Is Fife Council’s incompetence to blame for the closure of 16 public libraries?

It was interesting to read Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian today but in truth, the closure of 16 libraries in Fife has been an ill-considered process with little public consultation and no regard for the long-term economic prospects of the region or council services in general. Worse, these cuts were not necessary, were not ideologically-driven and cannot even be dismissed as a combination of the most petty form of party politics and collective lack of imagination.

Libraries are gifts from the past, intended for our future. Collectively, we are borrowers from our libraries whether we use the book lending service or not. We all contribute to the services provided by Fife Council and should not ever be left feeling that as taxpayers in small communities, our collective contribution amounts to no more than being in receipt of street lighting and bin collection.

Three different amendments to the motion to close these libraries were proposed and all were rejected by the administration running Fife Council. These amendments were the result of councillors from other parties actively seeking contributions and ideas from the people of Fife who, it is hoped, will remember the fourteen who voted to close their libraries in May 2016.

While it is not disputed that some of the libraries needed to be modernised to make them more accessible to the disabled, the elderly and parents with pushchairs, the legislation governing access for the disabled was introduced ten years ago and certainly before the economic downturn of 2008. Fife Council has had some time to get its property in order and to smooth the transition between old building stock and new.

But the closure of the libraries was not proposed by the council itself. This was initially planned by unelected civil servants and it was only because of an objection by a single councillor, Susan Leslie, who reminded her fellow councillors of the need for a legally-required public consultation that taxpayers in Fife had any warning that these closures were imminent.

It gets worse. Once local campaign groups began asking questions on how this plan of closures became the only plan, it became clear that only had Fife Cultural Trust proposed no alternatives but that FCT had completed no thorough investigation of the costs involved. Closing a library involves more than simply locking the doors one last time. The books must be moved. This involves an extraordinary amount of haulage – extra trucks, boxes, man-hours of labour – and a place to store the books. The furniture has to be relocated along with the IT equipment. Health and safety checks for each process have to be completed. Staff have to be relocated and/ or made redundant (eventually). There was absolutely no cost planning. In essence, someone at FCT looked at the figure they were told to save by the council – coincidentally, the same £800k that FCT was first asked to save in 2011 and hasn’t – then simply totted-up the cost annual costs of each small library until they got to the sum required.

In considering whether Fife Cultural Trust has a good grasp of the costs involved in running – and shutting – libraries, it is worth asking just how effectively FCT has been managing other costs.

In 2012, Fife Council placed libraries, theatres and museums in the care of the newly-established Fife Cultural Trust (SC415704). As a registered charity, libraries managed by FCT were no longer liable for business rates, ensuring a saving of approximately £400k per year to the council. However, Fife Council did not reinvest this saving in the libraries but instead imposed further cuts on FCT and this has already impacted on services, especially what can only be described as the managed decline of the range of books available. There are still, for instance, guides to Windows 2000 on Fife library shelves.

Taxpayers who currently work – or used to work – for booksellers or publishing houses would be surprised to find that there are four people in charge of buying books with a budget of £800k per year for 47 libraries (plus 3 mobile ‘libraries’). It is a small budget and certainly less than a single bookseller would command when buying for a city-centre bookshop. When challenged about this, Laurie Piper, representing FCT said that it was “proof the buyers were doing a good job.” But that’s a cost saving right there: four people employed to do the work of one in the private, commercial sector.

Another saving that could have been made is to not spend over £10k paying a company in Cambridge to analyse visitor numbers to the library but to expect that someone already in theemploy of FCT knows how to use an Excel spreadsheet.

Further savings could have been made in the cultural program. In the financial year-end 2013-14, Fife Cultural Trust spent £150k on promoting the artsfor which the return was around £80k – a loss of about £70k. So pleased was Fife Cultural Trust with this loss that in the year 2014-15, the amount spent on promoting the arts was £300k for a return of… nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero. Squilch.

