Guest blog: Liam Murphy casts his eye over Wirral Council's controversial library closure plan
Liam Murphy has pretty much covered every angle of controversial library closures in Wirral. Here he guest blogs for Dale Street Blues on the emotive issue:
For the uninitiated, the council was about to close 11 of its 24 libraries, but just under two weeks ago culture minister Andy Burnham ordered an inquiry into the plans - the first such inquiry in 18 years.
The closures were part of a massive review of all cultural facilities in Wirral which aimed to stop it losing money hand-over-fist, and also included transferring various assets such as village halls and suchlike to their local communities to operate and run as they see fit, and transfer of museums and Birkenhead Town Hall.
This latter issue is not addressed below, largely because it is far less controversial - so far - but may be worth a blog entry at a later date.
No matter which way you look at it, the library closure saga in Wirral seems like a massive political own goal for the Labour-Lib-Dem leadership of the council. The Tory opposition has consistently accused them of only trying to push this through because there are no local elections in the borough this year, and it's difficult to ignore this allegation. For a start, anyone could see this plan would be incredibly contentious and not the kind of political high-wire act a coalition which started out on rocky ground would try with elections looming up. Also, it seemed much of the groundwork had been done well before last year's elections, but delays set in for some reason. I (and probably other journalists) had been getting regular "whispers" from a variety of sources suggesting massive closure plans for the libraries were in the pipeline, well ahead of last May, click here and here to read.
So this is an attempt at a round-up of what has been going on - and a look at what is on the horizon.
For a start, the decision by Culture Secretary Andy Burnham to call an inquiry into the closure of 11 of Wirral's 24 libraries could be a turning point for Wirral Council - and could have ramifications for other local authorities across the country.
Hours before the first four libraries were due to close the Culture Secretary decided he was "minded" after all to intervene, after the MLA (sponsored by his department and with whom he told Wirral Council to liaise over the closures) said it had serious concerns about the plans. Immediately after this the DCMS press office had indicated "the situation" could change...
Leader of Wirral Council Steve Foulkes has been absolutely consistent highlighting the need for Wirral to save money on outdated buildings and modernise the service. Whatever your opinion of the 'man and his plan', there can be little doubt that something had to be done. The cultural services budget has been in trouble for years (for examples click here and here) and and many other stories pre-dating these] and when all three parties shared power on the authority nothing had really been achieved to resolve this, apart from some tinkering on the margins, with Labour blaming the Conservatives for blocking cost-cutting measures and acting like an opposition party even while they shared power on the authority. It was easy to understand Cllr Foulkes' frustration, and his joy was evident when he was able to say to the Conservatives "You're sacked" in May 2007 and start work on dealing with the problems the council faced.
But Wirral has now had its library closure plans put on hold while this Government-ordered inquiry is carried out, and yet the council's need to save money remains. And if the inquiry were to result in an order to the council to retain the libraries, there would be a significant hole in the authority's budget. The Strategic Asset Review (SAR) - of which the library closures were just a part - aims to save ÃÂ£3million-plus. A rule of thumb in Wirral is every ÃÂ£1million spent by the council over the budget is equivalent to 1% on council tax, so it's plain that unless savings are made elsewhere us Wirral residents could be in for a big bill next year - after a not-insubstantial 4%-plus increase this year, or face other cuts.
The problems would appear have stemmed from several areas. On a public relations front, the Strategic Asset Review seemed "sneaked out" (to myself and other reporters I've spoken to) with a press release - which didn't even mention library and other closures. It was sent out just before 6pm one Monday evening. Unusually for the announcement of a policy of this significance there was no follow-up phone call to see if the email (which can get stuck for hours in company firewalls, or just plain misdirected) had arrived.
MEDIA RELEASE FROM WIRRAL COUNCIL
November 25, 2008
Transforming Wirral - delivering the Strategic Asset Review
Further details about Wirral Council's comprehensive review of its built assets will be heard at the next Cabinet meeting on Thursday November 27th.
A report by the Chief Executive of the Council explains how the authority will radically alter how it delivers key services over the next few years to ensure we provide better value for money for the Council Tax payer and support the regeneration of Wirral, particularly the most deprived parts.
Wirral's Strategic Asset Review recommends investing ÃÂ£20million over four years to develop a network of state-of-the-art multi-purpose complexes that could house multiple Council functions and be co-located with multiple key partners, such as the police and health service.
Cllr Steve Foulkes, Leader of Wirral Council, said: "Doing nothing was never an option. If we leave things as they are we will be left with crumbling buildings, mounting repair costs and escalating levels of council tax.
"It is essential that we carry out a comprehensive review of all the council's built assets to ensure they are fit for the 21st Century and beyond.
"By investing ÃÂ£20million to provide 'better but fewer' buildings, Wirral residents will be able to enjoy high-quality and efficient modern facilities while keeping Council Tax at an acceptable level.
"The residents of Wirral deserve to access excellent services from buildings that are modern and appropriate, without taxpayers having to pay for the burden of old, energy inefficient buildings that are no longer fit for purpose.
"Change is never easy and we understand that people can become attached to the buildings that they use and which are familiar to them. These proposals are rightly radical and comprehensive and will have implications for residents across the borough, not to mention many of our own staff. Through consultation and communication with all those affected, we hope to minimise any negative impact of these proposals and move towards the goal of sustainable, modern, energy efficient buildings which will also contribute to the regeneration of our poorest areas."
