Unsurprisingly, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy’s annual survey of libraries in Great Britain showed the number of public library branches and paid staff continues to drop, as stretched councils reduce their spending on the service.
Spending by local authorities on public libraries fell by £30m, with the service losing 712 full time employees, alongside a net loss of 127 service points in 2017/18. This follows a trend which has seen the number of public libraries and paid staff fall every year since 2010, with spending reduced by 12% in Britain in the last four years.
In many ways this is an old story for local government. What is most interesting is what it tells us about the transformation of local government. Where councils can get people to pay directly for services it is often doing so. For some services, such as collecting garden waste, new charges have been introduced. In libraries there has been a rise in voluntarism, and a decline in paid staff.
Cipfa’s survey showed 51,394 volunteers putting in 1,780,843 hours in 2017/18. Over the past four years, this was an increase of almost a quarter, or just under 10,000 volunteers. Reading between the lines, this growth in volunteerism makes it clear that communities find libraries valuable and want this service to continue. Public outcry has often followed many closures.
But there is a lot the numbers cannot tell us which would only be revealed after significant further analysis. What is the difference in levels of service between libraries which have turned to volunteers, as compared to those with professional librarians? How is this affecting service in different socioeconomic areas? Are all people in Great Britain getting similar levels of access?
Libraries provide an important service in terms of education and a place for communities to gather, or for some individuals to connect to the internet, to seek employment, or to complete homework. In disadvantaged areas it’s arguable that libraries are incredibly important for these purposes, beyond issuing books.
We can view libraries as the canary in the coal mine for what is happening to our public services. Similar changes are happening to many services, with previously free services such as green waste collection now being charged for, and tougher criteria for receiving legal aid.
In our performance tracker with The Institute for Government it was shown that long term the UK will not be able to maintain public services of the current scope and nature without a large rise in tax. But there are other steps which can be taken by the government which can help strengthen the resilience of local government.
Recently, we have been calling strongly for a review of statutory services, which should lay bare some of the pressures on local government. This would seem timely, with the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government recently giving evidence to parliament that councils’ financial sustainability and resilience is defined by the provision of statutory services.
Clarity is important, and we would argue some services technically described as non-statutory play an important role in the fabric of local communities, and their loss would be to the detriment of the UK. While the transformation of these services is inevitable, in some areas of local government, such as neighbourhood services, a lack of data makes these shifts difficult to track.
However, the libraries survey provides an informed base for discussion, as the statistics reveals both change and the creative means councils are using to maintain services. This is an incisive example of what is happening in local government, highlighting the need for honest conversations about the direction of travel of our councils, and the future shape of our public services.
Rob Whiteman, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy