Thursday, 17 February 2011

Council listens over library opening hours

Changes to Cornwall library opening hours have been presented to the Communities Scrutiny Committee. The final decision will be made by Communities Director Gill Steward later today and will be published on Monday.

I'm not able to write about the details because they need to be sent to staff first, but what I can say is that I believe the Council has listened to local concerns about prescriptive opening hours, timings and closed days and has modified the original proposals accordingly. I'll blog with the full details on Monday.

The level of local consultation - whilst not perfect due to the short timescale - is in contrast to the public engagement carried out of parking changes. With libraries the original centralised plan has been substantially modified. With parking the desire to impose a rigid 'one size fits all' system has led to a bad scheme which will significantly harm local communities.

The final Libraries result is still regrettable in that opening hours are to be lost. But it is a heck of a lot better than it might have been and credit should be given to officers who were prepared to listen to local concerns. One particular concern that was heeded was the proposal in the original document to open most libraries no earlier than 10am. Many communities pointed out that libraries are often used by parents after they drop their children at school. Delaying the opening time until 10 would most probably have lost their custom. I proposed that we consider at least one 'early opening' at 8.30am or 9am per week and this will be considered during the next review.

The other key decision that has been made is the integration of Registration and the One Stop Shops with the library service. A plan is being developed which will see many One Stop Shops moving into library premises and the plan is to seek to incorporate registration officers as well.

During the discussion on libraries I did manage to secure some assurances. The Council will make sure that cash payments will continue to be accepted in One Stop Shops as they are now. For many people, cash is the only way they can manage their money and, although it may be quicker and easier for the Council if payments are made online or by card, this doesn't suit everyone and it is important that cash facilities continue.

People needing to register a death do not want to have to queue in a busy and, sometimes, noisy place. They want and deserve to be treated with dignity. So the current appointment system will continue and staff will ensure that people registering deaths are treated compassionately.

I also secured a promise that, when the One Stop Shops move, they will work to the opening hours of the library they are based in. This might mean a slight loss of hours overall, but will mean that they are open into the evening at least one day per week and on Saturday mornings. This is a huge step forward and something I have been arguing for since I got elected.

Finally, I secured a pledge that the buildings would continue to be first and foremost a library service. It is great that the Council is looking to expand the range of activities that take place in our libraries - especially welcoming voluntary groups in. But I am concerned that with the integration of One Stop Shops, registrars and, possibly, other services, that the basic library function might be shunted aside.

The only disappointment was that, despite the proposed changes and the savings that the Council wants to achieve, the officers refused to give a guarantee that there would not need to be more cuts if the process could not be achieved as quickly as they want. There is a some leeway built in but if the process is delayed then the costs will have to be made up somehow and further cuts to hours cannot be ruled out entirely.

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