John Dolan, Birmingham’s former Head of Libraries, gives every appearance of being a very angry man in the open letter he has written to city council leader Mike Whitby.
Mr Dolan’s well known views on the important role libraries play in promoting lifelong learning and their value to local communities shines through the polemic, which strikes at the heart of the way the council is approaching the public spending cuts it has to carry out.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition running Birmingham made a decision early on in the cost cutting process that it would try not to close facilities such as libraries, swimming pools and leisure centres.
This was partly driven by a desire to maintain as far as possible important public services across the city’s 10 constituencies, but also from a political realisation that it would be a certain vote loser if scores of much-loved leisure facilities were to close.
By taking this approach it was always obvious to anyone close to the council that libraries would still have to bear their share of the cuts.
As Mr Dolan notes, the council has a duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service to everyone who wishes to use it. However, there are plenty of grey areas about just how extensive a network of community libraries has to be to be considered comprehensive.
The £2.3 million that constituency committees are considering cutting from community libraries represents 28 per cent of the total budget, so it is inevitable that the overall service will suffer as a result.
Details about what is likely to happen – reduced opening hours, cuts in staffing levels, greater use of volunteers to staff libraries – began to leak out at a scrutiny committee, with the result that the cabinet member for leisure felt the need to correct one of his own colleagues who said it would be better that some libraries open for only two days a week rather than not at all. Apparently, the minimum opening time will be four hours a day.