March 2008 May 2009

The Lewisham Files

a.k.a. The Mayors Commission on Libraries and Learning

In the merry, merry month of May 2009, when all is being revealed and all suspicions are confirmed, and then some, I need to do some revealing of my own.
Unbeknown to any of Lewishams local electorate the elected Mayor of Lewisham decided to set up the above. Once notified we saw there was a place out of the original 20 odd members for one library user and one Adult Education (CEL) user to be included. The rest comprised representatives of quangos, one councillor for each party on the council, council officers, Lewisham located education institutes. No doubt details of the cast of characters are on the Lewisham Council website. It grew a little, but not with many users.

Missing from meetings, from this cast of characters, were Simon Beer of NIACE and the Conservative councillor for Grove Park ward. The young Mayors Office nominee appeared once, and not all turned out each time.
Where is power with responsibility and knowledge? It transpired that policy came from Whitehall, the quangos and even Europe. The Equality Directive, hence our own Equality Bill, badly affected provision of the over 60s Concession. This has led to a huge loss of students country wide, followed by the loss of many classes. Somehow, the London Borough of Lewisham is still hanging in there, but dont hold your breath.
Users: There are 2 library user groups in the borough, various reading groups, over 50s club etc. None were contacted. The chosen library user was a member of Sydenham Library Reading Group, so please do not ask why they were notified and nobody else.
Adult Education had several sources of users, but the strongest and most active at the time was the Grove Park User Group Committee. We felt immediately that one representative was totally inadequate to deal with the scope, the other professionals and the time involved so asked for a supporter. This was repeatedly denied to us by the organiser and manager of the Commission. However, an independent appeal to the Mayor at a public meeting led to his agreement on this contentious issue.
Remit: So, O.K., it was not our Commission, but we all felt the user representative could not, under any circumstances just represent one individual. The Mayor explained to me at the first session that there was no need for any publicity. We were there to represent ourselves and our own opinions. In a recent letter to our Committee he stated, The thinking behind The Commission is unashamedly based on the workings of Royal Commission even though these seem to have fallen into disuse in recent years. The idea was to bring together a group of individuals who were interested in and had some relevant knowledge. The task was to create ideas and look at what might be done in the future. It is not a formal decision making body neither is it a vehicle for consultation. It is simply a way to get a group of interested individuals together so they can get the debate going.
Unfortunately the library user representative seemed to have very little knowledge of what was happening in the library world. However, with our extensive contacts in the library world, the campaigning library world, many other users, 10 years experience of Lewisham Council operations and networking in Adult Education, which increased by the day, we felt informed and supported. Thus I received massive amounts of feedback, was able to FEED it back to The Commission and we were able to turn out for campaigning events. Eventually, Council Officers, of all people, congratulated us!
Reaction: Of course this was not written into the Councils original scenario and once we noticed how we were being blocked and denied Council information our sub-committee group agreed that by-passing the official line was the only democratic way to behave. We did not want to become part of the system, where resistance is futile. We did not want to be accused, by other users, of reneging on all users interests. So, we kept up the pressure as well as outside information and influence. We remained not buyable.

We organised our own public meetings, issued our own leaflets, went to all the Commission meetings, used our own cash, met regularly outside of Grove Park Committee meetings, kept up the pressure publicly and our MP, Bridget Prentice, helped us to get answers from Council Officers. The other 2 Lewisham MPs, Joan Ruddock and Jim Dowd, showed no interest at all in either libraries or Adult Education.

To give him his due the Mayor and his aides attended some of our meetings and listened. He would be under no illusions as to what is at stake.

However, the Council made a huge mistake in organising the Focus Groups, which take up a great deal of unwarranted space in the final report. Close examination reveals them to have been non-representative, poorly attended, and contributing great distortions in any percentage or figure given. None may be relied upon. The results are risible. We felt this was organised to either keep us quiet, or tick boxes.

If your council operates a council question time use it to your advantage. Much may be revealed.
Some rewards: For the previous year we had been aware of coming problems (the slow motion car crash?). Ever decreasing funding for Adult Education was already damaging the service. We were not novices, so as soon as other opportunities arose we jumped aboard those band wagons, too. NIACE, UNISON, UCU eventually saw the lights of the on-coming train and embarked on CALLCampaign. Age Concern and Help the Aged held a valuable conference in defence of Adult Education, Grey Matter, Matters, even attracting the attendance of the man from the ministry, but one wonders where he ended up after DIUS was absorbed!

Outside of library friends and user groups (Library Campaign and Libraries for Life for London), Alan Gibbons Campaign for the Book burst on to the scene and Rachel Cooke wrote a splendid article in the Observer, which was well-researched and wide ranging. It identified the problems facing libraries, which we are all able to connect with. Did you know Private Eye has a Library News column in every edition?

Barbara Follett, minister at the DCMS, perhaps she should be in para 1 too, was preparing a library review. Lyn Brown MP, now former Chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Libraries, suddenly leapt into action, called her group to attention and issued 6 points she wished to discuss for review. Ms. Brown would like to see The Commissions recommendations. However, she has now become part of the Whips Office and is no longer PPS to John Denham MP, formerly at DIUS. He ran over to Hazel Blears old job and his old department vanished completely, having existed for 20 months. It had cost £7m to set up! DIUS and BERR are now BIS, with Peter Mandelson, what does it all cost?

NB Co-location of Adult Education was the new buzz word in DIUS, DCMS, MLA, in libraries! Do we still believe in coincidence, or is there no such thing?

Results: Do not be amazed or misled that it is recommended in the report that a library must be called a library. As we know it says India on the tyres but ..
We all know Lewisham Central Library is no longer adequate, but who came up with the idea of a new build? Yes, it was the Mayor, who dropped the idea in at an early meeting, where it stayed!

Most of the user points, suggestions and opinions have not translated into policy. Thus far The Commission has produced a largely top-down document which repeats the jargon of MLA and DIUS (ie The Learner Revolution white paper.) National guidance rules! We are all held hostage. Dont you just love it? Do as we say or you get no money! Yes, we did say resistance is futile. Is this any way to run a country?

A side issue: It really is time local government stood up for itself and its electorate to represent its localities. It is time the death knell sounded for careerists, fellow travellers and advantage seekers!
Please read the recommendations when available on the Lewisham Council website. My colleague on The Commission, Miriam McLeod, and I worked very hard to influence these recommendations and not to sell the pass. See if you are able to spot our input!

To be honest the whole process is more like a diverting technique. We have all moved on.

A great plus, however, was the amount of information we amassed, the contacts we have, the campaigns we joined and the mass support and gratitude we were given. We are a movement for both libraries and Adult Education. Maybe it was worth all those lost hours and time spent with the computer screen, e-mailing into the wee small hours.

Nemesis: With what is happening now over public corruption and the chaos in the public finances, all the jargon in the world will not clean up the public services or any provision! A damning report has just been published on LSC, citing the gross mismanagement of funds, which were not properly supervised by the government itself. Where are the other bodies buried?
Miriam and I worked diligently and with great perseverance, along with unstinting support from Committee members, to draw The Commission back to users interests and accountability of decision making.

In fact, provision of these services should not be queried at all. They should be there. The constant tinkering and meddling is expensive and counter productive. Why has it come to this?

Patricia Richardson:- Adult Education user member, Mayors Commission
Joint Chair of Grove Park User Group Committee
Secretary of Users and Friends of Manor House Library
Minutes Secretary of Libraries for Life for London
Member of The Library Campaign