13 Dec 2011

Glos County determined to make same mistakes re libraries?

Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have done an excellent update on where we are with the court ruling - click on read more below to see it. I have however just heard that the County are snubbing the planned meeting to discuss the very issues that got them into court - see press report here. I can only say that I am bitterly disappointed that not a single member of the cabinet or representative of the library service will be attending the open public meeting. It seems once again new plans are being drawn up without any discussion with service users.  Where is the fresh and open dialogue that surely as members of the public we can expect? Should GCC not be at pains to demonstrate they are doing things properly this time after all their mistakes?

The meeting is still going ahead tomorrow. I have written to my County Councillor Tony Blackburn to express my dismay at this approach by the County - see letter below.

The campaign have also sent GCC a paper with recommendations on best practice by other authorities undertaking library reviews, the findings of Charteris report to DCMS and advice from Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, as well as my own senior library management experience over the last 25 years in Devon and Gloucestershire. It is vital GCC learn's from their mistakes and listens this time. Lastly see here a joint open letter to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey (the minister who is supposed to superintend councils' delivery of library services) from library user groups nationwide - if you are a group do consider signing. 

Letter to Cllr Blackburn:

Tony, As you will know I have been very concerned by the way that GCC has handled the library closures. The High Court has now found GCC’s plans unlawful and all of their library plans are to be quashed. GCC were ordered to pay the Claimant all of their costs and the judge ordered that GCC cannot appeal the judgement. Even though GCC has claimed that the judge declared their library plans do not contravene the 1964 Public Libraries Act this is not strictly the case. Put simply, the judge cannot proclaim on this as it is the Secretary of State to do this.

GCC had also claimed "hyperbole, exaggeration and hysteria" on the part of the campaigners. But Judge McKenna, reflecting on how the case had been conducted, described the campaigners' approach as "perfectly reasonable" and "proportionate" even in the areas where their legal claim had not been successful. Meanwhile Mark Hawthorne told Channel 4 News that the case had been lost on "a very small technical point" . This is a direct contradiction of the judge's own remarks just beforehand, in which he called the breach of equality duties involved "substantive, not merely a technical or procedural defect".

To comply with the court’s ruling, GCC has to scrap all of their previous library plans and go back to the drawing board. This is a great opportunity for residents and community groups to help shape future library plans.  If we can discuss and agree on some fundamental points, we can ensure a library service that is fit for purpose, especially where equality is a major point (poorer areas such as Hester’s Way, Matson, Tuffley etc, and for vulnerable or disadvantaged library users). I am therefore dismayed that Mark Hawthorne is not planning to attend the meeting on 14th December to look at these very issues. It is suggested that this is just a pressure group but the meeting has been set up to promote positive dialogue and a way forward.

I urge that the County does find ways to engage with all those who are passionate about our libraries. It is vital the same mistakes are not made again. Please can you find ways that those voices can be heard.

All the best - Philip

The High Court has ruled Gloucestershire County Council’s plans for our public library service to be unlawful.
On Wednesday 16th November 2011, His Honour Judge McKenna ruled that Gloucestershire County Council’s plans for our public library service were unlawful on equalities grounds. See here for more of the legal details in a statement from Public Interest Lawyers, and read our response , media coverage of this landmark ruling and response from Gloucestershire library users. The ruling follows over a year of campaigning, the granting of permission for judicial review back in July, and a three day High Court hearing in September.

We hoped that the ruling would mark a fresh start for our library service, and that the Gloucestershire County Council administration would take some time to absorb the judge’s words, before starting work on rectifying their mistakes and coming up with an improved, equitable and LAWFUL library strategy.

Unfortunately Council Leader Mark Hawthorne has instead attempted to downplay the ruling’s implications. This is extremely worrying, and questions whether Cllr. Hawthorne can be trusted with our public services. A useful briefing note from Public Interest Lawyers explaining the full implications of the ruling can be found here.

Now, more than ever, library users and councillors need to pull together to ensure the job is done properly this time. Cllr. Hawthorne has, for the past year, ignored numerous warnings about the illegality of his administration’s plans, and consequently wasted £100,000 of Gloucestershire taxpayers’ money defending himself in a completely avoidable court case – he must not be allowed to lead the county down this dangerous (and expensive) path again.

We are holding a public meeting on Wednesday 14th December (more info here) to discuss the ruling and ways forward. Cllr. Hawthorne, Libraries Portfolio Holder Cllr. Antonia Noble and senior officers have been invited, and we hope they will take this opportunity to engage meaningfully with service users, and begin a constructive diaologue going forward.

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