In the last four years, the mere existence of Fife Cultural Trust has saved Fife Council £1.6m and yet nothing from this sum has been deployed to save libraries. Representatives of Fife Cultural Trust insist that people are reading digitally now and have spent money on third-party software that is unsupported by book publishers and once block-chain technology is deployed to counter privacy, will become redundant. Trends in publishing and book retail are also showing that e-reading has plateaued as eviedenced by Waterstones’ recent announcement that as a result of poor sales, they were removing Kindles from display. People actually like physical books and you don’t have to read The Bookseller (Charlotte Eyre, The Bookseller, 25 September 2014) to know this as you can search for Voxburner’s polling online.

But libraries are about more than books. Yes, they are great places for children to develop a lifelong love of reading and therefore, helping themselves toward a better education but they are often the first point-of-contact for community engagement. One of the biggest maladies affecting the elderly is loneliness. A librarian might be the only friendly face – or voice if books are delivered – that the elderly might encounter. More than this, libraries are often the only place that those striving to get back into work might get help with changes to DWP regulations.

It is a point of fact that libraries receive no funding and librarians no training in helping jobseekers navigate the very stressful search for work by the DWP. As anyone with a BT internet connection knows, access to the world online is expensive. If families enduring financial stress are already having to choose between heating and food, then it stands to reason that the internet connection will have already been scrapped. A library is going to be the only place to access the DWP’s back to work programs online and these must be used or penalties result. It’s all very well an unelected civil servant directing people to use their nearest alternative library but this involves travel costs.

The inability to manage costs, to persuade councillors to give due consideration to savings already made, to understand the changing role of libraries and the increasing importance of libraries in small communities, let alone the proper planning of a more streamlined library service all point to bad management. You’d assume that anyone who failed so many Key Performance Indicators would be made redundant or at least, required to explain their failures but not if you work in the so-called Third Sector.

Several assumptions have been asserted, repeated and worse by both representatives of Fife Council and Fife Cultural Trust, who have used these as the basis for decision-making behind closed doors. Residents of Fife, for instance, are still to hear from Fife’s councillors how re-employing ‘consultants’ who have taken voluntary redundancy for six-figure sums was going to produce an effective plan that would find wide support among Fife’s taxpayers (Freelance move leaves Fife library staff ‘fizzing’, The Courier, March 2015).

It should never be the case that taxpayers struggle to get clear answers to their questions from councillors or employees of Fife Council. For all the great work that campaign groups have done in quickly coming together to collate information that should have been provided to them (and I was privileged to work with just one of these groups in Kinghorn), it should never be the default of reply of councils or ‘charitable trusts’ created by councils that taxpayers – also, voters – are told that such information is not covered by Freedom of Information legislation. But perhaps that has ultimately worked in our favour. Like other registered charities, Fife Cultural Trust has to report its annual figures to Companies House and it makes very interesting reading.

When filing annual figures with Companies House there is a lot of small print that one could easily miss but among the blurb, it states that a director should not file figures if they do not agree that the figures are final and accurate.

Twelve directors are listed as having signed-off the figures lodged with Companies House on 14th September 2015. As these figures have not been challenged by any of the 14 councillors who voted for the closure, perhaps they would also like to reply to these questions:

1. Given that the consolidated financial statement for the financial year-end 31st March 2015 was not filed (and therefore assumed to be complete until 14th September), on what basis were the projected savings of £347,037 calculated for future financial planning by Fife Cultural Trust?

2. What criteria were used in the selection of senior managers and what key performance indicators were placed in contract such that on failure to achieve the stated aims and budgetary performace of the charitable group, these same managers could be removed and /or not have their rolling contracts renewed?

3. In relation to the above, did the directors not have concerns that in the year-end 2014, the arts programme had raised just £80,212 from an investment of £149,843 (notes 5 & 6 of the financial statement)? And further, that in the year-end 2015, for a much larger investment of £301,176, there had been a return of exactly nothing? Subsequent to these results, what KPIs have been put in place to ensure that senior managers deliver the necessary turnaround in FCT’s financial position?

4. From the same reported figures: given that there is no indication of an ability to reverse the decline in revenues through the catering and bar facilities managed by FCT, do the directors accept that franchising these properties would at least gain a positive stream of revenue from rent on these premises or, do they continue to prefer that public money continue to be poured into the serving of alcohol, teas and coffees?

