Essex demolishes myth that ‘consultation never changes anything’
Cynics should read this!
It may not happen every day, but public consultations have the potential to make the difference far more frequently than is commonly thought. It is too easy to dismiss some exercises as tokenistic gestures with decisions already taken, but there are plenty of examples where managers and politicians genuinely listen or are prompted to seek alternative solutions. Libraries have been closed all over the UK, and many have ended up in the High Court amid arguments about forecasting the impact upon disadvantaged groups, but – starting with Warwickshire, which we featured in The Politics of Consultation, there are clear examples of creative problem solving arising from public consultation on library closures.
After months of protests involving hundreds of residents and the support of big names including David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson, Essex county council has dropped plans to close 25 libraries.
The cuts, first proposed by the Conservative council in November 2018, involved closing 25 of the county’s 74 branch libraries, as well as handing a further 19 to volunteers and 15 to run in partnership schemes.
Residents have led multiple demonstrations over the last few months. More than 500 people joined what is believed to be the first ever protest march in the village of Galleywood in May, while more than 600 marched in Chelmsford in early June. Almost 60,000 people signed 56 different petitions, while the protests were supported by the likes of David Baddiel, Michael Rosen, AL Kennedy and Billy Bragg.
More than 21,000 responses were made to the council’s public consultation, which also triggered protests when residents complained that many of the questions were leading and did not allow for criticism of the council. An 18-page independent report into the consultation, conducted by Dr Tarek Al Baghal at Essex University and commissioned by campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE), declared that the results would be questionable.
At a council meeting on Tuesday morning, council leader David Finch said that public consultation had revealed a “galvanised love of libraries”, according to the Daily Gazette. The council will now invest £3m into the service to make it “fit for the 21st century” and said there would be no library closures for five years.
“We are investing in libraries, we are going to transform them and work with communities,” he said.
Plans remain in place to hand some branches over to community groups, however, as Finch said some groups had expressed interest. The council is set to make their plans public next week, and respond to the SOLE report.
Liz Miles from SOLE said: “People have put in an enormous amount of work, from four-year-olds to people in their 90s. Some of the libraries proposed for closure were in small villages and somewhat remote. We were very concerned about those, so at least they are not going to lock doors. So we welcome the announcement. People power has forced this climbdown.”
However, she said campaigners remained concerned that some branches would still be handed to volunteers and lead to “stealth closures”. Swingeing cuts to libraries across the country have seen hundreds of branches handed over to untrained, unpaid volunteers to run – which are not recorded as closures. However, relying on members of the public to give up their time to run branches has led to many being as good as closed, some only open for a few hours a week and others quietly shut years after being first earmarked.
“We want assurances that we will have professional, paid staff and we won’t be celebrating until we know for sure what these so-called community libraries are,” Miles said. “We’ll be keeping pressure up for the long haul.”
In a statement, Susan Barker, cabinet member for customer, communities, culture and corporate, said: “Our future libraries strategy has changed drastically due to what the people of Essex told us. I am delighted that the consultation ignited such passion for keeping the service alive. We assured everyone that their feedback would be taken into account, and it has – all our libraries now have a future.
“This is a new, exciting chapter for libraries in Essex. It will be a service fit for the 21st century that is genuinely in the hands of communities and local users, who can help mould it to what they want and need. I look forward to sharing the full detail of the strategy with the people of Essex next week,” she said.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian
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