Services at Risk in Church Stretton - Frequently Asked Questions
1. HOW WILL THE FUTURE OF THE LIBRARY IN THE TOWN BE DECIDED?
Following the legal proceedings, instituted by the Library Support Group, Shropshire Council announced that the choice of future service provider would be determined by a decision making process linked to the Community Right to Challenge/ Bid to run an existing Council Service provided under the Localism Act 2011. The first phase of this process invites any prospective organisation, interested in providing the library service, to submit an Expression of Interest (EoI). The closing date for this stage is 16th January 2017. The Expression of Interest involves completing an on-line form on the Shropshire Council website.
Shropshire Council will then consider any EoI's received during this window of opportunity, assessing them against the Community Right to Challenge criteria. If validated, the EoI’s will be considered by full Cabinet and written feedback provided to applicants within 30 days. If Cabinet decided that one or more of the EoI’s should be accepted, a procurement process will be triggered to enable full and detailed proposals to be submitted. Any organisation will be able to enter the procurement exercise at that stage.
Once the procurement exercise has concluded, proposals will be assessed by officers (not members) of Shropshire Council, and a new provider formally appointed. It is anticipated that a further 6 months will then be required for new service arrangements to be concluded.
In total, this process will take approximately 12 months to conclude.
2. WHAT ROLE IS THE TOWN COUNCIL PLAYING IN THE DECISION MAKING PROCESS?
The Town Council has no direct role in the Shropshire Council process, described above.
However, at its September meeting, the Council set out how it proposed to proceed in order to be as supportive as possible within the constraints imposed. Accordingly, the Council offered to meet with any organisation considering making an Expression of Interest to establish how it could feasibly support their proposal, should they be appointed as the preferred provider by Shropshire Council for the service. It is likely that the Town Council will take some ‘higher level’ decisions about the on-going resourcing of the library at their December meeting, in order to tie in with our own internal budgeting and precepting timeline. Any financial offer of support would be equally applicable to all bidders, and will be notified to Shropshire Council’s Procurement team for inclusion in the information pack for the procurement process. As the Town Council has determined it is more productive to engage with bidders at the EoI stage, we have been advised by Shropshire Council’s commissioning team that this will preclude us from any direct involvement in the subsequent procurement phase.
This work is being undertaken by the internal ‘At Risk Services’ Working Group, which has been working closely with Shropshire Council to identify any services presently at risk of future reduction or closure, in order to develop alternative solutions, wherever possible.
As part of this work, a new ‘At Risk Services’ cost centre is being created in the 2017/18 budget, in order to provide the financial resources required in order to secure the future of some of the ‘at risk’ services. An efficiencies exercise has been undertaken in order to ensure that the precept rise can be minimised. This has included a decision not to replace one full time member of staff.
3.WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THE RECENT COMMUNITY SURVEY?
Town Councillors decided that they needed to gauge the level of public support for raising the precept to pay for services at risk. At the time, Shropshire Council was asking all Parish and Town Councils to indicate whether they would take on services in their area by September 2016. Subsequently, (and without any consultation) the Leader of Shropshire Council (Malcolm Pate) announced that there would be a further year of respite for services scheduled to close.
The results of the survey indicated a strong positive for funding the library service (in its current location), and a slightly more mixed result for the leisure centre and swimming pool. This is helpful guidance for the Council in terms of working through the current budget setting and precepting process for 2017/18.
4. WHY CAN’T WE JUST DO WHAT OTHER TOWNS HAVE DONE WITH THEIR LIBRARIES?
Some towns were allowed by Shropshire Council to develop the discussion about the future of their library service in the context of wider negotiations about management of their car parks and use of the income from them to support at risk services.
We were not able to pursue that option because Shropshire Council were embroiled in the Judicial Review case brought by the Church Stretton Library Support Group, including a ‘cease and desist’ order, which prevented them from having any further discussions to progress the issue of the library service. By the time the case was settled, Shropshire Council’s position on transfer of car parks had changed.
All of the agreements that have already been reached on ‘disposal’ of community libraries are slightly different in their composition. Some towns have chosen to take on their library building in order to utilise it as the focus for delivery of a wider range of council services, and relinquished former premises in order to do so. Others are bound into three year agreements, with tapered funding from Shropshire Council, some linked to TUPE transfer of staff to the Town Council concerned.
