Are libraries affordable in the age of austerity?
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.