Ruth Cashman, joint Branch Secretary of Lambeth Unison thinks that some of the local councillors just aren’t aware of how devastating the consequences of cuts to the libraries are on the local community
There is a story circulating in library circles (and the Guardian) that is the source of both laughter and melancholy for those of us who campaign day in, day out for better library services. In it, concerned Oxfordshire resident Dave writes to his local council about cuts to his library service, arguing that surely there is another way to make savings. In fact, you may have written a similar letter to your councillor – demanding, pleading or reasoning for someone to step in and save your library. If so, you will also know that usually nobody replies. Thousands of people in Lambeth have written to their councillors and the (rare) reply usually consists of a couple of paragraphs of impersonal cut-and-pasted text written in “council officer speak”. However, Dave received a far more detailed reply. Maybe this is because Oxfordshire councillors have more time on their hands? Maybe his letter particularly hit home? Or maybe, given the author was the Prime Minister (the very person who cut the local authority’s budget in the first place), the Oxfordshire Council Leader felt more compelled to respond. On the gobsmacking cheek of David Cameron bringing the protection of local libraries to public attention, George Monbiot offered a simple explanation: “he appears to be blissfully unaware of the impact of his own policies.”
The Sieghart Review, an independent library report in to the national library network in England, revealed David Cameron is not alone in his utter ignorance of the lives he is damaging through his policies. One of the review’s major findings is that the exists an enormous gap between those making decisions for libraries and those who actually use them. The report notes that “socioeconomic groups A and B don’t visit libraries. But because they run the country and the media and much else, that means they think that libraries are a thing of the past. They think that now we have Kindles, we don’t need them, but they’re wrong.” Socioeconomic groups ‘A’ and ‘B’ are shorthand for people with higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, and professional jobs (for example, chief executives, senior civil servants, bank managers, journalists, PR suits and, of course, senior local government officers).
This brings us to Lambeth’s own blissfully unaware A’s and B’s and their latest proposal: The Culture 2020 Report. The Culture 2020 report “decommissions” five of Lambeth’s libraries, handing three of the buildings to Greenwich Leisure to run pay for gyms. The author of the report is a white man in the A/B group and it was then checked over by 16 other A/B officers at an annual cost to the people of Lambeth that is more than the savings suggested in the report, made by closing half Lambeth’s libraries (the top 5 alone earn £704,075). Finally, it was recommended to Cabinet by Jane Edbrooke, Cabinet Member Neighbourhoods and, you guessed it, another of our A/B decision makers.
Jane Edbrooke can afford to buy all her books on Amazon. Jane probably has a desk in one of her properties where she can read, write, and access the internet because she has the resources and skills to do so. Jane doesn’t rely on the library’s deaf club or dementia group. She has never walked into a library in tears after spending hours going round in circles on the universal benefit website trying to work out how to register, as a hungry child sits next to her. Jane Edbrooke is a relatively wealthy white woman with a university education, making decisions for people who, by and large, are not. Jane Edbrooke is a thirty something professional. It is worth noting that when she first joined the Lambeth Cabinet she was Business Implementation Lead for Nuffield Health. Nuffield Health operate private healthcare facilities and fitness Centres and announced a strategic alliance with Greenwich Leisure Ltd in 2011. I am not asking Jane Edbrooke to morph into being a black single mother living on a council estate, a widow struggling to understand benefits, or an asylum seeker with limited English, in order for her to relate to her constituents enough to make informed policy decisions. I am simply compelling her to make policy with the understanding these cuts do not only affect people like her. I am asking her to use her imagination and empathy and to look at the facts rather than falling back on lazy assumptions, draped in privileged ‘A/B’ class bias. If she or you want to find the resources to develop your imagination, empathy or understanding of evidence based policy making, visit your local library.
