CROYDON’S SPENDING figure for Upper Norwood library had been “plucked from the air” Friday night’s meeting of the council”s scrutiny committee heard.
The accusation came from scrutiny committee vice chairman Cllr Sean Fitzsimons as the committee debated Croydon council cabinet’s controversial decision to give Upper Norwood joint library funding of just £75,000 next year.
Cllr Fitzsimons, told Cllr Tim Pollard, council deputy leader and cabinet member for culture, “You seem unconcerned about the costs and justification behind this decision.” Cllr Fitzsimons (Lab. Addiscombe) said the report was very confident about the £245,000 it would cost to run UNJL. He told Cllr Pollard: “It would be really interesting to hear from you to see how you justify that figure”
Cllr Pollard: “The £245,000 is the contribution of the two boroughs and the income the library receives from various non-book lending activities the library carry out.
“What we’ve done is look at the non-staff based costs of UNJL and there’s no particular reason to suppose this will be different once the community trust is running them and then look at what a staffing model might look at to enable a good library service to be run in that building.”
Cllr Fitzsimons: “You’ve got a figure and think that’s what it will cost to run the service. “Nowhere in there have you said what will provide a service for residents. “You’ve plucked it from the air. “There’s no justification – how many books will that buy? how many staff can help residents? whether you’ll keep opening hours at reasonable levels.
“I’m struggling to understand the basis of your decision. “Nowhere does it say how you’re going to run a proper local library service.”
Cllr Pollard: “With respect you’re hearing what you want to hear.”
Answering questions from deputy chairman Cllr Jason Cummings (Con. Heathfield), Cllr Pollard said Upper Norwood library had slightly longer opening hours. Other than that the bulk of the services were broadly the same.
Thornton Heath was a large library which operated on two floors. “I can’t really answer the question about what other staff are doing” said Cllr Pollard. “There’s a question whether it’s right or fair for one area of the borough to enjoy more than another.”
Cllr Fitzsimons, apparently consulting spread sheets which were not available to those attending the meeting in the public gallery: said: You’ve referred to the Thornton Heath library being comparable. “The 2012 budget paper gave a net expenditure of £284,000 to Thornton Heath with central overhead costs of £138,000.
“Reading these two papers proves the council were probably underfunding the library – or Thornton Heath is getting a better deal. “Can you explain why Thornton Heath gets more out of this?” he asked.
Cllr Pollard said this was the closest analogy to Upper Norwood. “It operates on two floors. “You would expect Thornton Heath to be more expensive to operate than Upper Norwood. but the total budget is likely to be similar” he said. (Thornton Heath, Selsdon and Bradmore Green had been picked as the nearest ‘comparable’ libraries to Upper Norwood for comparison purposes).
Cllr Fitzsimons, quoting figures for Selsdon library of £256,000 plus £120,000 of overheads, said: “I’m confused about your financial justification unless you’re planning to do substantial cuts to other libraries.”
Cllr Pollard: “Upper Norwood is completely different and in the future going forward it will be completely different.”There’s no link between the Upper Norwood model and the model for our libraries going forward. “It’s far more efficient with flexible staff rostering “The point I keep making: this organisation would still have corporate recharges and corporate costs.”
The invited Labour opposition speaker Cllr Timothy Godfrey, in defence of the library, said the issue had generated a large amount of public reaction. Referring to the crowded public gallery on a Friday night he urged the committee to look again at the decision.
There were a number of issues including the lack of proper comparison with Croydon libraries costs – and some assertions made in the paper before the committee “which weren’t basically true” said Cllr Godfrey.
He asked the committee to go through the report in detail and go through the actual costs in the paper before them.
“I ask you where your loyalties lie – are you here to protect front line services or back office costs and the very large council contracts the council has?” asked the shadow spokesman for culture.
He welcomed the issue of a community trust “It’s a model that’s the ideal way to engage in running other libraries. “But we need a proper timeframe that makes a community trust work and work with existing staff and what type of service would be needed.”
It would be acceptable to reduce the current grant to UNJL but to cut it from £200000 to £75,000 was not a sustainable way, added Cllr Godfrey.
“It will probably damage the library service and make it impossible to deliver. “Why haven’t savings been made elsewhere in the libraries budget?” he demanded to know.
He looked forward to the community challenging the details behind the report and the committee looking at this “in some cross-party decision”.
As the meeting neared its end and comments from the gallery became more vociferous, Cllr George Ayres (Lab. New Addington) complained: “We haven’t seen the figures to agree or disagree”
Cllr Hollands: “The figures are in here that the council considers sufficient to run a community library.”
