Over 500 people joined the protest on 5 March to show opposition to the councils ludicrous plans for the library service in Lambeth. The protest was a brilliant show of public support and sent a clear message to the council – campaigners won’t stop until every library is saved.
They were joined by local writer Will Self who slammed the ‘healthy living centre’ plans for our libraries. Attacking the claim by some Labour Councillors that mainly middle class people use libraries, Will pointed out that “Libraries are places where some of the most disadvantaged people can go.” This was backed up by UNISON joint branch secretary Ruth Cashman who explained the kind of people she helps on a daily basis, people needing help with housing benefit forms, women needing support from domestic abuse, newly arrived immigrants learning English and children doing their homework because there isn’t a computer or enough space at home for them to work.
Will Self explained what Gymtrification actually means in Lambeth; “I see the closure of these libraries as the front line in the class cleansing that’s going on in inner London”. He raised a laugh when he pinted out that; “Nobody wants to see a load of well-toned, wanker bankers cycling to nowhere in the Tate library…”
Other local people have also put out social media support for the campaign, including Oscar Winner Mark Rylance, Richard Ayoade, Josie Long and Joana Lumley.
Council plans a shambles
But the fact is that the current plans from the council are in tatters. Keeping Tate South Lambeth open as a library, alongside Durning, was a huge victory for the campaign. But the decision to keep the archives in Minet will require library staff to remain onsite, and mean there is hardly any space for the supposed gym equipment from Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL). Carnegie library is being preyed on by another trust run by councillors and ex councillors which does not have the backing the local Labour Party branch.
Even if GLL does take over the buildings, the feeling of anger from local people is so strong that it is hard to imagine anyone using these facilities. GLL would be losing money hand over fist to run gyms in the libraries, unless of course Lambeth council throws good money after bad to keep them afloat.
The council has also failed to be clear on key aspects of the deal with GLL. What rents are being collected for the buildings? They have been described as “peppercorn”. What health and safety plans are in place? Has a risk assessment been done? Can children use the buildings? Recently UNISON was told by senior council management that they “didn’t know” if children under 16 could use those buildings.
Other burning questions remain unanswered by our secretive councillors. How much money will actually be saved by the council for closing these libraries? How much money is being spent by the council on converting the libraries? What are the break clauses in the contracts with GLL when the council realises a year from now that their plan has ended in disaster?
With three weeks to go the councils plans are a shambles. And it is hypocrisy that they have rejected the proposal from Susanna Barnes – which they had for 12 months – when they have just nodded through a ridiculous plan for the healthy living centres.
The message from UNISON and local people is clear – there is still time for the council to come back to the table and work with us on an alternative proposal. Otherwise the current council will always be remembered as the Labour council that handed over 100 year old libraries to a gym company.