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?

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don’t look back

…unless it’s a good view.  The older blogs are now off-line and set to ‘private’… and that’s the great thing about using WordPress for blogging.  It’s not only free but that you don’t have to make changes permanent, at least, not until you have definitely, probably, very likely made your mind up.

After much fiddling about, I’ve got the template chosen and set-up little bells and whistles like the live Twitter feed at the bottom of the page.  Now it’s back to work and I’m not complaining.  Look at the view from my office window:

The view from the office across the Forth to Edinburgh

That there in the distance, concealed by the haze, is Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.

veni, vidi, wow

…so here I am on a new blog.  After blogging for nearly ten years at the time of writing, it feels refreshing to be starting again from zero.

The old blog, Hooked on Books, has really out-lived its usefulness.  It was originally set-up as an experiment at connecting with regular customers at the bookshop I was managing at the time, Methvens Booksellers in Worthing.  It grew to include book reviews, reviews and lists of favourite books by the staff, ideas for the shop renovation that was supposed to happen once ArgentVive took over the business and then onto a general talking point for news about forthcoming books, authors and other publishing related stuff.

I’ve created other blogs: one of these showcased short-stories that I’d written and which would otherwise be filed away doing nothing, another was an online gallery for my paintings and yet another was created to allow friends and family to keep updated on travel and other arrangements for my wedding to Rose last year.

The desire to move to a new blog came about slowly but essentially follows on the coat-tails of a lot of other stuff; the stuff of which life is lived.

Some readers will be aware that I left The Edinburgh Bookshop quite abruptly.  It came not long after Rose and I moved to a beautiful location on the Fife coast.  In little over a year, I’d experienced some very dramatic highs and lows: the sudden death of my younger brother, Gavin; my wedding to Rose; Rose and me attacked in our own home in the middle of the night; the sale of the flat; our move of house…  Somewhere along the way, I realised that I wasn’t giving 100% to the folk I care most about and spurred by the way I saw a friend mis-treated at work, I decided it was time to change.

I can’t remember who first uttered the words ‘Be the change you want to see…’ but this is me, still ripping-up everything that came before and only holding onto those people and those experiences I value.  Our new house has now – in just two months – become more like a new home.  An old career – of nearly 15 years – has been left behind as Rose and I begin a new business.  Quite simply, though there will always be printed books, there is for various reasons simply no will on the part of publishers to ensure the future of the printed trade and therefore experienced booksellers.  Looking back, it was inevitable that I would get around to the blogs as none of them really captured the recent dramatic events and the changes that followed.

Here’s to the future.  I came, I saw, I’m living it…