Cllr Cummings said there was nothing for the council to go back and look at. “I see no justification for a community library anywhere to operate on what Upper Norwood is operating on.”
Cllr Hollands said the library staff needed to understand “where this process is going in a very short time table. Cllr Cummings asked if this allowed time for consultation. Cllr Hollands said his understanding was that there would be something in a cabinet paper that was being put together.
(Copyright Jerry Green 2012. No part of this article to be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)
(by our special correspondent Quentin Letsby-Avenue)
PEOPLE ARRIVING at Friday’s meeting were given a ‘Welcome to the scrutiny committee’ meeting which confusingly has a (Conservative) deputy chairman and a (Labour) vice chairman – with the Conservative deputy chairman sitting with other councillors and the Labour vice chairman sitting to the right of the scrutiny committee chairman Cllr Steve Hollands.
The committee is a bit like an appeal court – but clearly the Conservative majority on the committee had decided their verdict in advance.
Cllr Tim Pollard opened his defence. “The Chamber would be very aware of the background to this” he said, repeating the Croydon Tory charge that it was all Lambeth’s fault (Honest M’lud).
They had carried out a number of scenarios “relating to the future provision or not” of library services “in that area”. (I think he just meant ‘that area’ rather than ‘THAT area’).
(The committee then heard from Robbie Gibson, for the Upper Norwood Library Campaign; Mandy Sciberras for the Gipsy Hill Residents Association; and John Payne for the Crystal Palace Community Association Their submissions will be reported later.)
They were followed by Upper Norwood ward Cllr John Wentworth (Lab). In arguably the best speech of the evening he said it was “not fair” to say Upper Norwood could be treated as a branch library. Cllr Pollard had been very critical when Labour councillors had told the cabinet meeting they would match Lambeth’s funding
“By just putting the arbitrary figure of £250,000 ‘and we’re just going to make up the difference.’
“If next year Lambeth was to cut their grant for the library to £70,000 would Croydon come up with the other £170,000? “I doubt that very much indeed.
“No other library in Croydon has been treated in this way. “I don’t understand why you consider it reasonable for one library to be treated so unfairly.
“Of all the libraries and services I see in this borough that”s the one institution that stands the best chance of having a community trust and community involvement. “People are passionate about it. “They have the skills and confidence to run that library but it has to be given a fair chance.
“£75,000 doesn’t give that a fair chance. “I don’t believe this is a party political issue . “If the cabinet are serious about giving this library a fair chance they will reverse this decision to secure this library’s future.”
Questions to speakers – and their responses – then followed. Mr Gibson said Croydon’s presentation of its library budget was “completely opaque. “At £75,000 we are fighting to stop drowning.” He later added that it would be in Croydon’s interest, from a PR (public relations) point-of-view for Croydon in backing the library.
“We hope the council will sit down with us and in the spirit of localism and work with us. “This Campaign is not going to go away.
Cllr Terry Lenton (Con. Coulsdon East) addressing the issue of a community library, asked if funds could be got from Bromley or Southwark or Lewisham. “Would it not be unreasonable to expect a contribution?” she asked. (Actually – yes, it would. I recall Cllr Eddy Arram, addressing an annual meeting of the Upper Norwood Library Campaign, recounting his days as Croydon libraries committee chairman asking Bromley for some contribution – and getting zero.)
Mr Gibson had a great answer for this. “We’re dealing with two local authorities. “Dealing with five would be even harder. “It’s been tried before. “For a community trust library to be a success we have to work with certainty. “If we’ve a budget and business plan to get this library thriving we have to get this on certainties.
And in a prize sideswipe added: “Why should Southwark and Bromley contribute when they feel Croydon have failed?”
Questions of cabinet members and officers then followed. Cllr George Ayres (Lab, New Addington) in questions to Cllr Pollard, said the burden the library service was carrying was totally disproportionate to the cost the front line services have. “The problem Upper Norwood has is Croydon council costings. “I’m surprised that’s not the prism through which this problem has been looked at.”
Cllr Pollard “That’s a very big philosophical question – one of the conundrums comparing Upper Norwood and other libraries is comparing apples and bananas. “That’s what we tried to do. “We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes” Baa…Baa.. Humbug.
“The fundamental difference is UNJL lives on its own. “It has a number of expenses you can’t track back and charge against. “In what cost centre do you charge the running of Croydon town hall against?” asked Cllr Pollard.
