Saturday, 29 October 2011

Brent Libraries Latest - update on 29th October

You'll have seen that while Brent Council continue to be roundly condemned on the streets and in the press for their behaviour in relation to the Six Libraries on their "shut for ever" list, they are boasting about exciting changes under the "Libraries Transformation Project". The odd thing is that I haven't spoken to a single person  who can see anything exciting in it at all...

Sunday opening? It's not worth the loss of half the libraries (especially as we can apparently do everything online anyway)

Libraries, Arts and Heritage sent me an e-mail with a link to this depressing document telling me that the six "shut for ever" libraries are now shut, but that I have until the 30th November to return any books I borrowed from them to the remaining six libraries which are in "accessible locations within the borough".

This week Philip Pullman was quoted in the Guardian (26th October) in relation to the council's claim that closing half its libraries would help improve them "It ought to be quoted in every anthology of political bullshit from here to eternity"

The Evening Standard (27th October) featured Preston Road library and quoted campaigner Geraldine Cooke describing the brilliant pop-up library being run by volunteers and describing the council's decision as "nothing short of a betrayal". Read the whole article. So although Brent have locked the doors of the six libraries, two of them have thriving pop-up libraries run by volunteers. Go and say hello and do a turn on the rota if you can.

And in Private Eye's 50th Anniversary Issue (out 28th October) an excellent  piece on page 35 (rush out and buy it - it's only £1.50 a fortnight - Private Eye isn't available in full on line which is fair enough): 
"Brent crowed that the ruling in its favour now meant it could "push ahead with our excting plans" for the library services - but not so fast!  The stripping of the buildings was quickly halted after campaigners were granted an appeal... As well as starting to empty and board up the libraries, which remain closed until the appeal next month, Brent cancelled many of the events of "Word Up", a borough -wide literary festival taking place in those libraries around Children's Book Week.  These events included making heritage collages, treasure hunts and a talk entitled "Yes you can!"  For many people in Brent who want to use a public library, the answer is now: "No, you can't!"

And while we're talking about Private Eye, there's a good small exhibition (and free!)about the first 50 years of that esteemed organ at the V & A until 8th January.

Meanwhile the Kilburn Times reported (27th October) that Brent council have made 24 members of staff redundant following the closure of the six libraries at a cost of £250,000.
I've just looked back at the "Libraries Transformation Project" report to the Executive meeting on 15 November 2010 (which kicked off this whole sad saga) to see what's said about redundancy payments - whether they come out of the supposed savings of £1million - or not.
There's a paragraph headed "Staffing/ Accommodation Implications" which states that "A reduction in the number of library sites will necessitate a review of staffing across the service, which will be carried out in accordance with the council's Managing change policy", so it was delightfully vague on the subject of redundancy payments.

If you've already received your November edition of the Brent Magazine you will have seen "Library Legal Battle near the end" and read Ann John's statement that the council is "confident that the court of Appeal will uphold the decision of Mr Justice Ouseley that the council should be able to proceed with its library transformation plan". It sums up thus
"So, with every resident living within 1.5 miles of one of our libraries and our libraries open every week, Monday to Sunday, there is no excuse not to make the most of over six million books, free access to the internet, DVD rentals, study space, reading groups and more!"

I'm left speechless by this jolly instruction, clearly either lost in translation from whatever language they speak up in the higher echelons of Brent's library management, or beamed to us by aliens who think that there's really no need for libraries anyway.

But as you know, the fight continues. The dates for the hearing of the appeal are the 10th and 11th of November, and there's a good chance the Court of Appeal will give its judgment quite soon after that.

And, in case the good effects of the two comedy evenings are wearing off, here are some poems made at the Brondesbury Poetry Group's tent at the Queen's Park Book Festival back in June

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Brent Libraries Latest - We got leave to appeal!

Quick update on Wednesday 19th October - but you don't really need me - you can read about this everywhere now - particularly in the Kilburn Times (go, Tara!), Guardian, Evening Standard, Independent, back of your cereal packet, it's everywhere!

But in case you haven't heard, Leave to Appeal against Mr Justice Ouseley's judgment was given today by Lord Justice Elias, a single judge of the Court of Appeal (that's how it works) which is fantastic news.