Whether this timing was intentional it's difficult to say. The Daily Post did the now famous front page (and two pages inside) accusing Wirral of "selling off its culture" a day later - effectively we had the whole day to work on the story and it was given a strong editorial line, with a powerfully written leader column - which pretty much set the tone for the subsequent coverage.
While most would accept that we have tried to be as balanced as possible, when most of the news is critical of one side of an argument there can be little doubt they are going to take hammering - and most of the news has been about the many and various campaigns and political movements to reverse the SAR, or parts of it: legal threats, new political parties, the Local Government Ombudsman and the last resort - Culture minister Andy Burnham.
Rumours abound (from well placed sources) of Labour councillors being told they would have been out on their ear if they voted against it. And the Lib-Dems - generally seen as being more tolerant of principled dissent - have six members facing disciplinary action over their decision to vote against the SAR at various council meetings. However, amusingly they also have the five cabinet members facing similar wrist-slapping for helping push through the SAR. Thus far, no decision has been made as to what will happen to any of them and the current local inquiry must now be a key factor in that decision. Bizarrely, Lib-Dem party councillors will have a say on this disciplinary action, even apparently being able to vote on their own disciplinary issue - but it would be interesting to know what the rank and file members (from Labour and the Lib-Dems) think of the SAR. So far few people have put their head above the parapet to say "it's great, bring it on". Nonetheless, all of this internal friction has created ill-will within the power-sharing parties, as councillors face criticism for the unpopular policy, but feel unable to speak out against it, or risk getting into trouble with their party hierarchy if they do speak out.
Another issue was the timing of the SAR, with the consultation over the Christmas period, which led people to think their views weren't being taken very seriously, and then the changes made to the SAR following these public meetings which failed to mollify public opinion. Analysis of the petitions by the authority indicated that most opposition was to the closure of facilities such as Woodchurch Leisure Centre - and this was reversed, along with a stay of execution on Guinea Gap which had quite a significant tranche of support. Birkenhead Central Library, which had provoked an particularly poignant article by the Daily Post's David Charters was also saved, with the council subsequently even seeming to suggest it had never been under threat, despite its inclusion in the cabinet report. But despite the changes, the problem of widespread public opposition did not go away. If anything it continued to grow.
It was, arguably, even exacerbated by the decision to close libraries which no one had realised were at risk - Eastham and Woodchurch - while Bromborough, Upton and Pensby were to be retained. No one felt they had been consulted on this and there was shock at the decision, which in the end largely prompted the Lib-Dem revolt. Speaking to many of the so-called "dissident" Lib-Dems, few deny the need for something like the Strategic Asset Review (given the financial problems faced by Cultural Services), but all are to varying degrees angry at the way it has been conducted.
Another problem for the council leadership has been the reaction of local MPs. It may be cheeky to point out, but the level of anger seems to be in proportion to how marginal the MP's seat is perceived to be. This is not to say it is just politically motivated anger and that the same MPs wouldn't react the same way if their seats were considerably safer, just an observation by someone who is paid to be sceptical. Let's look at it: Stephen Hesford in Wirral West (who faces the onslaught of a well-coordinated and tireless campaign by his nemesis, the Conservative candidate Esther McVey, also highly outspoken on the library closures issue) has been vociferous in his condemnation of the SAR and personally delivered a 103 page report to the Local Government Ombudsman calling for the SAR to be investigated and overturned.
Ben Chapman (Wirral South) has petitioned Parliament on the issue, although Angela Eagle has been less clear, urging the council in January to "listen to local people and think again" but then in March saying "it's important not to get too worried about individual buildings" and criticising the Conservatives for "grandstanding from the sidelines" while Labour take the difficult decisions[http://bit.ly/libraries13]. A January 14 report in the Wirral News is one of the few times I have seen a comment in local media by Frank Field in Birkenhead, who must have one of the safest Labour seats in the country, when he said: "Clearly the library touches a nerve in the town which the other facilities don't, and I would hope the top table is listening very carefully to that." Taken in isolation it seems to be more of a hint from a seasoned politician about potential pitfalls than a call to arms.
Angela Eagle's comments have a ring of truth to them. Labour and the Lib-Dems are taking the difficult decisions but the problem is they have to convince the public - and the voters - that they are the right decisions too. Just because they're difficult decisions doesn't make them right or wrong. What seems to have been lacking is getting people "on board", making them look at the issues the council faces and becoming involved in making those difficult decisions. I'm not offering answers on how this would be done on a practical basis, but most people I have spoken to (and it's a lot of people) have indicated they felt the whole SAR was too far along before the public were brought into it.
Early on in this Steve Foulkes said the consultation meetings had "shown politics and democracy is alive and kicking in Wirral".[DailyPost 13/1] Unfortunately, somewhere around 50-60,000 people signed petitions - which were unsurprisingly negative towards Labour and the Lib-Dems in how they were phrased and put together. When you consider that in the 2008 local elections only 87,000 ballot papers were used to elect the council, that is a lot of probably politically active people who have a reason to vote against the current ruling parties. Added into this mix is the move by various groups to set up political parties campaigning on the library closures, and the Conservatives (very sensibly, spotting an apparently open goal) pursuing this as vigorously as possible - it's a powerful campaigning issue handed out on a plate, with a simple message: "save our libraries", and it's a story that is not going away in a hurry. May 2010 elections are starting to loom...