5. WHAT OTHER SERVICES IN THE TOWN ARE ‘AT RISK’?
A lot of discussion in the town has become polarised around the library and its future location. This is, of course, only part of the issue, as Shropshire Council’s current plan is to cease funding the library completely with effect from 2019. Reduced funding will be available in 2017 and 2018.
In addition to the library, the future of community use of the swimming pool and leisure centre is very much at risk. The recommendation from Shropshire Council’s draft ‘Sport Facilities Strategy’ is that the swimming pool should close and alternative funding be found for community use of the Leisure Centre. Shropshire Council has deferred a planned reduction in its management fee to the current management organisation ie Teme Leisure. Already, that organisation has lost a core grant for running the pool, and is already subsidising the service from its business reserves. The pool itself requires considerable capital investment to bring it up to standard. This is undoubtedly the most complex and challenging issue to face the town over the coming months and the ‘At Risk Services’ working group is in contact with all the interested parties, including the newly-formed Stretton Pool Action Group, to seek an acceptable outcome.
The Visitor Information Service for the town is very much at risk. The dedicated and staffed service within the library building no longer exists and the previous funding on offer for alternative provision from Shropshire Council is no longer available. The existing staff team at the library have integrated part of the former Visitor Information offer into the main library setting, in order to provide some level of service for visitors to the town, during the library’s reduced opening hours. However, as a town reliant on attracting tourist income, the future resourcing of this service must also be considered alongside other more obvious at risk services.
There are other services that are currently provided by Shropshire Council, which may fall into the category of ‘at risk’ further down the line. These would include:
- Approximately one third of the town’s street lights, which are the responsibility of Shropshire Council;
- The Preventative Grant funding which provides for some of Mayfair’s core services to the town, including the Ring and Ride scheme;
- Shropshire Council currently provides for street cleaning; waste bin emptying on amenity sites, verge maintenance and grass cutting in and around the town. We anticipate likely reductions in specification to verge cutting, street cleaning, and waste bin emptying at the end of the current Ringway contract in 2017/18 financial year. If we wish to maintain the high standards of street cleaning, we would have to consider providing additional financial resources to Shropshire Council for a higher specification, or consider taking these services on ourselves with all the financial implications that would follow.
- Cuts are pending in a number of voluntary support agencies such as CAB and Age UK, which could impact on the level of health and social care support in the town.
- A knock-on effect from the reduction in resources for youth work in the County that would hit those agencies like south Shropshire Youth Forum that rely on small grants to carry out their work. All direct grant funding for youth services in this area stopped this year, so is now reliant on funding from the Town Council and surrounding parish councils.
This is not an exhaustive list, but, hopefully, demonstrates that councillors cannot just consider individual services they might be lobbied about in isolation, but have to consider a much wider context.
6. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH JUST RAISING THE PRECEPT TO PAY FOR ALL OF THESE SERVICES?
Church Stretton already has the highest local precept in the County. To some degree, (our precept has long been much higher than the largest towns, which have received the bulk of county precept funding and mostly because we provide many more services than other towns of similar size) this reflects the progressive transfer of assets to the Town Council over recent years, including:-
- Children’s play areas
- The town park
- The market
- Public toilets
- Amenity areas
- Most recently Rectory Wood and Field
However, the level of increase that would be required to meet the financial needs of all the services at risk in the town would be simply untenable, therefore choices have to be made. It is the responsibility of town councillors to consider the needs of all the residents of the town, and this clearly includes people who do not have a high level of disposable income to pay for the retention of a wide range of services, that may be highly desirable but are not essential to them.
7. HAVE WE ASKED OTHER OUTLYING PARISHES IF THEY WISH TO HELP?
Yes we have. Councillors invited local parish representatives to meet with them on two occasions based, firstly on proximity to the town and, secondly, on a postcode analysis of who is currently using the library and the leisure centre. This indicated that approximately 20% of users are coming from outlying parishes. Even a 20% contribution was universally ruled out on the grounds that it would more than double their average local precept of £18, compared to the Church Stretton precept in 2016/17 of £160 (Band D properties).
Parish councils rightly argued that they contribute to these services in the largest towns through the county precept and they would be paying twice if asked to pay again for such services in their locality. This is precisely the argument that the Town Council has made in opposing the proposals in the draft Sport & Leisure Services Strategy (see above), not least because the largest towns already have much lower precepts than Church Stretton.
It is the contention of the Town Council that, if the responsibility for funding services is to transfer from the county level down to parish and, principally, town councils, there has to be a commensurate re-balancing of county and local precepts, which also begins to address the current gross inequity of local precepts across the county.