5. Last but not least, how do the directors wish to explain the curious figures for reported wages and salaries? Between year-end 2014 and year-end 2105, the total bill for wages and salaries (note 9) drops from £6,351,700 to £5,480,811. This 14% drop is commendable. But let us consider that the number of employees has dropped 28%, from 458 to 331. Given that salary increases were reported as being 3.5% on average, it is peculiar that the average salary did not increase from £13,868 to £14,353 but instead to £16,588. Either the average pay increase was misreported or the number of employees is misreported or, worse, the total figure for wages and salaries is incorrect.

2015

2014

Wages and salaries

£5,480,811

£6,351,700

Employees (pro rata?)

331

458

Average salary

£16,558

£13,868

 

If the average pay increase figure of 3.5% was accurate, 331 employees would cost £4,750,969 (or, £13,868 x 1.035 x 331).

Would any of the board of directors – or even those 14 councillors who voted to shut our libraries – like to explain the £729,842 difference?

Given that no separate figures are reported for the consultation conducted this year, are taxpayers in Fife (who have read the earlier article in The Courier) to assume that the difference in ‘wages and salaries’ was in fact the sum of money used to pay the consultant who devised Fife Cultural Trust’s library closure plan?

Is ‘test’ fracking by the Ocean Guardian to blame for the Forth Road Bridge closure?

You very likely haven’t heard of it but if you live in Kinghorn or Burntisland – or you’ve looked out the window of your train as journey toward Edinburgh – you will have seen the Ocean Guardian.  It’s an oil rig.

OceanGuardian_map_FromMarineTraffic

Talking to a neighbour a couple of weeks ago, he assured me that the rig was simply getting a refit from Briggs in Burntisland and so I checked (and you can too by going to the Marine Traffic website).  The Ocean Guardian is listed as ‘active’ which is to say, drilling.  Sorry neighbour but the rig is currently rooting around the Burntisland Anticline fault looking for coal gas which is allowed because ‘test’ drilling isn’t the same as actual drilling.  Apparently.

If you look at the screenshot (below), you’ll see that the fault-line detected by The British Geological Survey runs very close to the major fault-line that runs all the way down to Rosyth and quite obviously through the sandstone layer that connects the Fife coast… including the bit around north Queensferry.

Screenshot from 2015-12-07 14:37:13

You can see the map in its correct context on page 36 of the 105-page report, ‘The Carboniferous shales of the Midland Valley of Scotland: geology and resource estimation‘.   You can get your copy from the The British Geological Survey here.

I’m no geologist but I did – briefly – study civil engineering at Heriot-Watt University and one of the more interesting projects was studying how the Forth Road Bridge (and by extension, all suspension bridges) was put together, a project which culminated in scrambling along the gantry under the bridge to study its footings.

The Forth Road bridge has been checked every day of its life for wear-and-tear.  The only way that substantial cracks appear so suddenly (and so close to the footings on shore) is if the bridge comes under sudden stress and given the amount of ground surveys done in advance of building the new Queensferry Crossing, it would be very peculiar if that construction project was to blame.

While it cannot be denied that the Forth Road Bridge is old and has suffered from a lot of corrosion, all suspension bridges – whether fabricated from rope or steel – work on the same engineering principle: two fixed points on opposite banks of a river secure the load using cable under tension.  Modern bridges are designed to adapt to changes in ambient temperature and wind sheer stress but what they really struggle to cope with is sudden changes in ground movement, you know, earthquakes and such like.

So, two questions:

Will the Scottish government order a geological survey of the footings around the bridges, at the very least to rule out test fracking as a cause?

Will this be enough to ensure that a moratorium becomes an outright ban after the elections in May or were Scottish government ministers cursing as loudly as INEOS, iGas and GDF Suez?

Yes, some repair work has been delayed or simply put off but nonetheless, I look forward to being proven wrong.

