Church Stretton Town Council Response to Shropshire Council
Engagement and Consultation on Library Strategy
1. Executive Summary:
This is the response of Church Stretton Town Council agreed on Tuesday October 15th 2019. Shropshire Council launched this exercise on September 30th, with the initial consultation running until November 8th, to be followed by a second consultation in the New Year on a revised draft Strategy. The aim of the exercise is to develop “a robust vision with clear priorities”….reflecting “local priorities and needs”. However, it is stated that the revised Strategy will continue to be based on the “three-tier hierarchy of library service”, set out in the current draft Strategy.
Church Stretton Town Council has major concerns about:
a) The conception, planning and resourcing of this latest consultation round;
b) The deliverability of the proposed model of service delivery;
c) The fundamental unfairness of the proposed funding of this three-tier model of service delivery;
d) The destabilising effect on town council financial planning of protracted uncertainty about Shropshire Council’s intentions.
The Town Council urges Shropshire Council to undertake a fundamental re-appraisal of its proposed approach, such that it shares the financial responsibility more equitably across all town and parish councils and is more capable of achieving the declared outcome of sharing the benefits county-wide, through not only joint financial but also joint managerial arrangements with local councils and community organisations.
2. Consultation Process:
Those attending the Engagement event in Bridgnorth on October 8th learned that such events would only be held in Tier 1 Libraries, as that was all the staff allocation allowed. No notifications of the Consultation had yet been sent to Tier 2 and Tier 3 Libraries. Their library subscribers and their town and parish councils but would be sent subsequently. As of 15th October, no such notification has been received by Church Stretton Town Council or the Friends of Church Stretton Library or any local subscribers, In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how this Consultation exercise can have any credibility, especially in those towns.
3. Tiered Model in Library Strategy:
The current draft Strategy details a three-tier hierarchy of library service:
- Tier 1: 7 libraries in the larger towns to continue being fully funded by Shropshire Council;
- Tier 2 : 7 libraries to be progressively funded over a five-year-period by town councils and community organisations;
- Tier 3 : 7 libraries in smaller towns to be entirely funded and managed by local community groups within five years.
The consultation states: “This hierarchy will continue to underpin funding decisions to ensure library services are sustainable for the future.”
Having a Tier 2 library, Church Stretton is testimony to the unworkability of this approach. Over the last three years, Shropshire Council has undertaken a procurement exercise, seeking to transfer the funding and management to a community organisation in the town. Despite having a well-supported Friends of the Library, willing to contribute some funding, it has foundered on the impracticability of expecting a small local community organisation to take on the employment of staff, with all of the risks and uncertainties associated with sickness and retirement liabilities.
To date, it is the local understanding that it has only proved possible to begin partially introducing this approach whereby a town or parish council can jointly contribute funding, in combination with a community organisation of sufficient size to run not only a library but some other local service as well e.g. Pontesbury (Tier 2) and Craven Arms (Tier 3).
For good reason, this does not embrace the recruitment, training, support and deployment of library staff. A single employer is needed to undertake these functions and to use the staff optimally across several part-time libraries.
The Town Council contends that the funding assumptions underpinning this tiered Strategy are neither sustainable nor fair, particularly to the towns and community organisations, in respect of both Tier 2 and Tier 3 Libraries. This is because the households in those towns would be contributing not only to the funding of Tier 1 libraries, through the county council tax, but also increasingly funding their own libraries through local council tax, as well as voluntary donations to local community organisations, with no contribution from the surrounding parishes, whose residents also use their libraries. The net effect is that the town councils with the largest tax-bases would contribute least to the funding of their libraries.
By way of example, in 2018/19, Shrewsbury Town Council, with the largest tax base and two libraries, had an income of £2.3 million and a Band D council tax rate of £45.63, whereas Church Stretton Town Council, with a much smaller tax-base, had an income of £24,680 and a Band D council tax rate of £176.87.By contrast. most of the 140 Parish Councils had a local Band D precept in the region of £20 - £40.
Prior to unification, there was a way of aggregating, within the five District Councils, the costs of services, such as libraries, so that their funding was more equitably shared. There is a compelling case for re-defining similar sub-areas of the county in which these service costs could be more equitably shared.
