Last Updated: 04 February 2011
Created: 04 February 2011
Today Justin Tomlinson MP spoke in the Library Services debate, secured by Lisa Nandy MP. Justin has been a champion of protecting and enhancing library services in Parliament, building on his experience as the former Lead Member for Leisure, Recreation & Culture, which included libraries on Swindon Borough Council.
Justin Tomlinson MP's speech (including interventions):
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this 90-minute debate. She referred to the fact that earlier in the parliamentary Session, I had a Westminster Hall debate on the future provision of library services. I am delighted to see so many hon. Members here today to debate this important subject.
Libraries face challenging times. First, the funding of library services is not a statutory requirement. There are certain rules, criteria and aspirations that councils should change, but when facing challenging budgets and the need to make efficiency savings or cuts, they often see libraries as a relatively soft target. When I visited libraries across the country in my role as lead member for libraries on Swindon borough council, I found all too often that officers and councillors did not use the libraries themselves and so did not appreciate their value to local communities.
We must acknowledge falling usage. Five years ago, 48% of adults visited libraries compared with 39.4% now. Such a fall is against a backdrop of increased reading, particularly among children, so the decline in visits is a worrying trend. Plenty of surveys have been commissioned and much money has been spent on asking people how they would like to see their library service improved rather than on actually improving it. The surveys have showed that the public want good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment. That sounds obvious, but all too often local authorities do not embrace such factors. I will briefly touch on each of them and on how local authorities can embrace the new opportunities that present themselves.
Let me first turn to good choice. When I was preparing for my Westminster Hall debate, the fact that staggered me the most was that only 7.5% of a library budget is spent on book stock. Too much is spent on the corporate structure, different layers of managers and the bureaucracy of categorising and labelling books. We do not have a universal system. Imagine Amazon getting different
towns to categorise the same books; it is madness. That money should be released back into the local libraries. It should be given to local library managers, who understand their own individual communities, to spend on books to get people back in. We would not see a commercial bookshop spending only 7.5% of its turnover on books. We should also allow residents to have a greater say on the books that are stocked. When we opened our new £10 million central library-unlike many public sector projects, I am pleased to say that it was delivered on time and on budget-we allowed local residents to choose the book stock. Unsurprisingly, those same residents came to take out those books after it opened.
As for convenient opening hours, libraries must embrace the mentality of the retail sector. We opened the new North Swindon library on a Sunday. It is next to one of the largest Asda/Wal-Marts in the country and so Sunday is one of its busiest days. Moreover, the new central library is open on a Sunday. A community library should always match the footfall of the local area. Self-service equipment inside new facilities that are not traditional libraries also provide a good opportunity to improve services. For example, I have visited leisure centres and community centres that have installed self-service equipment. Such facilities offer an extension of the mobile library service project in the sense that they are taking books out to the community. Such facilities should not necessarily replace traditional libraries in an area, but if there is no library and there is not enough money to provide one, they can help.
Self-service equipment often costs only £5,000. If a mobile library service is already touring in similar areas, it does not take too much to replenish the stock. All too often, existing community libraries are open for limited hours-in many cases it can be between eight or 10 hours -so volunteers can step in and help to ensure that that facility is open for longer. Users who rely and appreciate the expertise and skills of the traditional core staff can still go to the library in the hours that already exist. If volunteers wish to open beyond those core hours, then more power to them, and such action is certainly something that the big society should embrace.
On the importance of having a pleasant environment, another challenge for libraries is that as much development has taken place in this country over the years, all too often libraries have been overlooked for section 106 contributions. If hon. Members look back at the history of many of their community libraries, they will struggle to remember the last time that they received a lick of paint or a modernisation. Too many libraries are not meeting customer expectations. I am delighted that in my constituency section 106 money was used to rebuild the Highworth library and it has just been announced that Moredon community library will have a major refurbishment on the back of a 350-house development just down the road. Those are the types of opportunities that local authorities should embrace and we as politicians should lobby to ensure that libraries are considered seriously where section 106 money is available.
We should also look to combine facilities. There is a very big national campaign for libraries. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) talked about the 300 people who came to an event at Oxford town hall. We have had similar experiences in my constituency. There was a threat of closure to the Old Town library and my hon. Friend the Minister came to visit Swindon
during the campaign against that threat. The Old Town library was a very poor facility with limited opening hours and falling usage, but the local community passionately supported it. When I was still the lead member on the council for libraries, I challenged that community to get behind their local library and boy, they did so in droves. In the end, a compromise-
Alison McGovern: The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for a good future for libraries, and I am pleased to hear about the changes that he has described. What impact does he feel the current financial settlement that local authorities are dealing with, including the speed and depth of the reduction in their funding, will have on the ability of people doing the job that he used to do-being a lead member on the local council for libraries-to deliver the type of vision that he is outlining?
Justin Tomlinson: The obvious answer is that it is a challenge, not only for libraries but for any service. However, we are in the reality that we are-we have to tackle the public deficit. I do not want to get all political, but I think that any debate that we attend in Westminster Hall will show that all services face similar pressures. That is why libraries must look in particular at their corporate structures and at the fact that they are only spending 7.5% of their budget on book stock. It does not take a brain surgeon to realise that money is not being efficiently spent right across library services, so there is still a challenge ahead.
I was talking about the threat of closure to the Old Town library in Swindon. This is what we did. About 400 metres up the road, we had a relatively new and refurbished arts centre, called the Old Town arts centre, with a 200-seat theatre in wonderful condition. So we moved the Old Town library into the arts centre, and we transferred the core 18 hours of service that already existed in the old library, so that if people liked that traditional service they could go along to the arts centre in those core times. However, there was a much larger and more pleasant library environment at the arts centre. Also, because the arts centre was manned for 40 hours a week with box office staff, the self-service library machines could be left on and if anybody had a problem using them the box office staff could step in and say, "This is how you use this facility." So the opening times for the library went from 18 to 40 hours. In addition, every time that there is an evening show at the arts centre, the theatregoers, if they are so inclined, can use the self-service machine, so sometimes we are looking at an extension of opening times from 18 hours to 60 hours.
Obviously, the usage of that library has increased-by 24%-and membership has increased by 193%. The arts centre café had kept opening and closing, because it did not have sufficient footfall in the daytime to make it viable, but it is now viable and the arts centre itself is now selling more tickets, because people come in to the library to take out a book of their choice, they see that the show that evening has not sold out and that it is their particular choice, and so they go and buy a ticket for it. It is an absolute win-win situation, and in these times of challenging costs the council has saved itself quite a lot of money, because it is paying for one building rather than two.
Furthermore, when we built the new Central library in Swindon we made sure that the opening hours were tied up with the fo