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Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2013

Doncaster’s library service – like virtually all around the country – has found itself under huge financial strain in recent years. But with half its libraries now managed and run by 380 volunteers, as an alternative to closure, the new service has won the ‘Making a Difference in Yorkshire and Humber Award’ from Local Government Yorkshire and Humber. PSE talks to head of the library service Nick Stopforth.

In 2009, Doncaster’s 26 libraries were used by only 16% of the population at least once a year – a low figure that was on a downward trend.

A review, consultation and subsequent mayoral strategy in 2010 decided to cut expenditure per head from £19.70 to £12.30 by 2014-15, with fewer, better-served libraries. In February 2011, a decision was made to withdraw funding from 14 libraries, with a year’s grace – but of those, 12 remain open, run now by local volunteers. Only two had to close.

Looking back on the circumstances that led to these radical changes, Doncaster Council’s head of libraries over the last 18 months, Nick Stopforth, said: “This was within the wider context of Doncaster’s budgetary situation: a £70m reduction over three years, which has been extended even further now beyond £100m. Within that context, each department was reappraised.”

Talking about the consultations on changing the service, Stopforth explained: “It was a bit of mixed view that came back: certainly nothing so conclusive that meant we couldn’t go ahead with the changes that were later made. There was evidence suggesting people were accepting of the budgetary situation and understood that, but there was a strong element of appreciating the library service. A third of respondents said community managed libraries would be an option they would consider.”

£1.1m savings

Analytical work was done on the usage statistics, as well as assessments of the equality impact and the cost impacts, as well as mapping exercises and face-to-face interviews.

Stopforth said: “We saw we could achieve savings of £1.1m out of a budget of about £5.2m by reshaping the service to a community managed model. We identified 12 libraries that would move to a community management model, and at the same time we had two that closed.

“For all 12 libraries secured through community management, they were secured because people came forward.”

Even where there was little in the way of an active community group, parish council or similar organisation to orchestrate such a campaign, the council has managed to find volunteers, Stopforth said, through working with neighbourhood teams and local schools, for example. We also formed new groups: people who came together where there was nothing, no active group within a community beforehand, but came together because of the threat of library closure.

“The two libraries closed first and foremost because we did not have residents coming forward saying they wanted to keep the library to such an extent that we had to do something. There was no campaign, there was no activism, no strong usership.

“One of the libraries that we closed was very poorly performing, to the point it seemed it was just in the wrong place anyway. The other was very antiquated and had lots of problems with the building itself, so we couldn’t really have kept it going the way it was.”

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Legal battle

For obvious reasons, initial press and public reactions were negative and sceptical that the talk of community management was anything more than a smokescreen for cuts. There were headlines saying ‘14 library closures in Doncaster’ that prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband – the MP for Doncaster North – to say he was “horrified” at the plans.

The non-partisan ‘Save Doncaster Libraries’ campaign was launched, opposing both closures and the voluntary-managed model, and it has continued to oppose the plans.

The full council voted in March last year, by 43 votes to six, to allocate money to keep the funding for all the libraries by amending elected mayor Peter Davies’ budget. He over-ruled that decision.

His choice to do so was taken to the courts – and the legal process has not yet ended. On January 24 2013, the Court of Appeal granted campaigner Carol Buck leave to appeal the August 2012 High Court judgement that went against her and in favour of the mayor. Mr Justice Hickinbottom rejected arguments that Davies’ decision to over-rule the full council was unlawful.

But even those staunchest campaigners against what has happened in Doncaster seem to accept a return to 26 fully-funded libraries is unlikely, tweeting recently: “Save Doncaster Libraries wishes all regional campaigns luck and success. Stay Strong. We tried our best / all avenues.”

A dense network

An April 2010 report, ‘Better Libraries, Better Lives’, by consultant Annie Mauger, now the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, made it clear that Doncaster had a very dense network of libraries, more so than other metropolitan areas.

Stopforth said: “It is a large metropolitan borough with lots of geographical differences and a lot of social and demographic differences – but 26 libraries was still a lot and we felt we could afford to trim those two without it impacting on people in those areas or the service as a whole.

“The only thing we did say was that we would increase our mobile provision for those areas and we did that.”

Mauger’s report, which raised concerns about the management model and lack of frontline library skills at the time, rejected some alternative governance models and insisted on the need for a well thought-through strategy.

Ongoing council funding

The two libraries that had to go closed in December 2011, and the community managed ones got up-and-running from early 2012.

Stopforth suggested the experience so far had been “successful”, though conceded there was still a “huge amount to do”.

But he added: “There are two main reasons it’s been successful; the communities themselves and the people coming in to make it work, but also the fact that Doncaster Council still contributes a significant amount [£100,000] of funding to those libraries.

“The infrastructure of those libraries is still Doncaster Council funded throughout. We’ve waived the rent on those buildings, we cover the rates – which would be a substantial cost for the community groups if they were to take those on. The utility bills are covered by the council.

“The entire book stock is still Doncaster Council book stock, the IT network, any kind of training and support is paid for by the library service. I think that’s why we’ve been more successful than other local authorities which have had to make those tough decisions: they’ve had to close libraries and they’ve said to community groups, ‘you take it on’.

“But in Doncaster basically every expense is covered by the council, and the income the community groups achieve through those libraries, small as it is, goes back to the community groups. In fact there are only two areas we ask community groups to pay for: telephone bills and consumables and that’s it.”

But he added: “We want all those libraries to develop a business plan and to be thinking about the future, because there’s no guarantee looking forward to 2017/18 – we don’t know what is going to happen in terms of our funding, other than it’s going to get worse. But the mayor has been really clear in his support of these libraries.

