Westminster Hall Debate - Library services in south Manchester

Below is my speech from yesterday's Westminster Hall debate on Library Provision in south Manchester:

Thank you Mr Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship this afternoon.

I am delighted to have secured this short debate in Westminster Hall regarding libraries in South Manchester. I want to make most of my remarks with regards to Barlow Moor library on the Merseybank estate, and the debate has been sparked by the decision of Labour run Manchester City Council to close Barlow Moor Library as part of their cost cutting programme.
Before I give the House a brief history of Barlow Moor library and the Council’s policy on the provision of library services I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the staff that work in our libraries in South Manchester. I suppose that I ought to declare an interest because I’m very fortunate to hold 3 of my Friday surgeries in libraries in my constituency – Chorlton, Withington and Didsbury, and I appreciate the work that staff do to constantly improve our local libraries.

Manchester has had a tough budget settlement, and has been made particularly hard because of the front loading of the reductions. But the response from the Labour Council has been to use the tough Budget as a excuse to carry out cuts that they have wanted to carry out for many years but have never thought that they could get away with politically and to make politically motivated cuts with the intention of discrediting the Coalition and the attempts to tackle the Budget deficit.

When Labour announced their Budget it included the axing of a number of frontline services including libraries and leisure centres. The Labour Party said that there was no alternative, blaming the budget settlement and Coalition cuts. The Liberal Democrat opposition on the Council put forward an alternative budget which would have kept open all the libraries and leisure centres, but was voted down by Labour. But it wasn’t the alternative budget that nailed the lie that there was no alternative to cutting frontline services like Barlow Moor Library and leisure centres. It was the huge community campaign against the closure of Levenshulme Baths. From a position of there being no alternative to the closure of the Baths, the Council has done a complete u-turn and Levenshulme Baths will now remain open. The Council failed to con people into believing that there was no alternative, and then got cold feet under the enormous pressure from the campaign to save the pool.

So why do the Council want to close Barlow Moor Library? Well the simple fact is that they have wanted to run down the library service on the Merseybank estate for years, with no real commitment to maintain the local library and instead concentrating resources on the main libraries, including a multi-million pound investment at Central Library. The Council has shown a serious lack of commitment to Barlow Moor Library over the years. One of the first campaigns I was involved in, even before I had been elected as a local Councillor, was opposing plans by the Labour Council to reduce the hours at Barlow Moor library to save money. At the time we warned that reducing the hours would ultimately threaten the future of the library and this has been proved to be true.

More recently the library was burnt down in 2001, and despite promises to the contrary the library was not rebuilt, and instead was relocated into a shop unit on the other side of the road. When the library was burnt down it was agreed that the Council should delay the rebuilding of the library while discussions continued about the revamping of the shops and the opportunity for a joint service centre on the Merseybank Avenue. But now it is clear that there was never any intention from the Council to press ahead with this much needed investment. The plans, while supported by officers, were dropped by Labour councillors, with the Labour leader of the Council , Richard Leese, stating that Merseybank was not a priority, despite falling in the top 5% of deprivation in the country.
So the question is, why was the library simply not rebuilt with the insurance money? First of all it would appear that the Council did not get enough money to rebuild the library, but they also chose to spend about half of the insurance money clearing the old site. This is a scandal.
Instead the temporary library on the other side of the road was to remain, but has only been open for 15 hours each week. Is it any wonder that library usage at Barlow Moor is lower than any other permanent library, when it is open for so few hours? Compare this to Chorlton Library, which is currently open 61 hours each week. This is the crux of the problem. While investment has been made in the main district libraries, the smaller local libraries, which tend to be in the more deprived areas have been neglected. In my view there has been a deliberate policy of concentrating resources in the bigger libraries, and at the same time, starving the smaller ones and running them down so that they can ultimately be closed.

Since the announcement that Barlow Moor Library, along with others in Clayton and Rackhouse, would close, the Labour Executive Member with responsibility for libraries has been on a charm offensive, attending consultation meetings on the future of library services, attempting to blame the proposed closures on the Coalition Government. At the meeting on Merseybank Cllr Amesbury even had the cheek to claim that the Council had just been about to rebuild the library when the Government cuts were announced – this is just simply not true, and when challenged, he made no attempt to back up his claims.
But the series of meetings is not just about Cllr Amesbury trying to deflect the blame for Labour closing libraries in Manchester, it is also about a consultation on the future of the libraries. My concern, which I voiced at the Barlow Moor library meeting, is that the consultation will be very unbalanced and give the Council the opportunity to press ahead with its policy of running down the smaller libraries at the expense of the larger ones. Far more people will fill in the “Over to you” consultation who use the bigger libraries, that have much greater footfall. While Council officers have agreed to make the consultation documents available locally, the reality is that people are far more likely to pick up the document in the library and therefore the consultation will be skewed in favour of those bigger libraries. And at the same time what incentive is it for a user of Barlow Moor library to respond to a consultation when the decision to close the library appears to have already been made?

I am trying to get as many people to respond to the consultation and to sign our petition against the closure of Barlow Moor library. The people of Levenshulme have shown that the Council can be forced into a u-turn, and we now know that there is an alternative to Labour’s cuts.

Recently one politician said and I quote that “Libraries are a vital resource; they are hubs of our communities. Libraries open doors to a world of opportunities, not just for reading, but for learning, self-improvement, access to employment. Closing libraries denies many people these chances and leaves us all poorer.” I’m sure that the Minister could quite easily said this, and I know that I could have said it. But this was actually a quote from the Labour Shadow Libraries Minister. It’s just a shame that Manchester Labour Councillors seem to think that it’s acceptable to close such an important local facility.

The worry is that the consultation will result in further cutbacks to our library services, possibly a reduction in hours across all libraries. The consultation document points out that a reduction in hours can always be reversed once budgets are not so tight, but this policy somewhat contradicts the decision to close libraries like Barlow Moor. I’m fairly certain that most library users would prefer to see a reduction in hours across the board rather than library closures, but the problem is that a reduction in hours is much more likely to be in addition to library closures. We ought to be looking at all alternatives to reducing library hours, whether it be through a volunteer network of library supporters or through other cost savings, because the danger is that the hours will not be restored in future years. This is particularly the case in the smaller more vulnerable libraries, that may end up with the same fate as Barlow Moor library in years to come.

Finally Mr Gale, I would like to mention the mobile library service which faces the prospect of being wiped out following the consultation in Manchester. The provision of mobile library services cost approximately 6 times as much per visit as a permanent library – £13.26 as opposed to £2.27 for permanent libraries. The library service in Manchester says that there is evidence that a significant number of the mobile library users also visit other libraries. Clearly these people would be relatively unaffected by the mobile library service being stopped. However there are also a relatively small number of mobile library users for which the service is a lifeline and as part of the consultation it is absolutely vital that these people are consulted with, to ensure that they are able to retain access to services.

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