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Are libraries affordable in the age of austerity?

November 12, 2012

Newcastle’s Director of Culture, Libraries and Lifelong Learning Tony Durcan believes libraries and leisure are worth saving in the face of crippling cuts. 

Much is made of the cultural renaissance of Newcastle and Gateshead. Quite rightly we are known around the world for the way our skyline, economy, and our reputation have been transformed by the cultural revolution which has brought world-leading institutions and assets to our city. And we are equally well known for the services we provide…our varied arts and cultural services, museums, and progressive library and information services.

I’m proud that Newcastle has the one of the finest library services in the country – with our state-of-the-art City Library at its heart.

We can also take pride in the leisure facilities which make a huge contribution to the health of our city including Eldon Leisure, the East End Pool and Walker Activity Dome, all of which are the envy of many other similarly sized cities.

Public spending cuts mean the City Council must make savings of £90m over the next three years, a third of our total budget. Faced with agonising decisions about child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins – where do libraries, leisure centres and culture rank? I think we all know the answer.

Over recent months I’ve despaired as I’ve grappled with finding ways to make unprecedented cuts.

But, I think we’ve arrived at a set of proposals which go a long way to securing a quality library and leisure service that Newcastle can continue to be very proud of.

Yes, the service will be smaller with the closure of some libraries and leisure centres, and I am under no illusion that there will be a public outcry at some of the measures we will propose. But our remaining buildings will be modern and accessible, offering rich services, geared towards the best in customer service, with the best staff in the country.

By making the best possible use of our assets, every part of the city will have easy access to library and leisure facilities. Nearly everyone (96% of residents) will be no more than 1.5 miles from their nearest library, and support will be available to those who find it difficult to travel that far. I’m confident that by 2016 Newcastle will still boast a comprehensive and quality library and leisure service.

Services could be even better if more people in communities are prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved in running local facilities the council can no longer support. And before you say that such a suggestion is pure pie-in-the-sky, why not visit the pools in Jesmond and Fenham to see for yourself what can be achieved when communities mobilise themselves.

We’ll be exploring ways to bring different council services together in single locations – making the best possible use of space in libraries, leisure centres, Sure Start offices, and customer service centres.

We’ll also be exploring new ways to provide library services including books and digital services in other locations such as community buildings and sheltered housing schemes. These would be unstaffed, self-service facilities with the council continuing to provide access to books but without the overheads of a library.

So, are libraries and leisure affordable in an age of austerity? We have to change, we have to save money, but they remain essential, and here in Newcastle we have found a way for our new and future library and leisure services to remain affordable.

Our draft budget proposals will be published on the council website on 20 November and you’ll be able to have your say on when formal consultation begins on 21 November.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. David Clark permalink
    November 12, 2012 2:31 pm

    I’ve head that the city pool is going to close which seems like madness. Many people myself included swim every day in the pool, aren’t you trying to encourage people to get fit. The swimming facilities near where I live are poor I have to go into North Tyneside to get decent facilities (my nearest pool is Byker).

    • R Winward permalink
      November 14, 2012 12:47 pm

      I am just wondering which local facility you are going to ‘roll your sleeves up’ and help run, Tony.

  2. November 14, 2012 1:00 pm

    These cuts are disgusting. How many bars, pubs and clubs are there in Newcastle? Compared to how many Libraries and Pools? I sometimes think the council want a lot of unfit, uneducated drunkards roaming around. I believe the council is rife with bad ideas, bad management, and unethical goings on. I wan’t visibility (not edited) of what is going on, who is making these decisions, on what is it based, who will be benefiting from the decisions financially.

  3. November 14, 2012 1:06 pm

    Tony that sounds interesting and I’m very curious to hear more about your proposals fro change. I do also think that to save libraries in particular, we need all hands on deck!

  4. Spencer permalink
    November 14, 2012 3:33 pm

    “Faced with agonising decisions about child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins –where do libraries, leisure centres and culture rank?”

    At the heart of any civilized society. If you want people to reflect on children’s rights, care for others less well-off in society and how the world works, then the last thing you do is withdraw the means for people to become further educated. This will backfire so badly that the cost of “child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins” will ultimately be far far higher in the long run.

  5. Tony Durcan permalink
    November 14, 2012 6:38 pm

    We are sad and disappointed like our customers that some libraries will close but the council is facing significant financial difficulties. The council needs to make savings of around £90 million over the next three years following significant government cuts and rising cost pressures which means we have no choice but to change the way we deliver our service. Many libraries will still stay open and there will still be a library within 1.5 miles for 96% of our residents.

  6. November 16, 2012 8:52 am

    This letter, by the writer Lee Hall, has just been passed to me – it is so well expressed.


    Dear Nick Forbes

    I am writing to urge you in the strongest possible terms to rethink the recently announced programme of library closures. I can see the council is in an invidious position. The Coalition’s programme of austerity is wrongheaded, self-defeating and vastly unfair. However, a Labour administration which would even consider closing all local libraries travesties the history of the Party and the Labour movement. For more than a century Libraries have been central to a vision that ordinary lives are blighted if they are denied access to learning and culture. The idea that a library should be at the heart of the community from the pit-head libraries of the late Victorian Age to the library van that used to arrive once a week in Walkerville when I was young was at the centre of the vision of the just and civilised society we were all trying to build.