One year on

I wasn’t going to write a thing and then The Guardian this morning put out a poll asking for people’s views on how Scotland has changed since the referendum, so I’ve written something after all.
Personal anecdote can never adequately cover the diverse range of opinions and it’s true that opinion is still sharply divided but the referendum touched on we are as individuals.  This week, Jeremy Corbyn was condemned for not singing the dirge, ‘God Save the Queen’.  He’s a republican and it was to be expected (and as a lifelong socialist, I expect that he’s either agnostic or atheist too).  To have sung words he didn’t believe would have marked him as a hypocrite and so, like many I’ve spoken to since, I rather liked that he didn’t pretend to believe in sentiments that would not have been universally shared by every volunteer who fought in The Battle of Britain.
Even if Scotland had voted ‘Yes’, there would have been many who resented this choice and very likely would have objected to the result being described as ‘the settled will of the people’.  The right of those people to subsequently campaign to re-unite the UK would not – and should never – be contested.  It is in the nature of democracy that people change their minds.  Was the result that delivered Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, ‘the settled will of the people’?  Of course not.  When John Major won a much larger share of the vote over Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1992, was that ‘the settled will of the people’?
In the words of one elderly customer I served in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, Scotland feels now like the abused spouse who has tasted nights free of fear and is very much prepared to just pack up and leave – and that’s what anti-independence politicians don’t understand. Conflating support with a ‘Yes’ for being a ‘Nazi’ only inspired supporters of independence. The more shrill the shouts of ‘Nazi’ and ‘traitor’, the more we knew that this distant and mysterious neo-liberal elite was panicking. People were supposed to just accept that banks should be given public money when they fail. People should just accept that when the things that made Britian great – the NHS, the Post Office, the trains, the utilities companies, in short, the very fabric of our united nation – was sold off to foreign, tax-dodging corporations, that it’s for some sort of greater good.
There-in lies the problem: we were told we’re better together but there’s so little left of what actually brought us together as a family of four nations. You can’t sell the family home and claim you’re able to keep a roof over our heads.
I’m not unusual as a Scot in that I was brought up by my parents to hold no respect for those that don’t earn it first. Pushing the Royal family through every media orifice only earns more of my contempt. If it’s Her Majesty’s Government, why is she not telling David Cameron to cut the cuts? She’s an educated woman with advisors but I don’t think ‘Madge’ has ever thought to ask herself why everything smells of fresh paint and cleaning wax. She might visit the food banks and refuge centres but has she ever heard a mother or father cry into the night because they cannot provide the things that their children need?
Need not want. Growing up in the Eighties, no-one ever seemed to be in need. We could still leave the front door unlocked and trust neighbours to look in on the kids. I remember that during the miner’s strike, my dad came home once and I overheard him telling my mum how a picket had thrown bins through the windows of the bus he was driving but it didn’t stop my dad pretending to be Santa at a Christmas party the bus drivers put on for the miner’s kids or our family being among thos ethat gave to the collections. We understood that there was real anger that communites were being torn apart. It wasn’t so much the mines being closed down that caused the furore so much as the sense that nothing was coming to replace what was usually the largest employer in the area. The UK government hasn’t learned anything but is now doing the same to public services.
If there is anger at how the referendum turned out, then ‘Yes’ supporters are angry at themselves for not being able to convince more people that they were being lied to or they’re feeling anger at older generations who’ve had so much and now in their twilight years, are throwing our future away from fear they might lose their big, fat pension pots. There seems to be so little will on the part of older people to at least leave the world as good as they found it, let alone better than it was but I don’t think the people of Scotland are unique in that regard.
The generational divide is there and increasingly so. Older people in Fife get very angry when they see signs of support for ‘Yes’ or overhear even mild support for an anti-UK government position such as on welfare. It’s very rare to see someone younger with an anti-independence political badge and so while there’s frustration with the rapacious policies of the millionaire government in London, there’s also a sure sense that change is coming. We just have to be patient, watching support for the Union die off a little every day and remember to be polite, respectful to our elders and to dust with lime as we slowly fill in that deep plague pit of the politics of selfishness.
It is hard to remember not all older people feel that way. My parents got abused in their church for saying they intended to vote ‘Yes’. There was that elderly woman I spoke to who compared Scotland to a battered spouse, encouraging us to laugh off the insults directed toward the staff in the bookshop who’d been wondering how Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader might change the political landscape in Scotland. There’s a hope that his election would push the SNP to keep tacking left and not, for instance, give the green light to fracking as soon as May’s Scottish elections are passed.
