‘You don’t improve library services by shutting them down,’ UNISON tells Essex County Council

Essex County Council’s aim to improve services while shutting down libraries “beggars belief,” UNISON says today in its response to the Council’s library closures consultation.

UNISON, the union representing Essex libraries’ more than 400 staff, warns that the closures and reduced service would spell disaster for job seekers, Universal Credit claimants and some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.

While the Council has focused on a decline in the number of people borrowing books as a reason to cut services, UNISON visited all 74 libraries in Essex and uncovered a whole range of activities beyond this traditional library function.

As well as books clubs, rhyme time and knit and natter, libraries host musical babies classes, recycling services, craft groups, toddler toy times, cribbage evenings and tutoring for excluded children, while facilities are used by food banks, parish and district councils, MPs and healthy living groups – among many others.

Staff said they help library users fill out Blue Badge forms, compile their CVs and give one-to-one IT support.

UNISON’s consultation says the decision on libraries should not be made “on statistics but on the community values that libraries uphold.”

It queries how many of the Council’s stated aims could be achieved with a loss of physical buildings and paid staff.

The consultation foresees an increase in “overall use of library services, whether online or in person”.

“This beggars belief,” says UNISON. “With nearly half as many buildings, fewer opening hours, fewer staff and more distance to be able to reach a library, we cannot see how this can possibly be achieved.”

UNISON also rejects plans to bring in more volunteers, pointing out that recruiting, training and managing volunteers also require significant resources. The support given to Springfield Library has been much greater than the original plans and the use of volunteers would likely cost much more than Essex County Council currently envisages.

UNISON’s response also warns that if the “community-run” libraries are not part of the Council’s statutory provision, “ECC will be failing in its statutory obligation.”

UNISON Essex County branch secretary Sue Gainey said: “Closing or downgrading most of the libraries in Essex will be devastating.

“For the sake of saving a pittance, the Council wants to deny its residents the chance to find jobs, claim the benefits they’re entitled to or improve their health.

“As we’ve gone around the county we’ve seen just how many people use their local libraries – toddlers and their parents, school children, university students, jobseekers, elderly people needing help with a computer and many more.

“Whole communities will be torn apart if these libraries close.

“And ECC needs a wake-up call if it thinks volunteers can be drafted in to reliably deliver all the services our highly skilled library staff are responsible for now.

“The Council claims it’s trying to improve library services for residents, but you don’t improve library services by shutting down libraries.

“Our libraries need investment not cuts.

“Essex County Council must scrap these destructive plans.”

The consultation collates some anonymous responses from library staff to UNISON.

One said: “Libraries are a lifeline for the elderly, the lonely and new parents. Their value here is inestimable. They know that there is always someone to talk to and pass the time of day with or signpost to other services they may need.”

Another added: “I wonder how a volunteer would cope with some of the issue s we deal with e.g. assisting people with mental health issues, asking  people to leave  for inappropriate behaviour, calling an ambulance for a girl collapsed on drugs, handling aggressive behaviour etc.”

UNISON’s consultation response, including more comments from library staff, can be found here.