(At this point a words of explanation: It would appear certain centralised costs are loaded onto libraries in Croydon. But it appears to be very difficult to establish just what these costs are. Whether Croydon town hall costs are loaded onto branch libraries was not made clear.The cost of running Croydon town hall is a new subject on the whole library funding issue.)
“I don’t want to be political but we’re vastly more efficient” added Cllr Pollard (who obviously hadn’t been briefed about BBC TV’s Newsnight programme the previous evening which revealed that n the first seven months of this year, Croydon spent more than £1.5 MILLION on ONE bed and breakfast provider, EuroHotels, alone. The BBC TV News website reports – and I quote: “Croydon now has 180 such cases – accounting for most of the families in B&B accommodation in the borough. “This is an extraordinary jump from last year, when Croydon recorded that it had no families in such circumstances – though Newsnight has evidence of several families who spent months in B&B accommodation provided by Croydon in 2011 – which suggests that official figures may hide the true scale of the problem.”) Official figures? Hmmmm…….
Back to Cllr Pollard: “When you look at how UNJL spends its money the fundamental difference is the amount of money spent on staff – each of our branch libraries operate on half the number UNJL does. “Is it fair across the borough to say one area will be funded to operate in a completely different way? “That doesn’t make sense.”
(Note to local planning and amenity groups: this is one to use against Croydon in the future. Croydon want to build 700 new homes in the Upper Norwood area. So if Upper Norwood gets 700 (which we haven’t got room for) then so too will Sanderstead, Selsdon and Ballards and other Tory-held council wards. I mean, after all, why should one area be treated in a different way?)
Cllr Ayres said that using the figures from the report and the total cost, the figure being allocated to Upper Norwood would be £520,000 – to which Cllr Pollard, reprising comments he’d made at the cabinet meeting said “”Absolutely fascinating way to run the finances of the town.”
Respoinding to Cllr Fitzsimons,Cllr Pollard had said Thornton Heath was the closest analogy to Upper Norwood. “It operates on two floors. “You would expect Thornton Heath to be more expensive to operate than Upper Norwood. but the total budget is likely to be similar.”
And then, in a classic ‘Yes Minister’ – type moment, Cllr ‘Two Floors’ Pollard added: “I appreciate my motives will always be open to criticism.”
Picking up on an earlier comment from Cllr Pollard, Cllr Fitzsimons said UNJL can exist on £240,000 “so I’m very interested what you think the purpose of a library is for – and what do you think libraries do?”
Cllr Pollard said this was a difficult question to answer .
“Everyone has a different view of a library” he said. – newspapers – homework – every user had a different perspective. Responding, Cllr Fitzsimons said it was “good to get an understanding about totalitarian views on libraries.”
Cllr Pollard then turned his attention to community libraries. “What do community libraries normally run on?” he asked. “If this goes through and UNJL runs on £280,000 it will probably be the most generously-funded community library in the entire country.
“Lewisham’s libraries are mainly run on about £100,000 and in Lambeth libraries are operating on £100,000 – £120,000. “You missed the point that these costs, whether you account them onto libraries or not, still have to be met by the council.”
Asked about the rationale behind the timing of a community library running from April 1st Cllr Pollard said that what went to cabinet was an assumption. “It’s a challenging timescale but one that none the less is achievable. “What I’m not interested in is going into freefall and being stalled again and again.”
As the meeting went into the final act, Cllr Hollands had declared of the library funding, somewhat bizarrely, “It’s a grant made by Croydon to an outside body. “In my view how much it costs to run Selsdon library, how much it costs to run Norbury library doesn’t come into it.”
Gallery: “Show some integrity.” “Don’t just serve your party – serve the people”
Cllr Hollands, taking a sideswipe at earlier comments by Cllr Godfrey, said very few people had attended the cabinet committee meeting when it had first been discussed.
He then asked Cllr Pat Ryan (Lab. Upper Norwood) to remove himself “if he continues to disrupt the meeting” (From the front row of the gallery I’d only heard Cllr Ryan – one of five Upper Norwood and South Norwood ward councillors attending the meeting as observers – make one comment of just five words).
A few minutes later the following exchange ensued:
Cllr Hollands (addressing an unidentified person in the council chamber): “Would you leave?”
Cllr Hollands: “It’s exactly the sort of behaviour I would have expected.”
I suspect the people attending Friday’s meeting probably feel the same about the Conservatives behaviour that night.
(Copyright Jerry Green 2012. No part of this article to be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)