“They will remain supported in terms of funding until they become self-sufficient, until they have a business plan in place and can attract such funding that makes them viable as their own businesses.”

Duties and expectations

There is now a formal association of community managed libraries, and many of the individual groups are properly constituted, some with CLG status.

The volunteers manage their own rotas and recruitment, via lead volunteers with more time. Each library has a Service Level Agreement, setting out what the council expects.

Stopforth said: “I still see these libraries as part of our statutory offer, as long as we’re paying for the book stock and the information resources. As a result, community groups have certain duties imposed upon them, such as having a nominated safeguarding role amongst the volunteers.”

The 12 libraries vary in the amount of volunteers they’ve attracted – from 10 up to 90 – with critics suggesting those with lower numbers could struggle long-term to maintain any kind of decent library provision with reasonable hours.

But Stopforth said the volunteers do now have quite a bit of freedom to shape how their library offers services – one is putting on new kinds of events, for example, while another has physically re-shaped the interior of its library.

Avoiding a two-tier service

A professional library service manager has quarterly meetings with the groups, and each of the 12 community managed libraries is ‘paired’ with one of the council-staffed libraries. Stopforth said: “If you’re stuck as a volunteer with a question you can’t answer or you don’t know how to do something on the database for example, your ‘buddy library’ will help you and walk you through what to do or speak to the member of public directly and try and resolve it.

“But what I didn’t want, to be really clear, was the establishment of a two-tier service whereby you go to a volunteer library and get an experience that is not as good as a staff library. In my mind it is just about a different way of delivering the service. If you go into the volunteer library, you still expect to get the same range of stock, accessible and available to you, or you could still book a meeting room or still meet a friend just as you would do in a staff library. We’re working really hard to make sure it’s not a two tier service, or the service is seen to be detrimental simply because volunteers are offering it.”

Attitudes of library staff

With the voluntary, community-managed model likely to become ever-more prevalent in the delivery of public services, attitudes among professional staff to volunteers and vice-versa are important to examine. Unions, of course, will tend to oppose anything that sees paid roles disappear, and some staff will take umbrage at the idea that their role can be ‘reproduced’ by someone with much less training and experience, whether in a library or any other public service.

Asked about attitudes among the professional library staff, Stopforth told us: “As part of our savings plan and the move to having 12 staff libraries, there was a very large scale restructure of the service.

“Doncaster has come from quite a difficult position: an under-funded, under-recognised, Cinderella library service in effect. A lot of our buildings are very old, there hadn’t been enough investment or enough professionalisation of the service. So, it was also an opportunity to restructure and reprofessionalise; to ensure we had the right skills in the right places.

“To do that, with our budget situation, we had to go through a restructure and that meant there were staff at risk and there were competitive processes to fill those posts: that was across the board really at a very large scale. That was very challenging of course.

“Throughout, however, the staff as a whole did not see the volunteers as being the cause of their situation. They were well aware that it was the budgetary situation that caused the restructure, not the volunteers. The volunteers were a solution to a situation we had.

“I’ve been really keen all the way along to maintain as much of our service as is appropriate as possible which is why I still see it as being statutory service. I did not want to see these libraries being seen to be being ‘closed by stealth’ – which I think a lot of people were worried about, and see in other local authorities – or that we weren’t appreciating the needs of those communities that wanted to volunteer in their libraries.”

‘I would have expected more tension’

Stopforth further explained: “There was a big requirement on staff to support volunteers in those libraries to get them up and running. We did a huge amount of work around February 2012, having key staff going in to these libraries going into community management to train and monitor volunteers over a two to three month period.

“As a management team we were sensitive to staff in this situation, because there are lots of implications – TUPE springs to mind of course. We had to be really clear that we wouldn’t put staff at risk in a position where they were in a library alongside a volunteer, we just simply couldn’t do it.

“I wanted to ensure staff understood that I didn’t see these volunteers replacing their role.

“I think staff understood that. I was really interested by this fact, coming into this service, because I would have expected there to be more tension, more difficulties, and more challenges from staff. I think it’s to the credit of the staff that they were aware of the situation and responded to it. A number of key staff rolled up their sleeves and got on with supporting the volunteers.”

From ‘unachievable’ to an award

On December 6, Doncaster’s community libraries won Local Government Yorkshire and Humber’s ‘Making a Difference in Yorkshire and Humber Award’.

The mayor, Peter Davies, said: “Our thanks go to the volunteers – this is their award. Our 12 community managed libraries are giving residents the opportunity to make a real difference to their local areas and it is fantastic that this has been recognised. 380 volunteers aged from 18 to 90 are involved in the community libraries and this service is actively promoting healthy, independent living and skills development using a model that many thought impossible. Other areas will be following Doncaster’s lead on this.”

Stopforth added: “We achieved something that a lot of people thought was unachievable: there was a lot of fear amongst campaigners and no doubt amongst staff as well. A lot of people probably thought ‘it’s just words’ and these libraries would close. Yet we’ve got to a point where we have a network of 24 libraries still and we’ve achieved a £1.1m saving. The award is a fantastic recognition of that, and we’re really proud of it.

“I think there may be eyebrows raised in some quarters – ‘will this lead to more libraries going to volunteer management?’ My view is, we have a good balance now. I’ve not got any pressure on the budget for this year coming up to have to go through this process again, so there’s an opportunity to embed best practice and let it grow. I will however have budgetary pressures in future years and innovation and creative responses, whilst maintaining a statutory service, will be the standard requirement.

“We want to be really positive about our library service and what we can achieve: it’s about trying to get that positivity in really tough times in what you can do differently and innovatively but still maintain the service.”

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