There’s a guy in my village who works on a new rig that is pulling so much oil out of the North Sea in a single day that it could power all of Scotland’s road and power station needs for a year. When media folk talk their usual uninformed nonsense about oil prices, they forget that many of us know people who still work in the business. We don’t go to a newspaper for that information or wait for the BBC to tell us what to think, we simply ‘dial a friend’. It’s a habit we’ve acquired and never let go.
A lot of what I see and hear comes from working in retail. Being in a bookshop has given me an ideal shop window to look out on the world. Edinburgh, generally speaking, voted ‘no’ but then it’s always had a reputation as being a bit weird, a bit selfish, a bit of the “You’ll have had your tea…” but by the same token, I suppose it was very considerate of the posh folk to gather in their ghetto up in Morningside. Come the revolution, we’ll know where to find them and all that…
Pitch black humour. Gallows humour. Humour so black you’d think you’d fallen into the orbit of a neutron star. It’s how you cope when you feel so constrained, you wonder how you’ll ever draw breath again. A lot of the hard words I used myself back then were simply frustration with The Commentariat, self-appointed experts flown in to loudly defame us as deranged, puerile, infantile or just plain nasty. We aren’t spiteful: we’re desperate. Who wants new nuclear missiles when the money could be beetter spent on feeding children? Our own children? And why would Russia invade a nation of food banks anyway? The oligarchs already have big fancy houses in the country here.
It was a friend who works in the media who first tipped me off about Nick Robinson’s spat with Alex Slamond at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Then the video appeared in Twitter and then later, with more than enough warning that people were aware of what had gone down – more than 400,000 views of the video by late afternoon – Nick Robinson then spouted his gash about: “The First Minister would not answer”. If there was single incident that highlighted the disconnect between what people were actually talking about in pubs, shops, at home, at work and what the media wanted us to think was being said, it was that episode.
If the media did talk a balanced message then you had to travel to find it. I was in Hong Kong when the result was announced. From our hotel room, we could still access all the world’s news channels. The contrast with the BBC couldn’t have been greater. The French had a team in a camper van going round Scotland in the weeks before the vote, asking folks opinions. The Dutch spoke about the implications for Europe. Norwegians discussed whether plans for a North Sea ‘energy loop’ would go ahead and as for Max Kiesler on RT… The world really was watching!
When we’d arrived a couple of days earlier, the local news showed pro-democracy activists waving not only the Saltire but the Catalan flag as they faced down ranks of blank-faced police. After the result, the Saltires were gone. We’d had a chance to lead the way, inspire other nations trying to attain independence and democracy and blown it. Then came Alex Salmond’s resignation speech and somehow, that didn’t feel like a punch to the gut. In falling on his political sword, this man who had so irritated people – even his supporters – with his smug patter for years had in that one act ensured that a thousand flowers would bloom where that thistle of Scotland had fallen.
In retrospect, that one resignation must have felt to David Cameron like a victory, much as it must have felt to the first hero who discovered what it feels like to fight the hydra. What is not understood, time and again, is that the desire for independence is more than just the aspiration to see national government returned to our capital: it’s about the need for fully participatory, unicameral democracy.
Edinburgh is the city, the size of a town that thinks like a village. We’re never as many as six degrees of separation from knowing someone who is someone. That was part of the magical appeal of independence: the people who would run our national government were going to be no further removed from our daily lives than the town councillor who lives a couple of streets away.
Watching Jeremy Corbyn’s first go as Leader of The Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions was a reminder to David Cameron that behind each of those MPs on the benches opposite were real people who didn’t vote for unearned privilege and the despoiling of what was once ‘Great’ Britain. He had to hear real people’s life experiences behind each of those questions and it was clearly making him uncomfortable.
And that was what was great about the referendum: the chance to make the wealthy, the unelected, the self-appointed elite very, very uncomfortable.
Ordinary people are now much less embarrassed to object to signs of colonialism and the expectation that we should have to stand – let alone sing – a funereal dirge that begs for the continuance of monarchy and therefore denies the rights of full citizenship and democracy taken for granted in other countries. You see folk and get in conversation with them and you never can tell how they voted and even if you subsequently disagree with the choice they made at the time, it’s always interesting to hear their reasons why because sometimes, you’ll hear people concede that they would vote differently this time. People never speak about making the switch from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’: it’s always the other way around.
So now, there’s a sense of liberation in the air and that having opened the door just a crack, the great unknown is not so fearful. What will be interesting in the years ahead is to see how our political awakening affects people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will you, our friends and family, also have the courage to stop doffing your caps? Once you stop believing the media, you’ll find that the emperors really do have no clothes and your rulers hold no cards to play except your fears.

