The Green Party recently put a written question to the Lambeth Cabinet Member responsible for Libraries, Sonia Winifred. The Friends' experience of Sonia is that she does not lie. She might tell us only part of the story but the part she tells is likely to be accurate. The answer is therefore worth considering.
The answer informs us that there will be as much "community space" as before and that there will be a "library service" comprising library activities in the space from time-to-time. Previously Lambeth were using the term Neighbourhood Library to include token services which no reasonable person could call a library, such as the alcove containing 500 books in the Railway Tearoom in Streatham Vale. It is good to see that Sonia appears to have ditched this grossly misleading term, with its connotations that there would be an adequate stock of books and some space set aside for a library. For more than a year the Friends have been telling anyone who would listen that Lambeth have not committed themselves to providing a library only often to be told that we have got it wrong. We can now hope that everyone who is interested will accept that they need to join in campaigning for a library.
A less welcome aspect of Sonia's answer is that it describes Waterloo Library as having "a full stock of books." It has about 7,500. A previous Head of Libraries advised that a local library needs a minimum of about 20,000 books to cater for all ages. Experience at Carnegie Library seems to confirm this. After years of much lower stock levels and lending, the stock at Carnegie Library was built up to 19,754 books shortly before Lambeth closed it in March 2016 and the rate at which books were lent was the fastest in the borough.
The Friends are most directly concerned with Carnegie Library but it would be foolish to think that its fate can be separated from the future of the borough's other libraries. It may therefore at this point be worth emphasising that:
- Lambeth needs all ten of its existing libraries. It should really have more to provide an adequate service throughout the borough.
- Each library needs a good selection of books for all ages and a children's library in a separate room from the Adults' library. The Adults' library needs to include a Teen zone and the teens will only use this if it is well away from the Children's library and situated so that the teens do not feel the staff or other grownups are looking at them.
- The libraries need to be open sufficient hours, including some time in the evenings and at weekends.
- Libraries also need to be fully staffed by professional librarians and trained library assistants. An urban library is a particular kind of space and managing it to maintain a calm and welcoming character is a specialised skill. Further skills are needed to assist learners, computer users and people seeking information. Volunteers add greatly to the range of services on offer in Lambeth's libraries but they are only effective where there is a core of paid library staff.
The question and answer are available at https://moderngov.lambeth.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=10515
Carnegie Community Trust have also recently put some information on their website. They inform us that they will be taking an asset transfer from Lambeth during 2019 and imply that they will be taking charge of the ground floor and the first floor office space over the coming months.
The posting calls for local people "to help to make the Carnegie Community Hub a truly community owned venture, a place the whole community can call their own." This is almost as misleading as "Neighbourhood Library." The Trust purports to be for the benefit of the community, hence its name. However, there is no reason whatsoever to expect it ever to be run by the local community. There is a range of opinions among libraries campaigners about how close the Trust is to Lambeth's inner circle of senior councillors. Some of us consider it to be just Lambeth by another name, the Council exercising power without responsibility. Others take the view that the Trust has a degree of independence. In any event it is clear that it is a thoroughly undemocratic organisation. Its constitution permits only its trustees to be voting members. The initial trustees were appointed by themselves at the behest of the Council and have the power to appoint additional or replacement trustees.
The Trust prepared a three-year Business Plan. It published brief extracts from this in January and other bits of information at other times. Reading its recent posting in the light of these it seems reasonably clear that its main activity would be hiring out rooms in competition with local church halls. Additionally, it hopes to run a cafe even though the only kitchen in the building has been stripped out and is being converted into toilets. Also, they plan to hire out desk spaces.
The Trust is trying to recruit volunteers to do almost all of the work needed but how the Trust could make its activities financially viable is a mystery even if it succeeded in recruiting sufficient people to put in the necessary hours for free, which seems unlikely. The Trust has obtained a grant to enable it to pay one employee for eight months and the trustees seem to think that they could generate income to continue to pay someone and to fund the other costs of the building. However, even if it is staffed entirely by volunteers a cafe is unlikely to generate substantial profits and room hires look equally unpromising. The main intended source of income therefore appears to be the proposed desk spaces. But there is a great deal of competition. This will no doubt intensify now Lambeth has arranged for International House, the office block adjoining Brixton Recreation Centre, to be used for desk space hiring. There is room for dozens of desk spaces on each of its eleven floors.
There have previously been suggestions that the cafe would be a cafe bar serving alcohol into the late evening but this would need the grant of a licence over strong objections from the neighbours and so its feasibility looks doubtful. Lambeth appears to have promised a grant of £40,000 a year in lieu of the basement gym paying rent or making any financial contribution in respect of the building but this would only continue so long as the gym remained. As the gym has no prospect of financial success this would probably be only a matter of months. Thereafter the Trust would have the basement to rent out but the rent for a windowless basement in Herne Hill would no doubt be modest. The Friends obtained a professional rental valuation of £1.50 a square foot if and when a tenant could be found. It does not look as though the Trust's finances would work out.
As some of our readers will be aware, two of the Trust's trustees have apparently fallen out with senior councillors despite many years of being fellow stalwarts of the right wing of the Labour Party in Lambeth. The pair insist that the Trust could only have a hope of paying its way if the subsidy were £80,000 instead of £40,000 and guaranteed to continue for at least five years.
The posting refers to an Asset Transfer to the Trust possibly taking place in 2019. It is not entirely clear what is meant. The original plan was that Lambeth would relieve itself of any responsibility for the building by letting the whole of it rent-free to an organisation which, at least nominally, is separate from the Council. This is what would normally be understood by "Asset Transfer." However Lambeth now propose to retain responsibility for the building, letting the basement gym to Greenwich Leisure Limited and bearing all the losses of the gym. This would leave only the ground floor and the first floor office for letting to the Trust. This arrangement would enable the Council and Greenwich Leisure to terminate the basement tenancy at any time by mutual agreement. The Trust might be expecting the gym lease to end during 2019 and that it would then be given a lease of the whole building. Alternatively, "Asset Transfer" might just mean that the lease to the Trust would contain provisions included in Asset Transfer leases which enable the Council to forfeit the lease and take back the property when the tenant's finances appear to be failing.