All posts tagged 'libraries'

Kent's secret library plans revealed - are they still under threat?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 17 2012

When Conservative county councillors were presented with a report last year setting out draft plans to withdraw funding from 44 libraries, they baulked at the idea.

They could predict what was in the offing: damaging headlines about the threat of closures to much-cherished village libraries, many of them in the party's heartlands, no matter what spin was put on it to present the shake-up as innovative and 'transfomational'.

It was an electoral liability they were not prepared to countenance, especially as the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the libraries in question would have come close to the next election. Library chiefs and the cabinet member responsible were sent way with a flea in their ear and told to have a re-think.

Now the report - accompanied by a presentation of frankly bewilderingly complex graphs - that caused a backbench revolt has been leaked.

KCC was anxious to keep it under wraps and had argued that the public interest in allowing politicians to debate policy options in private was greater than the public interest in disclosing it.

So what are we to make of the report? We already knew that the authority was being pressed into considering changes because of the tricky budget situation - and it bears out these suspicions by talking about the need to 'secure affordable local solutions' and 'deliver further revenue savings'.

A key element of KCC's plans was to offload libraries to third parties - voluntary groups, community groups, parish councils and those vague organisations known as 'social entrepeneurs'.

These would be paid an annual grant to maintain the library on behalf of the council although perhaps unsurprisngly, the report is silent on what may have happened had no-one come forward to take on the job. (In all likelihood, they would have shut).

The savings to KCC would have come from negotiations with these third parties to reduce costs on books, premises and IT. In other words, KCC's expectation was that organisations who took over the libraries would have had to have done the job for less.

So, are we to presume that this approach to Kent's libraries has been abandoned altogether? Actually no. When KCC came back with a new report about its approach to 'modernising' libraries last year, which was presented to councillors in public, virtually all these elements were retained: the idea of third parties taking over remains central, savings will have to be delivered, locality boards will be key in 'shaping the future'.

The only thing missing from the report was a list identifying which libraries Kent had in mind. KCC clearly has a conundrum. It has significantly more libraries than many other authorities and although £4m will be chopped from the budget between now and 2014, it is still not enough. Other ways of running the service are clearly being considered out of necessity.

One solution that could be under consideration involves the council's 'Gateway' centres, many of which contain libraries. 

KCC has just confirmed it is reviewing these and among the options being considered is whether to put them out to tender and allow the private sector to run them. At the smaller end of the scale, watch out for reduced opening hours.

Either way, anyone who thinks that Kent will be able to preserve its network of libraries as they are now is probably being unrealistic.

You can read the confidential report here:

kcclibraries (540.77 kb)

kentlibrarylist.doc (24.50 kb)

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No public interest: KCC's original library closure plans stay under wraps

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, September 6 2011

Kent County Council is pretty keen to ensure that its now-abandoned proposals to shut or hand over the running of some 40-50 libraries is not seen by anyone.

Efforts by a vigilant library watcher, Ian Clark, to persuade the council the report should be published have been rebuffed a second time after KCC rejected an appeal he made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In its original decision, KCC relied on an exemption that permits public bodies to withhold information where it is prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs - Section 36 - an exemption that has proved rather controversial and  can only be used if it is sanctioned by a senior official, in this case the council's monitoring officer Geoff Wild.

When such decisions are appealed, the appeal has to be conducted by someone "independent or senior" to the person who made the original decision. So it fell to KCC's group managing director Katherine Kerswell (who is indisputably senior).

This is the text of the reply sent to Ian dismissing the appeal:

Dear Mr Clark

I have been asked by the Managing Director Katherine Kerswell, to reply
to your request that KCC review the handling of your original request
for information.

You have informed us that you are unhappy with our decision to withhold
a copy of the "library closure proposals" put before the conservative
group meeting w/c 20th June 2011 on the grounds that disclosure is
likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. This
particular exemption (section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000)
can only be invoked by the County Council's Monitoring Officer who is
also the Director of Governance & Law.

Internal reviews must be conducted by someone independent and/or senior
to the person that made the decision. In order to be able to fulfil our
obligations to you under section 45(e) FOIA, the Managing Director as
the superior officer to the Director of Governance and Law has reviewed
the information that was withheld from you.

The nature of the information is such that she concurs that its release
would undeniably prohibit the free and frank exchange of views and
discussion of ideas in the future which is essential to the effective
conduct of business within the County Council before matters come into
the public domain. It would also cause unnecessary public concern over a
number of ideas that were discussed that may not come to fruition and
have not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain.