 

Why so many Scots are voting ‘Yes’

One interesting phenomena I’ve observed in the last couple of days is the number of people in the media worrying about share prices and the slight fall in stock values for companies such as Standard Life. This worry has now reached some friends on Twitter who, to put it politely, are sufficiently comfortable that the amount of tax they pay is as much a lifestyle option as the colour of their carpets. Middle class problems, eh?

Poor people in Scotland worry about where the next meal is coming from or whether they’ll have to rely on the support of a food bank next week because they weren’t give sufficient hours on their zero-hours contract job to make ends meet. They worry about where they’re going to find the extra money to pay a so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’.

A three per cent drop in market value is what happens when you use your annual statement to shareholders as a political tool, warning of the risks of a ‘Yes’ vote. The markets are now correcting for the risk that some directors said earlier in the year their companies were exposed to. This is what happens in stock markets. People make projections based on your assessments of risk. If you say that X is risky and Y is not, when X is about to happen, investors get frightened.

In 2008, very few economists or ‘market experts’ predicted the collapse caused by trade in bundles of sub-prime mortgages and now we’re supposed to trust their expert analysis of the risks of a ‘Yes’ vote?

I have news for you: we don’t care. We really, really don’t care. We’re tired of glass ceilings and we’re tired of picking up your bill for unsupervised banks and for the ideologically-driven drivel of ‘austerity’ which is really nothing more than mechanism by which privatisation of public services is sneaked in the back door in advance of TTIP.

As you’ve hurtled from one meeting to another in London, whether in the back of a taxi or a limo, you’ve probably not had time to notice the poor people on the streets. Well guess what? They’re just like us here in Scotland. I’m not the only one to still be looking for a good job in the downturn. I don’t own shares, equity or even contribute to a private pension. Those things require a well-paid job.

I’m one of the 99%. You know, one of the so-called ‘little people’ but guess what? I have a vote. My little person’s little vote probably doesn’t account for much but it is mine.

I’ve watched you in your limousines and your taxis, I’ve seen the way you talk about us on news and current affairs programs and the way that you write about us in your right-wing newspapers. We want to work but we can’t because of choices you made. Congratulations! You got rich selling our stuff, our natural monopolies – energy utility companies, train companies, postal services and now the NHS – on the cheap and made yourself a nice fat profit. I’m happy for you. Really.

Now I’m here to collect on what you’ve previously charged to account. No good debt goes unpaid and all that.

While you’re worrying about a slight drop in share price, I see neighbours who depend on public services. While you worry about long-term economic prospects and talk about fiscal blah, I’ve seen people hurry embarrassed from a food bank, people who have jobs that simply don’t pay well enough for them to guarantee three meals a day for their children.

Well, my little vote plus their little vote plus their friend’s little vote outnumber your rich man’s ‘No’ vote. So go play, trade your shares and your stock options but remember this: everything has a price. The price for your illicit, unethical gain is about to run its term and now it’s time to pay.

We’ve learned how to live without, to make do and mend, to survive but you haven’t. You’ve simply acquired lots of stuff. Let’s hope it’s enough to see you through. This neo-liberal party is at an end. It’s time to unload the jack-hammers, the sledge hammers and the crowbars, this house of corruption and ill-gotten gain is coming down because we Scots can do more than Occupy London, we can do a Matthew 21:12 and smash some glass ceilings.

That’s why I and so many other Scots are voting YES.