Library cutback plans reversed after community backlash

Tower Hamlets libraries have been at risk of closure due to council budget cuts. Pic: Glyn Robbins

Planned cutbacks to library services in Tower Hamlets have been shelved following protests by local people and a revised budget by the council.

The council originally proposed a full closure of Cubitt Town Library, on the Isle of Dogs with reduced services, hours and a loss of 35 jobs at Bethnal Green Library and Watney Idea Store in Shadwell.

At a cabinet meeting last week, it was agreed that Cubitt Town and Bethnal Green Library will now remain open while allowing the Idea Store in Watney Market to open five days a week, rather than the original seven days. This also included Saturday and late-night openings at both Bethnal Green and Cubitt Town library; a new and drastic change to the council’s previous proposal that saw many hours dropped. 

More than 800 people took part in the two month consultation process, which showed strong opposition to the cutbacks, resulting in a ‘save our libraries’ petition being backed by 2,454 signatures. However, these new proposals are temporary and will be reviewed again in eighteen months. 

Glyn Robbins, ‘Save Our Libraries’ campaigner told East London Lines: “We’re feeling a sense of satisfaction. I don’t want to put it too much stronger than that because I think we know that in some ways the threat is still there and that the council’s decision will be reviewed in 18 months”.

Robbins added: “What’s amazing about it to me was that we went from being in a position of having library hours cut and closed to having them kept open and extending the hours of the libraries. So again, you think what and why were you even thinking about this in the first place?”

For months local residents have been fighting to keep libraries open. Pic: Glyn Robbins

Robbins wrote on the petition page’s ‘updates’ section: “WE SAVED OUR LIBRARIES! I’m delighted to tell you all that, under pressure of our campaign, Tower Hamlets Council has thought again…It shows, once again, that when people get angry and organised, we can win.”

The council had said that £30 million savings across the borough were needed by 2024 to deal with challenges brought on by the pandemic as well as Government changes to council funding. Their original proposals would have saved £1.6 million on library services, a £2.8 million drop from what was being spent at the time. However, revised plans set out by the council will now save £1.2million whilst allowing libraries to remain open.

In a statement, the council said that the consultation disclosed just how strong residents felt towards the proposed closures and reduced hours of their libraries. The consultation report noted: “The process…gave us valuable additional insight into how much residents value Idea Stores. There was real concern about the impact of the proposals on children and young people, and a definite concern that the impact of Covid on the economy, jobs, young people, and the community as a whole will mean that Idea Stores will be more necessary than ever going forward.”

Residents outside the town hall last Thursday after finding out libraries will remain open. Pic: Glyn Robbins

Robbins said: “I think places like libraries could have a real role to play of healing, repairing and getting over everything that we’ve been through. For as long as I’m here, for as long as I draw a breath, I will always fight to defend public services. Libraries are a special place for me.”

Robbins added: “There’s a wider sense of ‘yeah this is important’. Libraries are important, defending public services is important and it shows that we can push back against the people who don’t seem to value those things in the same way that we do.”

The revised opening hours are as followed and can be found on the council website:

Cubitt Town Library: Monday – Wednesday from 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-8pm and Saturday 9am-5pm.

Bethnal Green Library: Monday – Wednesday from 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-8pm and Saturday 9am-5pm.

Idea Store Watney Market: Monday-Thursday from 10am-6pm and Saturday from 9am-5pm.

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