I adore reading and I adore libraries. If I had used libraries less as a child I wouldn’t be who I am today. Without libraries we would all be emotionally, culturally, intellectually and spiritually poorer.
High-profile individuals from Philip Pullman to Nicky Wire have been expressing the same sentiments recently. As a result planned library closures should not go ahead, they argue. I, however, do not agree with them. Despite my love and respect for libraries I have had no qualms about closures since I read Leeds City Council’s proposals for their library network.
They have identified that about £1 million worth of books is unavailable to users most of the week, sitting behind the locked doors of libraries with opening hours that are limited because they have so few users every week (35 in one case). They are thus considering closing twenty underused branches. This plan would entail shifting their stock of books to the remaining libraries of Leeds and extending opening hours, making more books available, more of the time. Sure, some people will have to travel a bit further, maybe even hop on a bus (simply a different bus for those who already use public transport to get to a library) but do not forget that the council is not proposing to abolish libraries altogether. It is not proposing to decimate our cultural heritage, damage our educational opportunities, or any other such anti-cuts hyperbole aimed at councils. It is not even proposing to offer fewer books. It is proposing to take the sensible route of improving the library service and, in the process, saving some money. Offering more for less, essentially. If they were planning to close all, or even most of, their public libraries then I would see a valid reason to protest.
Leeds City Council have demonstrated that it is possible for the public sector to cut back without provoking the grave decline in the quality of services that has been predicted by the Labour Party, the TUC, the NUS et al. By choosing to recognise problems and seek to improve the library service only after being subjected to a cut in its grant from the government, Leeds City Council have also demonstrated, even more significantly, that when given the money the public sector will spend it, regardless of whether that makes for a good, efficient service.
Never forget where this money comes from: the income tax we students will soon have to pay, the VAT we do pay, the myriad of other taxes that governments have implemented. When it comes to libraries, we should not be protesting for poorly-used branches to stay open. We should be urging councils to be more efficient, reminding them of the source of their income. We should be urging them to reorganise all their important services as Leeds is intending to do with its libraries. Sensible debates about spending cuts need to take place, but this has so far been prevented by party-political games and point-scoring. The coalition government says it’s Labour’s fault for overspending. Labour says that the cuts don’t have to be as deep. The former accuse the latter of having ruined the country, and the latter accuse the former of planning to ruin the country. It is pure Punch and Judy, and we are supposed to pick a side to support. However, if we champion spending cuts we are heartless monsters, and if we oppose them we are irresponsible fools in denial of our recent past. There is no middle ground between the two opposing views.
Yet that is precisely what we need. Endless confrontation, promoted by the many councils (including Leeds, incidentally, whose approach to libraries I support) arguing that the cuts imposed by central government are too much, is not in the interests of the nation. The Labour-led Leeds City Council, for example, is planning to axe, amongst other services, day centres for the elderly and those with mental illnesses, and they blame this on the coalition government. Using care for needy people as a political weapon in this way is wrong. Even worse, councils are cutting these services whilst keeping on their payrolls executives with larger salaries than the Prime Minister. They have seen the opportunity to protect themselves and their own pay at the expense of the most disadvantaged because they assume they can blame central government and project themselves as victims of a guillotine approach to public spending. Can we really call the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council who earns £245,000 a year a victim?
Cooperation between central and local government could ensure that the spending cuts are as equitable as possible. It cannot be denied that Whitehall and councils working together, focusing on their citizens and ignoring political capital, is going to lead to better spending decisions than are being made at present with such strife between local and central government. Council leaders should embrace the cuts, using them as an opportunity to subject themselves to some serious self-scrutiny about how and where they spend money. They could launch widespread public consultations, asking us what services we actually want, rather than assuming that councillors know what is best for us. In this way, councils are uniquely placed to cut through the dogma and bridge the gap between the pro-cuts and anti-cuts camps by reassuring us all that spending less will not destroy the country, economically or otherwise. I do not believe that it is too much to ask our public servants to admit that they have made mistakes in the past. We will forgive the repentant sinner who vows to henceforth do good.
In short, the spending cuts are a rallying cry for the government and for councils to spend money better. They are a weapon in a war that must be fought: the war against public sector extravagance and waste.
Or we can keep underused libraries open and pass the bill on to our children.