Our new QC, Dinah Rose, then asked Lord Justice Elias for interim relief to prevent Brent from taking any irrevocable steps (ie which would make it difficult or impossible to re-open the six libraries) until the hearing of the Appeal. She explained that Brent was prepared to agree that Kensal Rise library would not be boarded up on the condition that the appellants (that's the named claimants, but in practice backed up by the whole Save Our Six campaign) pay the cost of security to secure the site.

She also explained that Brent will write to All Souls College (you'll remember that if either Kensal Rise or Cricklewood cease to be used as libraries they revert to the college) saying that no steps have been taken to date which have had the effect of triggering the "reverter covenant".

Miss Rose rightly complained to Lord Justice Elias about Brent's hasty steps to permanently close the six libraries - that they dispatched teams on the very day of the Judgment to construct hoardings (she handed up a photo of Preston Road library boarded up), and that it was only the constant presence of protestors at Kensal Rise which prevented boarding up there. All this activity was going on while Miss Laing, on behalf of Brent, was assuring Mr Justice Ouseley last thursday morning that "it was unlikely that any irrevocable steps would be taken until the Court of Appeal was seized of the matter" (ie until the Appeal was heard)

It was Miss Rose's view that it was "a surprising position for a public authority to have adopted before a Judge" (which was music to our ears)

She also explained (and this is shocking too) that on the day before the Judgment Brent wrote to All Souls college telling them that the disposal strategy for the four unincumbered libraries (ie other than Kensal Rise and Cricklewood) was being implemented, that all six libraries were closed, staff made redundant, libraries being cleared and security provided at the sites, and that they'd welcome a discussion about what to do with Kensal Rise and Cricklewood.

On Monday Brent removed all the stock from Cricklewood Library.

You might almost think that Brent wanted the reverter covenant to come into effect...

It was Miss Rose's view that "Brent's conduct, particularly in relation to Cricklewood and its contact with All Souls college, was surprising, to say the least, given the remarks by the Judge and their silence in the face of it" (because while the Judge was under the impression that Brent wouldn't do anything hasty they had already written to All Souls)

This was part of an argument about the costs of today's hearing, but it's so startling it's worth setting out at some length (sorry, this legal language is clearly catching).

Miss Laing's reply on behalf of Brent was that they were entitled to take those steps, and the Judge agreed that Brent did not have to pay our costs of today's hearing (but that doesn't matter, it was just fascinating (but depressing) to hear what they'd been up to)

There's a Save Kensal Rise Library public meeting tomorrow, Thursday 20th October, 7.30pm, at St Martin's Church, Mortimer Road

Read about Mr Justice Ouseley's Judgment

Finally, our barrister's name has given me an excuse to include these photos taken today in my garden (Philip, I think the pink rose is Spectabilis - a small, repeat flowering climbing rose)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Brent Libraries Latest - Court Decision Thursday 13th October

A large group of "Save our Six" supporters were down at the High Court this morning to hear the decision.

You'll know already from friends or from widespread news reports that the case went against us and the application for judicial review of Brent's decision to close the 12 libraries was dismissed. But it's not the end of our campaign - the next step is to seek leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal and, if that's granted, to pursue an appeal against the decision of Mr Justice Ouseley.

A bit more detail. The Judge had already handed down his judgment so the only argument this morning was about costs, an appeal and interim relief (meaning between now and any appeal). The written judgment runs to 153 paragraphs, and at a quick glance the judge seems to be in total agreement with the case put on behalf of Brent. You wouldn't really recognise Brent council as it's described here - a burning desire to offer "an enhanced core library... online and digital services will be expanded to widen access and comparable services will be provided to those who are unable to visit a library... community hubs with cultural activity... staff training to equip a multi skilled workforce" (all this exciting stuff is from the "Libraries Transformation Project" presented to the Executive just over a year ago, on 15 November 2010).

The consultation followed and before the consultation period ended the Council "had had to set its budget... the council was obliged to set a balanced budget" said the judgment. Then, surprise surprise, a further report to the Executive on 11th April 2011 recommended the closure of the six libraries. Officers warned that the consultation feedback might not be representative of library users, of non-users, or the borough's population as a whole (suggesting that not much notice need be taken of the overwhelming support for keeping the libraries open). The April report went on to say "as more material is available through digital routes, delivering a comprehensive service is less reliant on physical buildings." This, despite the fact that the council's own research by Red Quadrant in 2010 had found that "good quality, safe, neutral space was important and that study space was in demand".