It is essential in any local authority for the elected members to be
able to discuss ideas with confidence and ensure that the policy options
that do end up in the public domain are the most appropriate. Disclosure
of this kind would significantly undermine their confidence in such a
necessary and essential part of our governance and would undermine the
effective conduct of public affairs.

Therefore, the Managing Director maintains that the use of this
exemption was correct.

There are a couple of points worth making here, which I've blogged about before. Where is the "clear, specific and credible" evidence that the "substance or quality of deliberations or advice would be materially altered for the worse by the threat of disclosure?" as the Information Commissioner suggests should be provided?

The response talks about the belief that disclosure would "prohibit" free and frank discussions. The FOI Act says nothing about prohibition in the use of Section 36 - it talks about whether disclosure would inhibit the ability of public bodies to explore extreme options.

It is not the case that the ideas which the Conservative group discussed have "not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain" - they have and here it is.

So, I am not entirely convinced and it would be interesting to see what the Information Commissioner thinks.

And it will be interesting to see how KCC chooses to meet its statutory obligations under the Local Government Act 2000. Access to information regulations require councils making executive decisions to not just publish records of those decisions but detail all other options that were considered and subsequently disregarded.

And it won't be long before we do have some indication of the new proposals. A public consultation on the future of the library service gets underway next month.

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Categories: Precept

A rare Conservative revolt over library closures plans: how a retreat happened

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, June 22 2011

Mention the word "libraries" in any council and the word "closures" is likely to follow fairly swiftly.

And it has been a condundrum Kent County Council's Conservative administration has been wrestling with for some time. The communities budget, like every other part of the council's spending, is having to take a hit and the issue has been how best to make the necessary cuts.

But it seems there has been something of a rare revolt among the 73-strong Conservative group over some rather contentious proposals that would have seen the closure - or at least the ending of council funding for - a rather substantial number of libraries.

Precise figures are hard to come by but at least one source has mentioned over 40. However, the leadership is in retreat after a Conserative group meeting held this week saw backbenchers express their horror at the scale of the possible cuts and demanded a re-think.

Sources say that many county councillors were aghast at the proposals, not least because some of those identified for closure were in Kent's Conservative heartlands. Others pointed out that they had made various election commitments that local libraries in their areas would be safeguarded.

And of course, many recognised exactly what a PR challenge it would be to justify the cuts to a service that has enormous sentimental attachment. As one put it: "You can do more or less what you like to any other service and not many will care, but not to libraries."

Others warned of the dire electoral consequences pointing out that given the time needed for consultation and the decision-making process, libraries could well be closing their doors perilously close to the next KCC election.

KCC had tried to sweeten the pill by suggesting that libraries could be taken over by parish or town councils, or by volunteer groups - an example of The Big Society. But that seems to have failed to persuade the group that they could get away with it - particularly given the constraints all parts of the public sector are facing.

So the upshot is that for the time being at least, widespread library closures are off the agenda (although I understand there may be a handful that could be shutting their doors) and the Conservative leadership has been persuaded that it needs to come up with another masterplan.


It seems that KCC may have inadevertently acted unlawfully over payments made to its election returning officer for running county council elections.

In a rather complex report on the issue, KCC's legal eagle Geoff Wild has told councillors that while the fees paid to both the county returning officer in the past (former chief executive Peter Gilroy) were made in good faith, the council's arrangements that permitted the chief executive and his colleagues in districts to effectively decide for themselves what fees they should get were "inappropriate and not permitted in law at least as far as the county council is concerned."

The issue has been partly resolved by including the job of running KCC elections into the duties of the new managing director of the council Katherine Kerswell.

Opposition Lib Dem Tim Prater is not happy, saying that if the payments made in the past - according to him, about £60,000 over three elections to the ex-chief executive - were unlawful then KCC ought to be going about getting the money back.

However, his attempts to do so at yesterday's Electoral and Boundary Review Committee meeting failed to find favour among Conservatives on the committee and his proposal fell.

One thing that did suprise some councillors on the committee were the recommended fees for district council returning officers who ran KCC elections in their areas.  Between them, returning officers stand to get £47,376 in fees next time, with individual payments ranging from £3,201 (Dartford) to £5,190 (Maidstone).

Cllr Keith Ferrin (Con) suggested these were in the same league as the wages paid to premiership football players and they should be more modest. I'm not sure which football stars he had in mind.



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