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Losing libraries in Somerset & Gloucestershire

Paul Barltrop | 14:04 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Library books

What is it about libraries?

I don't just mean why are they taking such a hammering as councils slash their spending.

But how come they stir up much more protest than other, bigger cuts?

Dozens are threatened with closure across the West. Somerset County Council went furthest, at first announcing 20 would lose their funding.

Gloucestershire propose sweeping changes - with up to 11 closing.

Wiltshire are following suit, with 10 small branches in jeapordy.

There are some straightforward reasons why councils are doing this. Libraries aren't a matter of life and death. Many other things they spend money on, such as caring for the elderly or vulnerable children, can be.


The public know this; when consulted about cuts, there is very strong support for protecting social services.

So the cutting eye of the council axeman turns to less critical things, like youth clubs and libraries.

Losing the former affects relatively few. Losing the latter matters to many - and they can be formidable campaigners.

I have talked to groups from Gloucester to Glastonbury: they're eloquent and well-educated.

Add to that the fact that libraries are very visible, a tangible local asset that cameras can easily focus on, and you have a very potent mix.

The eruption of anger in Somerset has already brought a big u-turn: nine libraries have been reprieved.

But the leader of the council was keen to stress the cuts must go on; they'll just be spread more widely around the county's libraries.

And perhaps the furore has its uses.

It diverts attention from where much bigger cuts are being made.

Top of the hitlist: council staff.

In Somerset 1,500 jobs are expected to go; in Gloucestershire it's around 1,000.

Talking to one union man I asked if he felt frustrated at the lack of public sympathy for threatened civil servants, who are often dismissed as backroom bureaucrats and pen-pushers.

His reply suggested resignation more than anger.

"They won't really care until their services start to suffer in a year or two's time."

And, as any politician will tell you, a year or two is a very long time in politics.


  • Comment number 1.

    As an inhabitant of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, we are at risk of losing our library. When we do, should we have a reduction in our council tax since this is a facility we are not being provided in Berkeley. Similarly, we are losing our hospital, secondary school and youth club. If the council are not providing the facilities then we should not pay.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree to a certain extent with your anonymous trade unionist.

    At one time I worked for the Department of Transport. Mention that you work for a `Department` and most people imagine a huge, monolithic organisation heavy on beauraucracy. In fact, D of T Central is relatively small and made up partly of specialist accident investigators The rest of the Department is made up of 5 or 6 semi-autonomous agencies, headed by Chief Executives brought in from the private sector on short-term contracts. Staff are as likely to be vehicle examiners or coastguards as `pencil pushers`.

    Lunch is often a bag of chips in a van or portakabin, injury through accident or assault is not unknown.

    Having said that, speaking as a loyal trade unionist of many years standing, the unions have not made this case to the general public. I don`t flatter myself that I`m particularly eloquent, but I`ve managed to get my humble message across in a few sentences. Too often, trade unionist leaders are products of `conference culture`, reluctant to take a message to the man in the street pro-actively.

    I will be supporting Save our Libraries Day on 5 Feb. I hope a few of those who do likewise will also take the time to sign online petitions in support of the coastguards and others whose work really can be `a metter of life and death`.

  • Comment number 3.

    A rather lazy piece of political journalism, in my opinion. Broadbrush, and completely with nuance. Most of the questions that have been asked of people on their opinions about cuts, have been so designed to elicit particular answers, that the responses are virtually meaningless.

    Certainly, in Somerset , the consultation on libraries was an almost complete sham, a set of loaded questions, and a thinly disguised trawl for community groups, and volunteers , to take over libraries.

    This is more about political ideology than financial imperative. Perhaps, soon, the Coalition will be recognised for what it is, and will be voted out.


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