During the process of deciding to undertake a tender exercise one option would have been to look to setting up partnerships with local communities for each library with a core support staff remaining in the Council's structure. This would have fitted with the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’. This option was either not considered or was rejected.
The next best outcome within the terms of the tender exercise should have been to accept the in-house team bid. Money should not be to only determinant of awarding a contract. The value of having a committed staff team bringing their knowledge, expertise and historic understanding to the future of the Library & Heritage Service cannot be given a monetary value.
If the staff team had not put in its bid then the next best option would be to a social enterprise like GLL rather than to a private profit making shareholder driven company.
The fact that the bids are secret because of so-called ‘commercial confidentiality’ makes it difficult to understand the basis for the decision. This ‘commercial’ secrecy does not inspire public confidence in political decision making (at either local or national level). As the Committee report leaves lay readers none the wiser how can there be public confidence that the most reasonable decision has been taken in both monetary and added value terms. Could it open up a request for the process to be subject to annual audit inquiry? The bid details should be publicly open and transparent because of the large sums of public money involved.
I assume that GLL will need to ring-fence the Wandsworth contract as a separate business unit from its other contracts. The existing Library and Heritage Service staff will have to be TUPEd across from the Council to GLL. It would be sensible for GLL to consider organising the Wandsworth staff into a subsidary unit through the management bid proposed company. This will give the staff a real stake, and enable community representatives to be recruited. It will give the Council and the residents a committed service team supported by the experience of a long-established social enterprise, and enable the development of individual library user groups to build up community support. It will give GLL a better opportunity to ensure it can deliver what it has promised in its bid, and be able to work constructively with staff on the detail to ensure that their collective knowledge and understanding is used to build service improvements.
Whether the ruling Conservative Group will see the advantage of this approach. I certainly cannot see them backtracking on the decision to tender the Service out.
Croydon Labour’s Challenge
Meanwhile Croydon’s decision on the tendering outcome has yet to be announced. It does not have to accept the same bidder because its contract would have to be separate from the Wandsworth one. And there is a major difference. Croydon has not included the Local Studies/Archives section (which is the equivalent of the Wandsworth Heritage section). Inside Croydon reports that the opposition Labour Group has announced that whichever organisation is recommended for a public-funded eight-year contract to run the Croydon’s will also have to consider the possibility that they will have the deal cancelled after barely a year, if Labour wins the Council election in 2014. Of course this is designed to scare bidders off. Once the contract is signed it would be very expensive to cancel it unless there were serious breaches of contract terms.
Labour says that its plans include “handing budgets to local Co-operative Community Trusts utilising the local community to set the direction and range of services, but crucially, keeping the staff employed through the council.”
It makes sense for Croydon Labour to make the issue a big one in the Croydon North by-election now scheduled for 29 November. The Labour Group’s announcement makes it easier for Steve Reed, the prospective candidate, to make his voice loud and clear given his plans for Lambeth’s Libraries are subject to his Co-operative Council initiative.
Lambeth’s Co-operative Libraries Journey
On 22 October the Lambeth Council Cabinet agreed the latest recommendations for developing the Co-operative Library Service. It is expected that there will be a further report to Cabinet in December that will set out a capital investment plan for libraries and community hub buildings. Initially, it is expected that the investment plan will prioritise investment in key modernisations, such as self service technology, as well as stabilising and securing existing buildings. The key next elements are:
· support for a co-operative and community-led approach for Upper Norwood Joint Library following the London Borough of Croydon’s decision to reduce their financial contribution from £189K to £75K.
· reaching agreement with City Screen Ltd that will enable them to prepare design and planning documentation for the transformation of the Nettlefold Centre into a Culture and Creative Hub, which houses: commercial cinema, café and bar; a modern and improved lending library with equivalent or increased floor space; flexibility to enable inclusion of a Norwood Cemetery Visitor Centre once investment has been secured; and rental space for community activities. The freehold ownership of the Nettlefold (building and land) will remain with the Council.
· developing a capital investment programme in library buildings of up to £7m.
· adoption of the co-operative library service model of 4 Town Centre Co-operative Libraries, 6 Neighbourhood Co-operative Libraries and a Cultural Co-operative Commissioning Team.
The report includes the summary of views of Lambeth Unison and the Officers’ responses to them.
The Lambeth report sets out details of the latest developments re-legal challenges to library service cuts, bearing in mind that under section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 there is a duty placed on library authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient library
service for all its residents and those that work within its area.
· Brent. ‘In giving its judgment in a recent case involving a challenge brought against the London Borough of Brent regarding its proposals to close some of its libraries, the High Court ruled that the availability of resources is relevant to what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service. “The library service and section 7 duty are not exempt from resource issues and were not entitled in law to escape the budget reductions faced by the council”.
· Gloucestershire and Somerset. ‘In November 2011, the High Court upheld challenges to decisions made by Gloucestershire and Somerset Councils in relation to their library services. The Court held that the decisions of the defendant local authorities to make changes to their library services had been unlawful on account of their failure to comply with the public sector equality duties under the Equality Act 2010. In the Court’s judgment, carrying out an EIA was not an invariable necessity for conforming with the public sector equality duty but nor was evidence that an EIA had been produced, evidence that 'due regard' had been given to the statutory equality.’
Wandsworth Committee report:
Lambeth Cabinet report:www.lambeth.gov.uk/moderngov/documents/s50172/04a%20Libraries%20Cabinet%20221012.pdf.