisnall notes, “We took the County’s too-brief consultation seriously, obtained expert advice, and presented the County Council with a carefully thought out and costed proposal that can preserve the whole of Somerset’s library infrastructure – whilst still making the required savings in operating costs. We hope they listen.”

According to national campaigner Desmond Clarke, “To provide a library service which is socially and economically sustainable, local authorities have to be much more imaginative in how they structure and operate their service and use funds to the optimum benefit of the millions of people who rely upon our libraries.”

In Somerset, Holly Berkley from the Friends of Shepton Mallet Library agrees. “Taking the axe to library services without looking closely at their corporate structure and systems is crazy. They are being totally unimaginative, making decisions without regard to the impact on children, the elderly and disabled people.”

People all around the UK believe that a fairer solution should be found for all UK libraries.

Though the need for cuts and cost savings is understood, library campaigners want to ask the hard questions needed to ensure that every avenue has been explored to protect the UK’s cultural heritage and the knowledge foundations of the future.

As Charlotte Wood, a year 6 pupil at Wiveliscombe Primary School, wrote to Somerset County Council, “The library will help me with every step I take with my life.”

— END —


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Ed Vaizey is not for turning

The reports that Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, has said he will “consider the use of statutory powers” in support of public libraries, but only on a “case-by-case basis”, thereby appearing to rule out the growing calls for a national inquiry into the service as it faces what library campaigners have said are disproportionate cuts.

Library campaigner Desmond Clarke said that Vaizey was failing to “get the message” and had not understood the “anger and frustration” among library users throughout the country. Clarke added that he could not understand Vaizey’s desire to have a “series of inquiries” when one national inquiry would be much cheaper.

Blogger Alan Gibbons adds, “Ed thundered against Andy Burnham in 2009 when Burnham was dithering over whether to intervene against Wirral’s decision to close eleven libraries. Burnham eventually stopped the closures using his powers under the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. The question Ed must ask is what is the difference between eleven libraries closing and 377 going. He can’t just hide behind the localism agenda. This wave of closures is a direct result of government policy. The issues are national as well as local.

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This is the site of the national campaign for an inquiry into the future of library services in the United Kingdom.

We are calling for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to offer leadership and urgently consider:
a) the likely detrimental impact that the conduct of flawed and rushed local
library review processes will have on our communities and culture
b) to establish an independent inquiry into a comprehensive and efficient
public library service in the face of other cuts to services nationally
c) and that proposed library closures be suspended pending the outcome of
the inquiry.

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