Monday, 31 January 2011

It’s laptops at dawn in the hunt for the missing million

Written by Fiona Kirton and Sara Clay

Release: Immediate 31.01.10

    National expert briefs Somerset councillors on how to save £1.35 million without closing 11 libraries or reducing hours

    Britain’s leading expert on how to run libraries has met with Somerset County Councillors in a bid to rescue the remaining eleven at-risk libraries.

    Somerset's high-profile library campaign caught the attention of national libraries campaigner Tim Coates, who offered his services free of charge to brief Councillors.

    Tim Coates, formerly managing director of Waterstone's and WH Smith (Europe), is now best known as an advocate for improvements to the UK public library service. He met County councillors, officers and local campaigners on Friday (28 January) at the Abbey Retreat House, Glastonbury.

    Tim had three key recommendations for Somerset's Library Service. First, reduce costs substantially on backroom services rather than closing libraries. Second, make sure that the published figures are clear and complete. And third, at the same time as reducing back office costs, improve the frontline with more new books, longer hours and smarter premises.

    Crucial to Somerset campaigners, Tim advised that in order to reduce library funding by £1.35 million, as planned, the Council should reduce expenditure on “non-front-line” activities, rather than close libraries.

    This can be done, he said, by streamlining management structure, and empowering librarians to buy books directly, saving substantially on central purchasing and distribution costs. For example, a book that cost 50p to produce, might cost £1 to the wholesaler, and £5.99 in the shop. The same book going through a council purchasing system will cost £20 to put on the shelf, because it has to go through so many hands.

    More than half of the county’s £7.5 million library budget is spent on such back-office services. Tim noted that just over £1 million of that figure had not been included in the consultation document. This was an internal “topslice”, covering the library service’s share of the costs of Human Resources, Finance Department, legal services and other core functions at County Hall.
    Whether that “missing million” should have been included in the total published for the consultation is a matter of contention. This issue is central to Tim’s recommendation for “clear, consistent, complete and comprehensible” figures, to enable councillors to make informed decisions.

    Terry Clay, from Friends of Glastonbury Library (FOGL), has been working with Tim on the figures. He said, "The library officers have said this externally imposed administration charge was not published in the consultation document, because they had no control over it and it would confuse matters. I am more confused by it not being included.”

    Richard Chisnall (FOGL) is hopeful of a positive outcome from the briefing. “The councillors appeared to be listening receptively,” he said. “Tim Coates has recommended a new radical way of thinking which would allow Somerset to keep all of its libraries open, whilst staying within budget constraints. This is in line with recommendations from Local Government Minister, Eric Pickles.”
    County officers and key portfolio holders have agreed to meet again with Tim Coates and Terry Clay – laptops at the ready – to settle the matter of the “missing million” and agree a baseline set of figures on which to plan for the future.

    - END -

     PHOTO CAPTION (if any): Glastonbury mayor John Coles (left) welcomes library expert Tim Coates.

    Notes to Editors.

    1. According to CIPFA (Chartered Institute Of Public Finance Accounts) Somerset library funding totalled £7.5m; the total published in the consultation document was £6.5m, excluded the topslice, and was based on a different 12-month period.

    2. Terry Clay has requested a breakdown of how the additional £1.1m of council administration costs has been broken down, but has not yet received it.


    4. Tim Coates believes the Somerset library campaign has national implications. “I call upon and challenge the library profession, the Government and council officers to support this call to Somerset County Council and make similar analysis in other places,” he wrote in his blog following the briefing. “It is unlikely that there is a need to close a library anywhere for financial reasons in order to meet the requirements of deficit recovery."

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