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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