Tonight I attended a public meeting about the future of Bagshot Library. Here is the well-hidden announcement of the meeting. I saw a fleeting reference to a meeting about Bagshot Library in some Windlesham Parish Council (WPC) minutes weeks ago but my enquiries drew a blank until I googled it up eventually. This was the first thing I didn’t understand: why call a public meeting and not publicise it?
The background to this issue is important, so if you are not familiar with it please read this first.
The meeting was chaired by new county councillor Mike Goodman. Two senior Surrey County Council (SCC) officers were there: Peter Milton and Rose Wilson. In the audience were other officers from SCC and WPC. There were about 25-30 people there in total. I recognised about half of them. There were community activists from Bagshot, parish and borough councillors and some members of the public. So far so good, although I don’t know why my stalker, Tory councillor for Mytchett and Deepcut, Paul Deach was there. He plodded about the room pointing his pistol-shaped microphone in people’s faces. He does this sort of thing during council meetings too. I think having a dressed-down troll getting in everyone’s way does not help. I know he needs to make a living and the income he gets from his Tory propaganda website (which publishes abuse about me) is probably useful, but meetings should have a certain decorum.
The meeting started with a long introduction by Cllr Goodman. It was obvious that the audience contained people with different levels of awareness about the Community Partnered Library (CPL) scheme and varying degrees of support or opposition to it. A ten minute speech extolling the virtues of the CPL policy in a very one-sided way seemed to serve to wind up those opposed to it and confuse those with little knowledge of it. This, along with the first couple of answers from officers to written questions, appeared to be very defensive. I thought the general mood of the audience was ready to be persuaded, but in need of information and reassurance. The impression we got was that there was something to hide or that was going to be inflicted on us.
Peter Milton said, “Surrey County Council has made a decision.” referring to the CPL policy. Fair enough. I knew that, but did everyone? He said, “The objective is to keep Bagshot Library open.” OK, I’ll believe that for the time being, for the purposes of this discussion. I still didn’t know why we were having this meeting, however. Were they consulting us? Didn’t feel like it. Were they informing us? Not so far.
I asked if there was any way paid staff could be retained and whether they agreed that libraries need librarians. I hoped they would use this opportunity to explain the CPL model to the audience because I thought many didn’t understand how fundamental it is. Actually, I got an interesting answer I didn’t expect instead. It is possible for paid staff to be retained, Warlingham Library have done this by getting their parish council to fund it. Bagshot staff costs are about £12,000 pa so this could easily be done by Windlesham Parish Council.
The chair was keeping a very tight rein on questions and supplementary questions, which eventually proved counter-productive. The dam of discontent broke when representatives of the Friends of Bagshot Library took over the floor to make their case. They already have 45 volunteers on their books (who already help at the library) and SCC haven’t taken up their offer to take over the library. This was not adequately defended by the officers and the tension between the groups was obvious. It seems inevitable that this would blow up during the meeting and explained the previous defensiveness. So why were we there? Couldn’t they have discussed and negotiated between themselves? Even now, I don’t understand.
I then asked about how vulnerable groups will be catered for. This was the crux of the judicial review which SCC lost to SLAM. The answer was that SCC will provide initial and recurrent training to volunteers and some training would be ‘cascaded’. Of course, this expense would not be necessary if paid staff were retained.
Lightwater Library was mentioned too. It is on the second list of libraries to be targeted, along with nearby Frimley Green and Ash Libraries. I use both Bagshot and Lightwater Libraries. Lightwater’s building is much nicer and they have the same librarian, rather than a rotating one, and no self-service machine. The self-service machines are awful. They are more complicated and less intuitive than Airbuses. Someone asked about what happens when they break, the self-service machines not Airbuses. Good question.
So what was it all about? Have SCC decided to form a new steering group and cut the Friends of Bagshot Library out of the equation? Has a “decision been taken” to close Bagshot Library and this was intended to soften us up? Did they hope we would all sign up as volunteers there and then? Did they hope to persuade and inspire us about the future of the library? Perhaps they did. Perhaps they’re not used to persuading or inspiring people. To be fair, they don’t have to do it very much. This is a safe Tory area and they don’t need to try to talk people round to their point of view very often. Maybe that is why it wasn’t effective, I didn’t even realise I was being wooed.
Maybe I’m being too cynical. The stated aim was to find a way forward for Bagshot Library. I found one: since SCC have “taken a decision” to stop running the library, the parish council should take it over. The Friends of Bagshot Library should run it. WPC should provide funding for paid staff and recoup the money from SCC in lieu of the reduced training costs. The volunteers should work alongside paid staff and also fundraise to improve the building and offer more services. This would take leadership and commitment to achieve. People would have to be persuaded and inspired. If this plan is chosen, I will be fully available to provide any help I can to get it working.
Would I volunteer in a library without paid staff? No. I would never work for free so that a paid worker can be done out of their job. The CPL plan is ideological and I have my ideological limits too.
It was a strange evening and I’ll readily admit I’m not sure that my analysis is correct. If anyone has any other theories, particularly if you were there, please post them below.