Many of you will have seen that Essex County Council is about to launch a consultation on the future of the county’s libraries. The consultation was approved this morning (Thursday 22 November) by the Essex Cabinet at a meeting attended by representatives of the Parish Council. Our Chairman, Maureen Caton, addressed the members during the public participation section at the start of the meeting, to highlight a few of the key points raised in her email to each Cabinet Member which was sent out yesterday. The full letter to Cabinet Members is below.
STANSTED MOUNTFITCHET LIBRARY
The process that has culminated in Stansted Library being placed in Tier 4, as part of the consultation on the future of Essex Library Services Strategy, is significantly flawed and open to Judicial Review.
The process has not considered reduced usage whilst the service was being delivered from a mobile van and then from cramped accommodation in the Parish Council Offices – both being temporary premises whilst a new community hub was being built; Essex County Council library services and Stansted Mountfitchet Parish Council were in the throes of final negotiations on the re-provision of a library service, amongst other services, from our new community hub. Your publicity surrounding the temporary library arrangements was poor to say the least.
We will refer to the matter of the new community building in further detail later.
The figures for loans of books etc. came from the period 2017/18 when the mobile library visited Crafton Green car park on a reduced timetable, with limited access and stock availability. Prior to the demolition of the old library, staff had commented that the service was well used for a library of its size. We would be grateful for you to consider statistics on usage from the old library site prior to closure in July 2016.
The assessment criteria and weighting take no account of the rural nature of Stansted and its surrounding villages. Therefore, the outcome of this initial proposal promotes a bias against rural library provision. Our nearest Essex Library will be in Saffron Walden. Access to this will be limited to those with their own transport or limited public transport which does not support access for those most in need of library services, such as the older population and school children in the area. Stansted library has a wide catchment area including Henham, Elsenham, Ugley, Birchanger, Manuden, Farnham and the Stort Valley villages which are all undergoing substantial developments. The population rise is therefore the reason why the Magna Carta primary school was built in Stansted (opened Sept 2018) to counteract a forecast of an additional 14% of primary school age children in the next 5 years for this area (ECC School Survey). Our local schools have already written to members highlighting the impact of the proposed closure of the library in relation to their pupils.
There is discrimination in the weighting given to deprivation and isolation for our area. We refer to the document “A Profile of People Living in Uttlesford April 2016” which states that, along with Barnston and High Easter in Dunmow, the south ward of Stansted is the most deprived area of Uttlesford with a level of 26.2% child poverty in 2017 according to the End Child Poverty Coalition. At Stansted’s Forest Hall School, 1 in 6 children attending currently qualify for free school meals. Stansted St Mary’s primary school have a ratio of 9.4%. Birchanger also has a high rate of child poverty. Essex County Council’s statistics on free school meals also illustrates the level of deprivation in the south ward of Stansted and Birchanger.
The public engagement exercise (Appendix 3) quotes suggestions by the community for greater use of community spaces, yet you are closing the library which was going to be the focal point of our hub, to deliver a variety of services to the community. At 3.9(b) the focus on outreach states “you will work closely with other Essex County Council services and partners to reach communities and individuals and promote and deliver our offer more closely with other services in different settings, such as community hubs ….” This contradicts your proposal to close our library which would have been in a new hub to deliver those services.
You refer to “extensive public engagement and research in spring 2018” – as an area likely to lose its library we were not informed of this research and engagement. There was no visual signposting/publicity to promote this engagement in Stansted and the local area. The results of this engagement, as reported on page 19 of the document “Your Community, Libraries and You” highlighted recurring themes of “Reducing Social Isolation” and “Extending the Services Offer” – each of these would be addressed by the presence of the library in our new community hub – and yet you propose to close it.
You state that parish councils and partner organisations were informed of these events – we cannot trace receiving such information and this is a very similar experience to that which we encountered over the PNA process when we were not informed about the consultation on the provision of pharmaceutical services locally. The County-wide survey had a 12% response rate which is low, therefore presumably people were unaware of it and did not respond. It also states that “posters were displayed at all libraries and in nearby shops and community centres” – none were received or seen locally. “All district, borough, city, town and parish councils were sent invitations for their members or officers to attend” – this was not our experience, these were not received by us.
It would appear we have more new housing developments but less services; policing, youth and adult services and school transport have all faced cuts. Stansted has been looking forward to the opening of the new library in our new hub and the creative offering of services that will meet the needs of the entire community and promote community cohesion. As a proactive and forward-looking Council, we are supporting the funding of a PCSO and our own local youth services amongst other projects. We pay the same council tax as larger conurbations such as Basildon and Chelmsford but get less cultural and community support services.
Significantly, we have been in negotiations with Essex County Council since 2011 (each meeting being recorded) to re-provide the library and community services from a central hub. This has been actively encouraged by senior officers at Essex County Council and, only 2 weeks ago (1 November), our Clerk met with representatives from the library service to finalise arrangements for the hub after being chased by ECC staff for the draft lease agreement. The design of this new building was based around the space required by the Library Service and would have been significantly different had you not signed up as our partner. Absolutely no communication was received that the library strategy proposal was forthcoming as at 14 November 2018. In fact, the lack of transparency and your omission to communicate directly and openly with us, portrays a lack of respect for the use of public money, local priorities and community needs and aspirations which we, as a local council, uphold.
We would not have committed public expenditure to this project had we known, at various stages through the project, that you were not going to support library services on this site. We will be robustly pursuing the honouring of the lease agreement and judicially if required but would also urge you to review the process resulting in your conclusion to close our library. As stated earlier, we have the support of our local catchment area communities who will fight against your proposal should the consultation proceed.
We urge you, the Cabinet Members of Essex County Council, to reconsider the process and data used to review the usage of Stansted Mountfitchet library and to honour and not renege on the agreement to lease the library section of our new community hub.