Published: 10th June, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON
LIBRARIES in Islington could be cut loose from the Town Hall and run by charitable trusts in a bid to save hundreds of thousands pounds a year in tax.
The move comes as the Labour-run council looks to slice £600,000 a year – or around 10 per cent – from the cost of running the library service.
Some job cuts may also need to be made, the Town Hall’s leisure chief Councillor Paul Convery said.
Labour has already pledged that no libraries will be closed as the Town Hall struggles to cope with a £52million reduction in its annual grant as part of the government’s spending cuts.
In other areas closing libraries has been seen as an easy saving. But Cllr Convery insisted this week that Islington would instead be looking at opening hours and staffing as part of a complete overhaul of the service.
Launching a consultation on the future of libraries on Tuesday, he said: “As far as we are able, we want to protect library services from the worst of the government’s public spending cuts.”
While ruling out closing any libraries unless there is significant public support for it – neighbouring Camden is seeking to turn three libraries over to volunteer groups – he said one of the big ideas was to turn them over to charitable trusts.
“There is an absolute pledge not to close libraries,” said Cllr Convery. “We have drawn a line in the sand. But we still have to making savings.
“One of the things we are looking at is turning the library service into an independent trust.
“The trustees would be councillors and users and the funding would still come from the council.
“But crucially they wouldn’t have to pay corporation tax which would save about £450,000 a year.
“That would require a form of management that was arms length from the council.”
Cllr Convery added, however, that the Town Hall would remain the “backer of last resort” should any financial problems arise.
He added that while library usage in Islington was high in comparison to other boroughs, it still stood at only about 25 per cent of all residents. Other cost-cutting measures include investing in self-scanning technology, which could lead to job cuts.
“These are the young and the elderly,” he said. “So we have to ask: do we accept these are the core users and tailor the service to them or do we see if we can attract other people?
“We can staff the libraries with fewer people. If users can scan their own books in and out, then you don’t need two people behind the counter. We are making staff savings. What we are not going to do is what a lot of Tory councils have done and close two or three libraries because that’s the easiest way to save money.
“Nor are we going to beat ourselves up to make savings by decimating the library service.”
Andrew Bosi, of the Islington Society, which incorporates the Library Users’ Group, said that the consultation was in its very early stages and the plans would have to be studied before they could form an opinion.
Lib Dem leader Cllr Terry Stacy said he gave “guarded” support to the idea for a charitable trust, but added that he feared it was merely a mechanism for the council to distance itself from future unpopular decisions.
“I’ve asked for cast-iron guarantees on closures and opening hours and not got them,” he said.
“It’s a classic case of the council setting up an arms-length organisation and then when they make an unpopular decision, such as closing a library, the council can say, ‘not me guv’.”
Meetings ion the future of the library service will be held on June 15 at John Barnes Library in Camden Road at 7pm and on June 21 at Finsbury Library in St John Street at 7pm.
The consultation ends on July 31.