Why a community library ISN’T the answer for Manor House – by Patricia Richardson, Secretary, Users and Friends of Manor House Library

An unerring route of errors:  1999 – 2015

Fun and games in Manor HouseGardensAs is always the case, nothing is what it seems and there is always a history!   As far back as the development of the Leegate Centre the council had plans to house another library in the Leegate Centre.  Government refused to agree to the council borrowing more money to fund it.

In December 1999, at very short notice, the Lee Green area was rallied to a meeting at the Town Hall.  Over 100 turned up as people from Grove Park area and Blackheath Village had also received the tip-off.  What motivated us all was the meeting being held to discuss the closure of 3 libraries.  Why is it always three?  The grand plan was to close the three but amalgamate Manor House and Blackheath Village in the Leegate Centre.  What?!  Yes, I hear you.  Where would we have been in 2015 if that little wheeze had succeeded?  And then the future of the Manor House?  Well, it was going to be a Registry Office for starters. The anger and resentment was felt in all 3 communities, especially when it was learnt that £1m was earmarked for these proposals.  After much huffing and puffing the council backed off.  The £1m was spent on refurbishing all of Lewisham’s library spaces.  The Manor House was earmarked for a special refurbishment project, containing a library.  Money was set aside, a project team created and work started on how this would go forward.  Caroline Bosworth Davis, Chair of the Friends of Manor House Gardens, had asked Peter and I to manage the newly formed Users and Friends of Manor House Library. Peter was co-opted onto the council Project Team, with a member of the Gardens group and another from the Lee Manor Society. It took quite a long time until the House closed in 2008 and re-opened with library in May 2009.  In spite of Peter’s tremendous efforts the council officers refused to take advantage of the interest expressed by Heritage Lottery to fund the financial shortfall.  Instead, this money was borrowed on the open market under Prudential (anything but) Borrowing.  The repayments continue annually until 2049, just over £120,000 pa  Debt does not look so clever when funding is drying up. By 2010 the future of financial largesse was beginning to look even less probable.  In spite of not trailing such news in its manifesto before the May 2010 London local elections, it was almost immediately proposed to close 5 libraries, New Cross, Sydenham, Crofton Park and our old friends Blackheath Village and Grove Park.  This was to save £1m, £800,000 on the library service budget, £200,000 on Property Services.  Yet again this was met with dismay and anger but the council dealt another card, it would create “community” libraries.  Those with libraries under threat and fearful of losing their libraries grasped the idea and went with it. The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums  Act was to ensure the library service across the country had the same offer to all residents.  Parliament agreed the  public library service was to be a statutory service delivering “a comprehensive and efficient service to all its residents …”  the minister responsible has the power to intervene where such services are not delivering. But, do not hold your breath.  Ministers do not like intervening in local government, but they will if it suits them.  However, libraries’ issues do NOT suit them. Since 2010 there has been a complete disregard for the service shown by the minister, Ed Vaizey MP, and his boss, firstly Jeremy Hunt MP, now John Whittingdale MP (both Rt. Hons, natch). The service is disintegrating, fragmenting and collapsing across the country.  In practice this means not all residents have the same service accessible to them, in the same way, at the same level.  Some residents get more for their tax than others. The 5 “community” libraries concerned still function.  In 2011 tenders were sought but very little of note was on offer.  John Laing, at the time running Hounslow libraries, expressed initial interest but dropped out.  The company no longer runs library services.  Blackheath Village Library went into the newly refurbished Reminiscence Centre, along with £200,000 of our money, for providing the space.  Eco Computers Ltd was offered the contract to run Crofton Park, Sydenham and Grove Park. Grove Park Library, exterior picture EC Ltd had expressed interest in New Cross as well, but the financial advice to Mayor and Cabinet was that this might be one too many.  The advice also stated that the strength of the company might still be outweighed by the burden of running the 3 other buildings, maintaining them and the services.  However, Mayor and Cabinet agreed to go ahead.  This meant a 25 year lease, reviewable after 5 years.  As we keep being told, we have no right to know what is in the contract.  Commercial in confidence, at least we know that!  This contract now comes under Eco Communities, which is part of the same stable ……   And what of New Cross?  Well, it really was all adrift, but the gritty determination of some members of the community finally forced the council to accept that it could become a “community” library.  It is now in partnership with Bold Vision. Volunteers were the name of the game, raising funds as and when.  Library services were still integrated with the Lewisham Library Management System and therefore connected with the London Libraries Consortium.  Reservations were possible with  the Lewisham Library card but how well the library shelves were stocked is another matter. Visits from library staff were promised, but how often and when is another matter.  Managing reading groups , the summer reading challenge and other such services, is also another matter.  Training of volunteers was promised but how well it worked in practice is another matter. The Manor House, Lee It is clear, using volunteers is NOT a cost free option. Certain services eg Ancestry and Access to Research are NOT available in  “community” libraries. Now, the council wishes to “communitise” 3 more libraries, which have had large sums of public money spent on them,  and  WHO will this investment benefit?  We have read in the proposals that such “partners” may diminish the library space we have.  We read that extra investment will be required at the Central council run library, where does that come from? If officers had any idea they were not saying.  Yet again we are the mushrooms, left alone in the dark, with no idea of our fate, or the fate of our treasured libraries. If this is a consultation, it’s time the definition was changed, because it seems we are back to Alice in Wonderland, where words meant what the Red Queen wanted them to mean.  Sir Ian Mills advised that the devil would be in the detail, but we have NO detail.  Sir Ian was in the privileged position of being a negotiator with officers.  The public is NOT!   We have to have clearer information.  We have to know the council is competent.  Fifteen years on you can see from this history what has always been the aim.  To date the consultation is a nonsense and utterly meaningless.      

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