Residents across south London delivered an overwhelming message to Croydon Council to retain £189,000 worth of funding that is keeping Upper Norwood Joint Library open.
The results of a long-running consultation, released on Wednesday, showed that 83 per cent of library users believe that cutting its funding would have “significant negative impact” on their lives.
They come amidst ongoing dispute about who controls the independent library, which has been jointly funded by Croydon and Lambeth councils for 112 years has been in danger after the agreement between them collapsed last year.
Over 2000 people from across Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Bromley took part in the consultation, with more than 800 declaring in comments that support for the UNJL must continue.
Croydon terminated the joint agreement late last year after accusing Labour-controlled Lambeth of breaching their contract by failing to attend a crucial meeting (see ‘A Tale of Two Councils’, bottom).
Respondents were asked their views on four options – funding the library as before, reducing its funding, closing it and transferring its funding to other libraries, or closing it and funding other services.
Only 13 per cent of respondents said reducing its funding would have low or no negative impact, and 9 per cent said the same of withdrawing all funding.
A statement from Croydon council said: “The thing to stress is that regardless of what anyone might have speculated, this has been an open-minded consultation exercise with no pre-determined outcome.
“Every local authority in the UK is looking for large savings at present, so this will be a factor in any decision relating to financial matters.”
The consultation has been dogged by mistakes and errors and had to be extended after the council website went down for maintenance on the last day of entry.
Respondents answered the consultation itself by slamming it as “skewed and misleading” and “ambiguous and poorly drafted.”
The library’s future now depends on Croydon, with Lambeth having cut its support by £40,000 to £170,000 for the next two years, and Library staff reporting that they simply did not know what might happen in the face to major government cuts to all local authority budgets.
Lambeth cabinet member Sally Prentice said: “The situation is very simple from Lambeth council’s point of view. We’ve committed to fund the Upper Norwood library. We are awaiting Croydon council’s decision following its consultation.”
Cutting Croydon’s funding would almost certainly spell the closure of the library unless it could be taken over by a third party – even though an assessment by AWICS, an independent consultant, found it cost over £12,000 less per 1,000 population than either borough’s own services.
Another assessment seen by EastLondonLines estimated the library already costs £160,000 less per annum than the average Croydon library.
John Payne, chairman of the Crystal Palace Community Association, told EastLondonLines: “If another £40,000 is cut, it’s hard to see how it could possibly continue.”
“Currently, the options are not great. Croydon are being coy. We’re not getting any real sense out of them – even if they stay – as to what their future plans are.
“As far as they’re concerned, the Joint Library Agreement is dead, and Lambeth didn’t challenge Croydon’s decision. I’m afraid to say that it’s come down to politics.”
The two councils have been at loggerheads all year over opposing plans to save the library, with Lambeth opting for a co-operative effort by the community, and Croydon saying it is considering its options.
Croydon’s own libraries were put out to tender after a similar consultation which found: “an overwhelming desire to find a solution to recent government funding cutbacks that does not involve the closure of a single branch.”
But John Whelan, Conservative councilor for Lambeth’s Thurlow Park, suggested the councils were “closer to an agreement…than had been reported”, although they had “boxed themselves into a corner.”
He told EastLondonLines: “What I certainly think won’t happen is that they say, well, that’s it, no more money, because that will be disastrous politically for them. As far as they’re concerned, that library is in a marginal ward.”
Councillor Tim Pollard, Croydon’s cabinet member in charge of libraries, said he was “certainly willing to consider” the Lambeth plan and that he would be presenting a paper to the cabinet on September 17.
He said: “I could spend a lot of time trying to square a circle where different people have entirely contradictory recollections of the same meeting.
“What matters is that we find a sustainable future for library provision in that area. “
A TALE OF TWO COUNCILS
At the heart of the feud between the authorities are the three council seats of Croydon’s Upper Norwood, which swung from Conservative to Labour in the 2010 elections.
UNJL’s joint committee had passed an amendment to section 5.1 of its Joint Library Agreement that “at least two members” from each council’s team “should represent the Upper Norwood area”, along with a cabinet member for libraries. But after the elections, Croydon instead wsent four cabinet members from distant wards (including current Assembly Member Steve O’Connell).
Councillor Florence Nosegbe, who was in charge of Lambeth’s delegation, told EastLondonLines her team had refused to attend until Croydon honoured the old agreement, and that she had informed them about this decision.
But Tim Pollard, Croydon’s cabinet member in charge of libraries, said constitutional changes to the council system by New Labour had enforced a ‘leader-centric’ model of management which made the previous agreement unworkable.
Croydon Councillor Sara Bashford, who was in cabinet member charge of libraries during the dispute, refused to confirm whether or not she had been informed by Nosegbe.
NOTE: This article originally referred to ‘plans’ by Croydon council to withdraw funding form UNJL. Croydon council have informed us that there are no concrete plans to do so and have never been, and that they are considering a range of options which includes withdrawing their funding. We are happy to correct this mistake.