Greenwich moves closer to hiving off libraries

Greenwich Council will move closer to transferring its libraries to a trust tomorrow when councillors agree to consider a report into the proposal.

Tuesday’s cabinet meeting is likely to rubber-stamp a new contract for Greenwich Leisure Limited to carry on running its leisure centres, which includes provision for GLL to take on the borough’s libraries as well as its swimming baths and gyms.

Councillors will be hoping the proposal will preserve Greenwich’s library service. Neighbours Bexley and Bromley are merging theirs, while five of Lewisham’s outlets are now “community libraries” run by volunteers.

But unions are nervous – while GLL is a social enterprise, they say there is little union recognition there, and they fear jobs could be put at risk. GLL was set up to take over Greenwich’s leisure centres during cuts in the early 1990s, and has expanded across London and beyond.

GLL hasn’t wasted any time – it’s expressed an interest in running Croydon Council’s libraries, but clearly the “home” contract of Greenwich will be close to their hearts. The company has already set up a new libraries division, to be headed by Diana Edmonds. Ms Edmonds ran a company called Instant Libraries, which used to run Haringey’s libraries.

“GLL has demonstrated the capability to manage the borough’s library services,” a report to be presented to Greenwich’s cabinet on Tuesday declares. “The new contract enables library services to integrate into a single contract if the council wishes to pursue this option.”

The council will ask GLL to “clarify and fine tune” the proposals before bringing them back to the cabinet at a later date.

GLL saw off competition from Fusion Leisure (which runs Lewisham’s pools) and Sport and Leisure Management Ltd (which run Sutton and Havering’s centres) to be selected for the 15-year contract, which is worth £1.96m a year.

The new contract is set to see GLL also take on the council’s adventure playgrounds, its sports development service, Charlton Lido, Hornfair Park BMX track and Southmere Boating Centre in Thamesmead.

This is the sight that Greenwich councillors want to avoid – while Greenwich’s recently-revamped Blackheath Library (top) is thriving, Lewisham’s Blackheath Village Library (above and right), a mile across the heath, is closed and deserted.

While Greenwich kept 12 of its 13 libraries (Ferrier Library is due to close soon as part of the Kidbrooke Village redevelopment, without replacement), Lewisham opted to shut five of its 12 branches. With Blackheath Village costing an eye-watering £75,000 a year in rent, it was always going to be first in line to go.

But five months after it shut, books are still gathering dust in the old library. With Lewisham presumably still paying rent, they’ll surely have to be cleared out soon.

Wander around the corner, though, and there’s a new, much smaller library, at the rear of the Age Exchange centre (which, curiously, is actually in the borough of Greenwich), whose volunteers staff the new service.

The Blackheath Village Community Library is tiny – possibly even smaller than Charlton’s minuscule library – and there seemed to be more volunteers than borrowers when I popped in one afternoon. It’s a work in progress, though, with the full project not due to be finished until next summer.

The other four libraries have also reopened as volunteer-run centres to a mixed reception, although New Cross People’s Library seems to doing very well for itself at the moment.

Greenwich isn’t totally averse to handing things over to volunteers – but the fiasco of the St Alfege Park gravestones shows how such an approach can go badly wrong. Will hiving off the library service save it from Lewisham-style cuts, though? We’ll have to wait and see.

9 comments

  1. There are many reasons why this is extremely worrying. Firstly GLL is run like a private company which means the Library Service – a service Greenwich should be proud of will move in to the private sector. Councillors will be able to wash their hands of the service and when cuts are made in the future it will not be their fault but GLL’s. There is a real worry that money will need to made by GLL and with this in mind will they start charging for services which are currently free? Internet? children’s event etc.
    When Leisure services moved to GLL the staff terms and conditions were changed very quickly after transfer. I am sure this will be a major concern to the local TU’s?
    Lastly- as a user of GLL services I worry about the libraries. For example there are many times when either the heating or the air con isn’t working at the gym and it seems to take an age to sort it out. Recently there was no water in the gym for a long period and no hot water in the men’s showers.
    I hope Councillors will reconsider this cut – as it is a cut. 250.000 is the cut to Libraries this year and it is stated in the Cabinet report that the transfer will save this amount-so it’s a cut. this isn’t a plan to save the Library Service in Greenwich – I think it’s passing the buck.

  2. The former Blackheath Village Library is indeed a sorry sight. Six months after closure, Heath House Prep School – who were due to take over the premises in September – have yet to sign the lease which is currently with their lawyers.

    Lewisham council has so far failed to provide official figures for the “community” library at Age Exchange, but good anecdotal evidence suggests there has been a drop of around 80% in book issues since the Village library closed, with no corresponding increase in lendings from other Lewisham libraries.

    What makes the situation even more alarming is that, while the AE library is currently housed in the airy and pleasant ground-floor Bakehouse, it is due to be moved to a cramped basement with no natural light once refurbishments are completed. With no promise of a significant increase in book stocks, it is hard to see how visitor numbers can be expected to grow.

    The main losers in all this are young children, particularly those in the pre-school age group, for whom the basement premises will be wholly inadequate. What Blackheath urgently needs is a dedicated children’s library, something that would sit very well in the AE Bakehouse once the computers and adult books have been moved downstairs. Go for it, AE!

  3. “Tribal Group is seizing an excellent commercial opportunity to grow in this relatively immature market. Gresham supports Tribal’s strategy of development by acquisition.”

    Above is the concluding statement from link above to Instant Libraries/Gresham Private Equity which is
    linked toTribal group which bought Diana Edmonds company Instant Libraries , who had previously privatised Haringey Libraries.

    The written reply to question about Libraries at Oct 26 Council meeting , stated…………

    ” …the council invited proposals from potential providers about how they could establish alternative service delivery model options for the library………and potential savings from rates relief….”

    If that is the case , and as Cllr Fahy reads this blog , could he tell us in the interests of acountability and transparency – which potential providers were invited and how many replied ?

    Also is he aware that rates relief for charitable trust is to be abolished soon ?

    It appears the transfer of Greenwich Libraries would be a “fait accompli” if councillors are allowed to get their way – regardless of any input from public or Library staff , who I believe have been kept totally un-informed about these developments.

    Is this what democracy has come to in Greenwich ?

    Thankfully we have valuable Blogs like this to shine a light this kind of behavior.

  4. There is one council, Hounslow, where many of its services have been outsourced to a private company for a sufficient period of time for its success or otherwise to be ripe for analysis.

    The leader of Hounslow Council was quoted in the Richmond & Twickenham Times, June 2008 : “This council is clear in what it is trying to achieve. People want us to use the local taxes we collect wisely, and to invest their money to improve services, facilities and the quality of life for everyone in this borough. People want good quality parks, leisure centres and libraries, and we will see that they get it.”

    2008 optimism …. But have the people of Hounslow now “got it” or not ? — that is the question.

    Your councillors appear to have failed to do the obvious : scrutinise Hounslow’s history from 2008, with particular reference to its public library service. I hope those who are worried in Greenwich will do their research. There’s information to be had.

  5. I share the concerns expressed by others. How can someone who is on the GLL Board also be involved in making decisions to award them a contract, whether it be for leisure centres of libraries. It also sounds like there is another company on the side ready to acquire more council services.

    I think this is just another example of Greenwich forcing through changes to save money without any thought for what happens to the service. As long as they keep all their mates happy thats all they care about.

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