To illustrate this problem, I want to focus on a specific part of the Culture 2020 proposals which has received less attention than the short-sighted plan to “decommission” our libraries. Let’s take a look at how Lambeth Council plans to tackle inactivity. It is estimated physical inactivity is a contributing factor in for 1 in every 6 deaths (17%), and it is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability. For these reasons, Lambeth is making it a priority to increase the activity of its residents. Part of the rationale for the “bookish gyms” proposals is that the new mini gyms which will be built in the buildings which are currently Carnegie, Minet and South Lambeth Libraries, will help tackle Lambeth’s inactivity. There is a surface logic to this idea; not enough physical activity in an area? Build more gyms! But let’s look behind the proposals.
Do we need more gyms in these areas?
Lambeth Council’s own reports (Lambeth sports facilities strategy draft assessment report – Sept 2014 and Lambeth indoor sports facilities strategy and action plan – Jan2015) identify a relative shortage of static fitness facilities in the South of the borough and an unmet demand for community swimming and sports halls in the North of the borough (which had far more fitness centre provision). One report states that “in total, the assessment has identified 28 fitness facilities with 2,340 static fitness stations. The majority of fitness facilities are located from mid-Lambeth to the North of the Borough, with only six sites located in South of the Borough. Bishops ward has five health and fitness studios alone and it also has a relatively low population (compared with the rest of the Borough). This suggests that these facilities are catering more to commuters than to the resident population.” But Carnegie, Minet and South Lambeth libraries – the prospective gyms – are located in the north of the Borough, precisely where there is already more than enough fitness centre provision.
Tackling inactivity by building pay-for gyms in areas already saturated by pay-for gyms is illogical, innumerate and poor policy-making. But what does this have to do with the class bias of our A/B decision-makers, as we all know that the privileged do not have a monopoly on poor-decision making? To answer this, as with my plea to Ms Edbrooke, I’ll ask you to use your imagination and empathy. Let’s say you are a professional white woman in your early thirties having lunch at Pop Brixton with your financially comfortable, professional friends. You are talking about how you need to get more active, as you want to stay healthy. It is likely the discussion will focus on the nice pool at Virgin Active (annual membership: £750) versus the better choice of classes at GLL’s Brixton Rec (annual membership: £550) versus the convenience of the 24-hour Pure Gym (annual membership: £240 ). The idea of spending hundreds of pounds on gym membership does not seem impossible or an outrageous extravagance. You likely do not need to worry about who will watch your kids for free while you’re at a spinning class. You are not a kid who wouldn’t be allowed into said spinning class. You’re not a carer for someone with dementia who does not get a second to yourself. You are the right demographic for pay-for-gyms because you’re young and have disposable income to spend on being active. If you have a CV anything like Jane Edbrooke’s you will be very comfortable hanging out in a swanky sports centre. Thus, pay-for-gyms may be part of the solution for a portion of inactive society, but they will not be a solution for many people living in Lambeth. Activity cannot and should not be narrowed to expensive treadmills and power pump classes. If we want the people of Lambeth to be more active, we should provide solutions that fit into their lives, many of those lives have little in common with Jane and the A/B contingent.
How else can we help Lambeth’s citizens be more active?
As we have seen, pay-for-gyms only help a certain section of the community. Other ideas can help a wider range of people, just to name a few of many alternatives:
- Creating and maintaining safe and inviting parks and green spaces
- Encouraging kids from a young age to play and participate in activities
- Providing mental health support
- Reducing isolation, particularly in the elderly and non-English-speaking populations
- Tackling poverty and introducing a reality-based London living wage
- Preventing street crime and violence through community-based interventions
- Reducing high-density traffic and improving air quality and pollution levels
I’ve spoken to many of Jane Edbrooke’s constituents in the last few weeks. Some are angry and demanding her resignation; others say she has been ‘duped’ by Council officers and should not be held responsible for the mess that is the Culture 2020 proposals. I am perfectly willing to believe that these proposals aren’t driven by her and that she had no idea the damage she is proposing to our borough. However, now that she has been made fully aware of the potential damage, following the barrage of questions and objections she has received, there is simply no excuse for standing back and allowing these proposals to become policy.