Four out of 13 public libraries in Croydon are set to be closed within the next few months, but the council has denied that the reason for the closures has to do with paying off their £1.6bn debt.
In a webinar held last week, Kristian Aspinall, Director of Culture and Community Safety said the libraries’ closure is “for the ability to spend more on people and services, and less on buildings” as opposed to a way of decreasing the debt.
Residents challenged the council in the same webinar.
When asked by a resident what the money generated from selling the library buildings will go to, Stephanie Wilson, head of culture, leisure and libraries, said: “I want to stress that there isn’t a figure attached or an expectation of the sales of library buildings. The aspiration of the council is for them to remain in use for the community.
“The council unfortunately cannot continue to deliver the service of all those libraries. If there is no viable alternative community use that is possible, then they would be put forward for disposal, and any income generated from that disposal would go toward the debt payments of the council.
“There is a wider assets review programme that is happening, looking at all the buildings that the council occupy as a way of reducing the debt burden, but this project is different, we are not being driven by a need to dispose of assets, but by a need to improve the library services.”
Aspinall then added: “Disposal of assets is the last step in the process here, we are absolutely committed to talking to you [residents] and trying to turn the buildings into a community hub.
“This isn’t about generating money off the assets, but if we do end up selling them, then they would go towards paying the £1.6bn debt. But that is not why we are doing this.
“We cannot continue to run libraries across 13 sights and still deliver a service that works, which is why we are proposing to close four.”
In 2022, Croydon Council claimed its third effective bankruptcy in three years. The borough first called for bankruptcy in 2020 and has been suffering from the matter since.
In an attempt to lower its £1.6bn debt the council is selling assets owned by the housing subsidiary, that previously contributed to Croydon’s bankruptcy. Assets include a golf course and a hotel, and Financial Times reported that this is expected to raise £125m by the end of the year according to council forecasts.
In March 2023 Croydon Council announced that council tax would be raised by 15 per cent, meaning the average household would be paying an extra £235 a year, as reported by the BBC. In most cases, for a council to be able to raise their council tax beyond 5 per cent, there must be a referendum.
However, in this case, because the council had already filed its third bankruptcy, the government gave the borough special permission “to get the council back on a sustainable footing”, Jason Perry, conservative Mayor of Croydon told The Evening Standard.
This sharp increase in rates now makes Croydon one of the most expensive boroughs in London in terms of council tax, as reported by MyLondon.
Perry was elected two years ago, and is dealing with the debt accumulated by the previous Labour-led administration.
He told the Financial Times: “You can destroy something quite quickly but to rebuild it takes much longer — we are slowly rebuilding.”
Then he added: “Over time residents will see things are improving.”