Sunday, 2 October 2011

Response from Save Oxfordshire Libraries to Oxfordshire County Council’s Library Service Consultation.

Response from Save Oxfordshire Libraries to Oxfordshire County Council’s Library Service Consultation.

Save Oxfordshire Libraries (SOL) is an alliance of campaigning groups supporting libraries across Oxfordshire.  At present, we represent 20 libraries, including some described as “core libraries” within the Council’s current proposal.  There is a wide range of formal organisation within the groups, ranging from registered charities, to long-standing Friends Groups and some recently organised groups that have no formal status but are nevertheless recognised by their local communities.

Executive Summary.

Insufficient information has been provided for the public to make an informed decision on the proposals in the consultation.  The Quantitative Analysis lacks intellectual rigour.

The proposal that half the county’s libraries should be partly staffed by volunteers is unworkable, inequitable and not cost-effective. 

Some savings have already been made but there is still scope for reductions in staff at management level and sharing of services with other authorities.  Oxfordshire’s service appears inefficient compared with other counties: work needs to be done on understanding the reasons for this.

The current proposal is unfair to rural areas.  A more equitable solution should be found.

A full Service & Community Impact Assessment (SCIA) must be completed before any vote on the proposal.

Officers are now defending the proposal by claiming that making more equitable savings would undermine the principle of a “comprehensive” service, referring to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as supporting them on this.  But they contradict themselves by saying they have not sought endorsement for the proposals from the MLA.

The Quantitative Analysis.

The document setting out the analysis which has been used to underpin the proposal is fundamentally flawed for the following reasons:

1.      The criteria used for deciding what statistics should be fed into the analysis are said to derive from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) report “What do the public want from libraries”, November 2010.  However, the passages from that report which are said to be the sources of the criteria are not quoted in the consultation document, and have still not been made available for public scrutiny.  Indeed, when officers have suggested which passages are relevant, these have proved to be vague suggestions about why people might no longer use a library; and in some cases, different passages have been quoted to different questioners.

2.      The Analysis document as originally produced failed to provide any references that would enable the public to go back to the sources.  This practice is intellectually sloppy[1], but also fails to adhere to the Council’s own promise in "Ask Oxfordshire Strategy" (July 2011)  to "provide sufficient information to allow people to give intelligent and considered responses" (p.10)

3.      While some references have since been produced (more than a month after the original publication), no attempt has been made to reveal the limitations of the data used – limitations which are always given in good statistical analyses, and have indeed in this case been acknowledged in some cases on enquiry: e.g. whether the study in question is sufficiently “powered” to answer questions about small areas of the county. 

4.      There are no “confidence intervals” for any of the data: a fundamental requirement for all statistical analysis.  Indeed, the public are warned by newspaper columnists to beware of articles about statistics that fail to recognise the importance of including confidence intervals[2]

Since there have been many people and groups who have picked up flaws in the detail of the analysis, we shall not reiterate them here.

Proposal to replace staff with volunteers.

The header for this section goes to the heart of the matter: none of us would wish to devalue the role of volunteers, but they should always be supporting employed staff not acting as a substitute for staff.  When OCC approached Oxfam for advice on staffing libraries with volunteers, Oxfam said: “you need to invest in infrastructure, you need to invest in the services, you need to have skilled people and then you supplement that with lots of great skills with people who want to volunteer”.[3]

Volunteers could enhance the service provided in libraries where the staff complement is sufficient to ensure that at least one member of paid staff is always there: that would enable a volunteer to offer their particular skills without being required to offer ALL the skills of a Senior Library Assistant – as set out in the draft “job description” for volunteers that has been circulated to some library groups but is not publicly available.  If there were only a “buddy” on the end of a phone several miles away, all responsibility would at times fall on the volunteer(s):  this would be particularly crucial at busy times of the week, which appear to be the same times for every library.

The other fundamental point about volunteering is that, by definition, it has to be voluntary: that would seem to be self-evident, but what we are being told at present is that we have to volunteer if we want our libraries to stay open.  That is tantamount to blackmail and certainly not likely to persuade people to offer their services.

To take up the matter of the “job description[4].  At the meeting between SOL and OCC representatives on 6 September, it was stated that the document had not been made generally available because it has not been finalised.  This means that members of the public could volunteer without having any idea what they were signing up for.  While we are not suggesting that OCC is deliberately deceiving the public in this matter, failure to inform potential volunteers of what their role might be, means that they are in effect deceived.  In our experience, people who were considering being a volunteer have decided to offer their time elsewhere once they have seen the document.  Of course, we can see why all the roles of a Senior Library Assistant might need to be in the job description: if the only person in a library is a volunteer or volunteers, someone has to cover all the responsibilities of current staff.  This reinforces our case that volunteers should only be used in the presence of a paid member of staff.  Moreover, the proposal runs counter to principles in the Charter for Strengthening Relations between Paid Staff and Volunteers[5], which is recommended by OCVA:

  • The involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service.

And the fact that volunteers are being introduced in order to cut costs is contrary to another principle in the document:

  • The added value of volunteers should be highlighted as part of commissioning or grant making process but their involvement should not be used to reduce contract costs

Indeed, the current proposal does not follow OCC’s own guidance on volunteering (Valuing Volunteers 2011) which states that ‘OCC does not regard volunteers as unpaid employees’. This same guidance makes it clear that consideration needs to be given to whether ‘the role requires expert knowledge’. Valuing Volunteers also reminds service managers that they ‘need to consider which member of staff will step in if a volunteer is not available’.

