An end is in sight for the struggling library trapped in limbo between two councils for almost a year – but it may not be a happy one.
Croydon council returned to negotiations over Upper Norwood Joint Library on Friday by proposing to back Lambeth’s plan to hand it over to a community group.
But the council also slashed its funding offer to less than half the money pledged by its partner in Lambeth – even after lengthy consultation that showed locals are overwhelmingly against any cuts to the library.
A document to be presented at a Croydon cabinet meeting on September 17 proposes that:
- The library would be transferred to a community group on a long lease
- Croydon would cut its contribution from £187,000 to £75,000
- Lambeth’s contribution would remain at £170,000
- Both councils would contribute to the group’s training and set-up costs
- The group would be free to seek other funding sources
Tim Pollard, Croydon’s cabinet member in charge of libraries, said: “The conclusion we’ve come to is that library should become a community library and that we should put some financial backing into it.”
In a phone interview with EastLondonLines, he said the council had considered what an “appropriate budget” would be for UNJL, on par with the most expensive library in Croydon’s own system, and then pledged enough to keep it at that level.
Campaigners dispute Pollard’s figures, claiming UNJL is already one of the most efficient libraries in the country and that Croydon is deliberately under-estimating its own costs.
The independent library had been jointly managed by a century-old agreement between Lambeth and Croydon councils until it fell apart last year (see our previous story for more).
Labour-controlled Lambeth laid its chips on the table in July by pledging £170,000 per year until 2014 – a cut of £40,000.
But if the council was hoping its Conservative neighbour would match the bet, it may now be disappointed.
In a phone interview with EastLondonLines, Pollard said his proposals came directly from the consultation, which showed that 83 per cent of library users believe that cutting its funding would have “significant negative impact” on their lives and that indicated locals want the library to continue operating from its current location and in its current form.
He admitted he was proposing a “significant reduction” but claimed it would make UNJL “the most generously funded library associated with Croydon and with Lambeth.”
He said: “We think the thing to do in the spirit of fairness is to top up the money available to a level of about £250,000 – so that would give it a similar budget to our two most expensive branch libraries.”
Croydon council puts its budget for Selsdon and Thornton Heath libraries at around £250,000 a year but the figure is controversial because it does not include the cost of council resources – like centralised IT networks or the press office – which support its libraries.
A report commissioned by local campaigners from an independent consultant factors in these costs, and estimates UNJL costs £160,000 less per year than the average Croydon library. Another, seen by EastLondonLines, concludes that UNJL costs £12,000 less per 1,000 population than either borough’s own services.
Pollard dismissed such claims as a “myth”, saying: “I’m not sure how they could possibly know the cost of Croydon libraries, as they should not have access to that information.”
He said: “We have taken out of the Selsdon budget things that Upper Norwood don’t have and don’t provide, so to compare them would be wrong. We’ve tried to make a like for like comparison.
“What we provide is considerably more expensive, because it is provided – to a much higher standard wouldn’t be quite what I mean, but it is provided in a way that is more expensive to deliver.”
The main difference, he said, was in the central IT system which tracks loans and accounts between the borough’s 14 libraries, and which Upper Norwood neither has nor needs (instead using off-the-shelf software).
He also claimed that Upper Norwood was “literally twice as heavily staffed as any library in Croydon” and that it was not fair to include IT or central office staff in such an estimate.
For the plans to go forward, the cabinet must agree on them and Lambeth must also accept – but the library’s future is still uncertain.
John Payne, chairman of the Crystal Palace Community Association, told EastLondonLines last week: “If another £40,000 is cut, it’s hard to see how it could possibly continue.”
Pollard maintained that the new budget was “a very realistic budget” and said the library’s income could be supplemented by renting out space for functions or other “creative” fundraising options.
The Upper Norwood Library Campaign said it welcomed the proposals and looked forward to discussing them Croydon. A spokesperson said the new plan “could provide an exciting new era for this much-loved library.”
But it warned: “Whilst the community may have won one battle, it has not won the war, because Croydon council is proposing an even bigger cut than many had feared.”