    This notion that the library was central to our lives survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, Thatcher and any number of philistine administrations. If these closures go through on your watch I believe it will be a scar on your legacy you will regret for the rest of your political life. These are difficult times but they require much more canny solutions. Although removing the libraries will take away vital support for the poor and the elderly who use them as a daily resource (inevitably putting the strain on many of the council’s other budgets) few people will actually die. But you will kill generation after generation of kids who, denied access to culture, science, business, technology or art, will not become the scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers or psychiatrists who will sustain the region, protect the vulnerable, kickstart the economy and provide a civilised environment for us all regardless of how economically underprivileged we are. You consign these individuals to a life of underachievement but you condemn the people of the City to decades of economic and cultural sclerosis which will be just as real and devastating.

    It is clear that since the death of heavy industry on Tyneside that the City has survived by rethinking itself. By promoting its cultural legacy it has found a pride and prosperity that seemed obscure and unthinkable only a few years ago. The rumoured cuts in the Library Service and the Arts budget seem to be stabbing yourself in the heart. The effects of Art and Culture in the City have very real and demonstrably positive economic effects but what remains unaccounted is the sense of pride, raised spirits, a culture of innovation, forward thinking, cohesion and fortitude which when removed will prove enormously costly both economically and spiritually.

    Culture is not an add on, culture is not for the privileged. It is who we are collectively, it is our conscience and it is the air we breathe, it has always been seen by those on the Left, and certainly in the Labour Party, as fundamentally important as Health and Education. Indeed it is an index of how healthy we are and the guarantor of how healthy we will become. I believe you are making a catastrophic personal and political decision. If you close the door on this legacy it will never reopen.

    I hope that the recent announcement is merely a political posture to shame the Coalition into facing the consequences of their ill thought through fiscal policy. You must not go through with this. Your job is to protect and provide for local people – you must find other ways to resist and protest. The irony that Amazon evades the very taxes which could support core services like libraries would appear to presage an age when culture and learning are a privatised pursuit of the few. We must not let that happen.

    These are extremely difficult times and they demand much more imaginative and radical responses than acting as the Coalition’s henchmen. Working men and women in the North East have fought, generation after generation, for the right to read and grow intellectually, culturally and socially. For the right to be as ‘civilised’ as anyone else. It is a heritage that took decades and decades to come to fruition but will be wiped out in a moment. You are not only about to make philistines of yourselves, but philistines of us all.

    Yours sincerely

    Lee Hall

    • R Winward permalink
      November 16, 2012 12:36 pm

      Hello Lee,
      I love your passion and agree with you about the importance of libraries but, given the (rotten) situation, where would you cut instead – children’s services? adult care? bin collections? parks? – all of which are also vital for a civilised society.
      R Winward

  7. November 20, 2012 2:04 pm

    Lee Hall is right about the critical role that libraries play in our society. Libraries, theatres, art galleries museums and music centres have all underpinned Newcastle’s evolution as a genuine heavyweight in the cultural and creative worlds. Yet this transformation is, as Lee says, at risk.

    Newcastle City Council receives the majority of its funding from central Government, so when they cut our budget we have to cut services. Over the next three years the Council’s budget will be cut by £90m – more than one third. We are losing the equivalent of £160 per person – but some councils in the south are losing less than £5 per head. This is blatantly unfair, and leaves us with some agonising decisions. There is no such thing as an “easy” cut. Nothing is pain free. If the Government simply gave us the average cut for local government, we would have £22m more next year alone – enough to save virtually all the services at risk.

    Most people in Newcastle and beyond are aghast at the pace and scale of the cuts that we face, and are making their anger known. That is something I recognise and value in Lee’s letter. Libraries are very fortunate to have such eloquent and persuasive advocates and I can reassure Lee and others that, despite the cuts, we still plan to have a core network of 8 libraries, including the City Library. Most residents will live within 1.5 miles of a library, and we are keeping many open by locating them in shared buildings, such as customer service centres or housing offices, to reduce overheads. But not every area affected by these proposals is so well represented; vulnerable children, adults with physical and learning disabilities and the homeless are also at risk. It is my job to listen to them too, even though their voices are at risk of being drowned out.

    Councils around the country are being forced to do what we ‘re having to do. Campaigning against individual councils misses the bigger picture. Local Government has been hit harder than any other area of government funding, and councils in the North East and North West have been hit hardest of all. We need our advocates and champions to speak on a national stage, making your views and fears known to the Government. And we need those passionate about libraries – and other much valued services – to help inspire local communities to come together and run facilities themselves. The age of austerity that the Government has imposed is upon us, but I believe the fighting spirit of those of us who believe in an alternative can force a change of heart from the Coalition. Are you with us? If so we’re all in this together.


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