Our first ground was that Brent had unlawfully ignored the role which community libraries and groups could play in fulfilling its duties under section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The judge could not "see that it is unlawful for the council to start the process by warning the groups, as in effect it did, that its approach would be that alternatives had to achieve the same level of savings for the same level of service as the Council's own proposals". All the alternative proposals failed "on the ground that the business case was not robust for a variety of reasons".

As regards the consultation, there was a "very extensive consultation programme over three months using a variety of well-publicesed forms of commuintication with the public at large, users and specific roups; there was ample opportunity for anyone who was concerned to find out more about the financial background, the costs of each library, and the basis for their selection for clsure, to seek further information". The judge saw no conflict between "the council keeping an open mind (!) and its consulting on the preferred route identified by officers and approved by the executive for consultation" (ie the 6 closures)

Going on to discuss Brent's "seven secret criteria" as I've nicknamed them, the Judge found that Brent did not close its mind to working with community groups, that the criteria "are not, save for one, more than an elaboration of the test which was fully notified to consultees, and of which I accept any group capable of making a worthwhile contribution would have been aware, without it having to be spelled out to them". Well, I hope that's clear enough! I think it means we're just back to our old friend the "robust business case", except that "the contribution to diversity and inclusion is not one of which the need to promote a robust business case would necessarily have forewarned a group looking to make a contribution to running a library". Err.., but it didn't matter anyway because no proposal failed because of any "failing in the public sector equality duty". They failed because they were not viable proposals by viable groups.
So in conclusion there was no unlawful failure to consult.

Do you remember the very complex arguments under the Equalities Legislation? Well the judge found against us on all of them.

Although it's very tempting I'm not going to comment on the judgment as I don't want to prejudice the next steps which are to ask the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal (the judge having refused leave, but that's normal).

Meanwhile, what's happening on the ground? Well, Brent, heavy-handedly, closed all 12 libraries this morning and posted police outside some of them. This was apparently so that they could tell the staff what was happening. Staff will be allowed to enter the 6 closed libraries to collect their belongings only if accompanied by security guards!

Anticipating something like this, our barrister, Helen Mountfield QC, asked for "interim relief" - that is, for Brent to be restrained from selling any of the buildings until an appeal has been heard. Brent's barrister asked for them to be released as from today from their undertaking not to take any irrevocable steps, and the judge agreed that there was no need for an order. He found Miss Harper's (Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services) analysis of staff, management and financial difficulties over the last few months compelling, and felt that there was no risk of a "rapid disposal". Provided the buildings were still there the libraries could always be opened again.

I agree that staff have been placed in a very difficult situation and I know that a lot of us have been visiting our libraries regularly to talk to the staff, to try to cheer them up and to thank them for their continued dedication to helping all customers, but I do not agree that the libraries management have done all they could to ease the situation.

There's also a risk that Brent will move very quickly to strip the libraries of their books and fittings and to make it as difficult as possible for any of the 6 libraries to re-open. At Kensal Rise library this afternoon a large group of library supporters are hoping to prevent the library being boarded up later. Little confidence is inspired by Brent's notice in the window saying that the library will be closed in the morning but open again at 2pm, when that was clearly never the intention.

Keep a close eye on what's happening at your local branch. It's terribly sad that this issue has turned into a battle between our council which is supposed to serve us, and the campaigners who are fighting to preserve services which benefit so many residents.

Read an excellent article about the judgment by local author and supporter Maggie Gee (on left above) in the Guardian

Read more about the closures on the Kilburn Times site

Read about the Brent press conference also on the Kilburn Times site

Finally, there are some really good comments from some of us (and some short-sighted "Ann John" types - you know - we can buy books in supermarkets, from charity shops and online so we don't need libraries) on the BBC News site

Read the latest (on Saturday 15th October) and see the "24hour Community Library" set up by supporters of Kensal Rise on the excellent Wembley Matters blog here
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