On unification, Shropshire Council brought about an equalisation of council tax rates across the five District Councils. However, since unification, the local council tax rates of the largest towns and parish councils have only increased marginally. By contrast, in the smaller towns, acting as service centres, the rates have more than doubled. In Church Stretton, it is demonstrable that this increase is primarily due to decisions of Shropshire Council and not the Town Council.
It is vital to the credibility and viability of local government finance that some linkage is restored between council tax paid and services received. That requires Parish Councils also to be contributing to the cost of digital library services, the mobile library and the use their residents make of town-based libraries. It also requires the largest Town Councils to be contributing to the cost of their libraries in their local precepts.
The declared outcomes of the current Strategy are:
1. Improved opportunities for literacy, reading and culture
2. Improved health and well-being of Shropshire communities
3. Communities that are resilient and inclusive
4. Libraries that are more innovative and sustainable
The Local Development Plan also stresses the importance of maintaining the viability of rural communities. They currently have ageing populations with few families, not only because of the lack of affordable housing but also because of the increasing difficulty of accessing services. Rising numbers of elderly residents no longer have cars and bus services have been reduced, This undermines the basis of the tiered approach to funding libraries that they are all within a 20-25 minute drive in a car.
Furthermore, such a service strategy is at odds with the climate emergency imperative. That reinforces the need for a spread of local libraries and a mobile library service, as well as improving broadband connectivity to rural areas to maximise the use of digital library services.
6. Local Service Priorities:
As Shropshire Council is all too well aware, the Church Stretton Community fought hard to keep its Library in its central location, not only because of its accessibility for elderly and disabled library users but because of its ever increasing role in the cultural life of the community. A strong Friends of Church Stretton Library Group Charity not only contributes funding to the Library’s core book lending role, it has also developed a broad programme of activities for all ages based in the Library. When Shropshire Council ceased to fund the Visitor Information Service at the Library, the room was converted to house a succession of exhibitions by local artists.
While there has been a slow decline in the number of those borrowing books, there has been an increase in the number of those using the computers and in undertaking local history research. With the withdrawal of Customer Service personnel from smaller towns, it is increasingly important that residents without computers have access to both computers and wi-fi in their local Libraries, so as to access not only Shropshire Council services but also social benefits, such as job-seeker’s allowances, especially if lacking the means to travel to Shrewsbury.
To compensate for the loss of the Visitor Information Service, the librarian staff, aided by the Friends, have retained a significant level of visitor information in the Library, which is well used by both residents and visitors. In addition, the Library provides information on locally available holiday accommodation by phone and email, as well as in print.
Church Stretton Library is currently open Thursday to Saturday 9.30am – 5.00pm and from 9.30am – 7.30pm on Tuesday. For those who are working, it is important to have a late opening at least one day per week. Because of the importance of visitors to the local economy, it is even more important to have the library open all day on Saturday, given that visitors are coming to the town in increasing numbers. Indeed, at least through the summer season, it would be advantageous to have the Library open all day on Sunday. If that cannot be covered by paid staff, it would be useful to have the option of trained volunteers being allowed to cover. Indeed, in terms of maximising local usage, there is a case for allowing local libraries to determine their own hours of opening within a given budget.
Despite the long term uncertainty with which Church Stretton librarian staff have had to contend, they have shown a very high level of commitment to providing helpful, informative and imaginative service. While accepting the need for relief staff, there is a high value in having permanent staff, who develop a body of local knowledge.
As a result of this second consultation and engagement to revise the current Library Strategy, it is hoped that Shropshire Council will undertake a fundamental re-appraisal, particularly about a more equitable and sustainable way of funding and managing the Library Service into the future. It is regrettably the case that this may well require, as a pre-requisite, a better planned and resourced Consultation.
This is unfortunate because the Friends of Church Stretton Library have, over the last nine months, become registered as a charity and begun fund-raising The prolonged uncertainty, with which they have already had to contend hampers those on-going efforts and undermines the credibility of the whole exercise. The repeated delays also undermine the long term management of the Town Council’s finances.