BACKGROUND HISTORY TO LATEST LIBRARIES CAMPAIGNS
Only in Lambeth, it seems, is the word ‘library’ usually followed by ‘controversy’. Ever since demonstrators occupied Herne Hill’s Carnegie library for several days in April 2016, libraries have been a politically charged topic in the borough.
At the time of writing, the borough’s Carnegie and Minet libraries are closed while, further north, Tate South Lambeth and Durning libraries have been reprieved temporarily from closure, and the Waterloo library has been squeezed into a local church building.
Where Lambeth once had 15 public libraries and comprehensive mobile and home delivery services, The mobiles have been discontinued, the home delivery service is much reduced and only six full service public libraries are left in the borough plus another two now much reduced in size and largely unstaffed.
Thus each serves an average of around 39,000 residents, numbers comparable with the Victorian era.
19th century campaigners whose work led philanthropists and local government to “plant ten free libraries in the Borough of Lambeth” would surely find it depressing to learn that, more than 100 years later, their modern counterparts are still working to achieve the same goal.
Decades of under-investment
Lambeth libraries’ annus horribilis in 2016 was the culmination of a turbulent history of public library provision in the Borough.
Decades of underinvestment in the service meant Lambeth’s library expenditure was actually higher in cash terms in 1984-85 (at £4.2m) than in 2015 (£3.4m); had investment in the service kept pace with inflation, the 2015 library budget would have been £12m-£13m.
In January 2002 the service received a “zero” Audit Commission rating, the lowest possible, which described the service as “poor with uncertain prospect [sic] for improvement”.
This contributed to Lambeth’s overall “poor” rating (again the lowest possible) for governance and services in the Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) that year, one of only four London Councils and 13 nationwide to receive this grade.
Net expenditure on libraries per 1,000 population was £10,283, around half the London average of £19,912, and a significant real-terms fall since 2003, when it had been £17,190.,
Consistently low levels of investment in libraries surely contributed to 2013-14 findings from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) that Lambeth had “the lowest level of book stock per 1,000 population and the lowest level of book issues compared to other boroughs in their comparison group”.
Lambeth was also in the bottom quartile for library visits, computers available and active borrowers per 1,000 population. The following year Lambeth once again came bottom among peers across a number of metrics relating to public library visits, book stock and computers available.
Yet more cuts
More recently, cuts to Lambeth’s libraries budget since 2010 were always explained as being the direct result of central government austerity, which has meant Lambeth has had to find some £182m of savings since 2011.
Despite a meagre spend of much less than one per cent of Council expenditure, and the fact that “cutting the budget for libraries, parks, sports and arts by up to half is less than 5 per cent of what the council has to save overall“, Lambeth’s Libraries and Cultural Services became a target for savings in early 2015.
The cuts came in the form of Culture 2020, a comprehensive cultural plan covering parks, sports and artistic facilities, which included proposals to sell two libraries and halt funding for a further three. Together with other changes this would take the Libraries and Cultural Services budget from £10.4m in 2014 to £6.5m by 2018. (Source: People’s Audit report)