According to latest figures more than 400 public libraries are under threat of closure and communities are mobilising campaigns to save them; in some cases resulting in judicial reviews. Under pressure to make savings wherever possible, councils are understandably reviewing all the options including selling off assets, engaging with social enterprise and reluctantly cutting services completely. But, as the public reaction to this issue has shown, careful consideration of the potential impact is vital and the importance of understanding the likely reaction, with a clear explanation and transparent evaluation of all the options cannot be undervalued.
For councils in this position, one option will be to consider the possibility of engaging with the community to create voluntary run libraries, and, as Community Right to Buy laws are introduced, we could see growing interest from groups in proactively initiating such projects.
In these cases, a useful exercise would be for authorities to assess their own and the community’s ability to handle risk and indeed their desire to do so. For example, how much risk is the authority willing to retain and share and how much can and should be transferred to the community. Which services are best placed to tolerate this risk and the long-term sustainability of any transfers are of course key considerations. Councils must now start to consider risk in the wider community as well as in their own organisation. One of our recommendations to local authorities is to carefully map risk tolerance and develop an understanding of risk appetite– an exercise that could not only help authorities navigate the transition to community-run libraries, but also other public services with the potential to be community delivered.
Moreover, those councils who do seek to engage with volunteers will need to be aware of how much control they can release and where they can devolve responsibility. Little Chalfont Library in Buckinghamshire is proof that a community-run library can work, but only if the right levels of expertise, time and funding are in place. So, to ensure these partnerships are a success, authorities will need to ensure the transition of control is gradual and involves support and a high degree of education.
Issues of reputation linked to service failure also remain key, and councils transferring service delivery, particularly to volunteers, must understand that whilst they may no longer have direct responsibility for a service, any fall in quality of provision may still have a serious reputational impact. Councils will therefore need to maintain an oversight of the service, to minimise risk.
The challenge facing local authorities is sizeable and tough decisions about which services to cut have to be made. The sheer number of campaigns happening across the country shows how popular libraries are and just how much they are valued, both for the immediate service they provide and as community hubs. Councils in the current economic climate will need to decide how to make efficiencies while listening and engaging with the community and their needs.