A proposal to cut £1M from Lewisham’s libraries budget and for community organisations to take over running three local libraries has sparked fierce opposition from local residents.
The Safer Stronger Communities select committee met on Monday night to discuss the results of a public consultation, which asked residents for their opinions on proposed changes to their library service, but campaigners gathered to voice their concerns ahead of the final decision on December 9.
Pauline Wright, a local business owner who has been campaigning against the proposed changes said: “Libraries are the heart of our community, [the plans are] so short-sighted and I can just see such a massive knock-on effect.”
Wright and others believe that those most affected by the changes will be children living in households who cannot afford to buy computers and books, as well as vulnerable library users who will be left without trained staff to assist them.
Lewisham Council needs to cut £45m to public services over the next two years and has proposed to leave the management of three libraries – Forest Hill, Manor House and Torridon Road – to community organisations or social enterprises. The Lewisham library service budget for 2015/2016 is almost £3.7m and the proposed cuts of £1m would be made over the next two years.
The council’s report on the consultation, which had 2575 responses, said: “Overall the proposal presents a positive way forward for the service that balances budget reductions with sustainable service delivery.”
But Aileen Buckton, executive director for community services at Lewisham Council said most residents who responded were “concerned” and “a large majority have asked the council to reconsider the proposal.”
Lewisham’s library service has already seen substantial cuts in recent years with five libraries – Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross and Sydenham – already being run by community organisations. According to figures from Forest Hill Society, a locally run society which promotes high standards of planning and services and Lewisham Unison, the local branch of the public service union, borrowing in these five libraries decreased between 60 and 90 per cent from October 2010 to October 2014.
Lewisham Council has acknowledged that the issue of declining book borrowing is a bigger problem in the community libraries than in the council-managed libraries, but said in a statement that: “The [community] model is sound and is sustaining a library service that has increased the satisfaction of Lewisham residents.”
If the council approves the plans, there will be just three fully council-run libraries left in a borough of more than 275,000 residents. Before the meeting, campaigners handed out maps showing that the three would all be in the east of Lewisham, which they said would make accessing library services difficult for elderly or disabled residents living elsewhere in the borough.
A Unison libraries representative said: “If this proposal goes ahead, there basically won’t be a library service in Lewisham anymore. It’s absolutely clear that nobody in Lewisham has any time at all for the plans.”
It is not clear how many jobs in the library service would be lost if the plan is given the green light. In a savings proposal document published online the council said there would be “a full staff reorganisation and some staff will be made redundant”.
In sharp contrast, neighbouring Greenwich Council has recently approved plans for a new library with the potential to attract 100,000 visitors a year.