The proposal for recruiting so many volunteers over the next 3 years is unworkable.  OCC has declined to make an estimate of the number that will be needed.  We have, therefore, had to make our own estimates.  This has been made very difficult because of the inconsistency of the information from which we have needed to work.  We have been told, variously, that the proposal is to cut 1/3 or 2/3 of the basic staff budget for each library concerned.  The consultation document, on the other hand, says (p.10) “one third volunteers and two third paid staff” or vice versa, and verbally it has been made clear that this implies proportions of current paid staff hours, not the opening hours of the library.  Where there is currently more than one staff member, on different salary grades, the effect on the staffed opening hours would vary according to where the largest element of the cut fell: on the higher or lower paid worker, or workers.  This is further confused by the fact that there is no uniformity across libraries about the proportion of hours in contact with the public compared with non-contact hours.

Our estimate is that the number of volunteers needed in libraries (taking into account the need for slack in the system and various regulatory requirements) is between 600 and 1,200: a spreadsheet is provided with this document that gives a figure over 1,000.  The uncertainties arise from the factors explained above and in what circumstances volunteers would have to work in pairs.  We would point out that Age UK Oxfordshire, which has been recruiting volunteers for several years, has still only reached the figure of 400.

We find it both illogical and unfair that OCC’s proposal is trying to impose the provision of the most volunteers on the smallest communities.  These are rural areas where people are already volunteering for many other projects, and indeed some projects (such as youth centres) are struggling to find sufficient volunteers.  Many library groups[6] have stated that they do not believe there are enough people in their area with the capacity to commit to volunteering in a library.  The Council admits that it has done no research to support their contention that volunteers would be available for libraries to the extent needed by the proposal.

The Council wants to make Friends groups shoulder the responsibility for ensuring that their local library has volunteers available to keep the library open – groups do not want this imposed responsibility.  Groups would need to decide who was and was not suitable to be a volunteer, presumably after taking references, which is the normal practice for recruiting volunteers.  Saying “no” would be the difficult part.  Groups would need to have someone available at any time to take messages form volunteers who were unable to fulfil their arranged hours, and then find a replacement: an unreasonable burden on people’s time. 

We wish to point out that there is NO recognition anywhere on the Council’s website of the level of support currently provided by library Friends groups.  While the contact details of some (but not all) Friends groups are listed with the individual libraries, nothing is said about how much Friends groups currently contribute: neither their moral support nor their financial contribution.  Friends groups already contribute to enhance the services provided by their local library: while some manage to raise only enough to buy extra books, others actually pay for some of the staff hours.  If the Council fails to recognise either in words, or in the libraries budget, what Friends groups contribute now, how can they expect people to contribute more?

The Council has not done an estimate of the costs of the various forms of training required and appointing a central co-ordinator for volunteers.  The excuse given is that they do not know how many volunteers there will be, but a budget is not a budget if it has a column for indicative savings but no estimate of the costs that will need to be set against those savings.  Therefore, SOL has attempted to do it own estimates, recognising that some of the training will be done in house.  We were told in our meeting of 6 September that our estimates are too high, but in the absence of figures from the Council, we contend that the proposal is not cost-effective.  The total figure in the indicative savings table sent to SOL by OCC is £336,297.93: this would be the amount saved in the Community Plus and Community Libraries by March 2015, and would be gradually introduced over 3 years.  Karen Warren, acting County Librarian, has said that the cost of the co-ordinator will be 50k-60k p.a. (including oncosts): this information should be made public – there is no mention of a co-ordinator in the consultation document.  We estimate that training courses in first aid, health & safety, fire safety and induction courses into how to work in a library will entail an annual cost, in round figures, of about £170k [7]– this assumes a uniform recruitment level over the 3 years, so in practice the cost could be higher or lower in any given year.  Add on the cost of the co-ordinator and this becomes £230k per year.  (These figures omit the cost of CRB checks of about 11k every 3 years, which OCC insists the Friends groups must fundraise to cover.  Note that OCC has not given the source for their assertion that the checks can be carried out for £11 per person: this must be rectified.  It is also unclear whether OCC will be liable for an additional £33 on top of the £11 to meet the full cost of “enhanced” CRB checks.)  The overall effect would be to bring the saving down to no more than £100k per year (£70k if OCC has to contribute to the CRB checks): we contend that this level of saving is not worth the potential damage to communities if the volunteer system fails.

Scope for cost savings elsewhere?

Save Oxfordshire Libraries recognises that OCC has made efforts to reduce the costs of the library service by removing 6 posts at senior management level, has reduced front-line staff in those libraries where self-service machines have already been introduced  and plans to halve the staffing in mobile libraries.  However, the service still appears to be very heavily staffed at middle management level.  There are currently (information from OCC) 32.11 FTE in Management & Professionals and 22.41 in Service Support, against 147.96 front-line staff.  Those proportions appear unbalanced with a back office to front-line ratio of more than 1:3.  Instead of spending money on consultants to analyse the consultation responses, it would have been better to do more analysis of the staff structure to see where more savings could be made.  Executives within the SOL alliance would have been prepared to offer free assistance with this, but information about staffing and finance was only released in September: too late for us to do detailed analysis.

Reduce management numbers at front-line level?  We are informed that at least one librarian was told 2 years ago that if she wished to keep her job, she needed to accept a demotion from Library Manager to Senior Library Assistant – and consequent reduction of salary.  She was told that there were plans to do this in other libraries, but so far it has not happened.  We are told by individual libraries that they believe there would be no damage to the service if Library Managers were shared across 2 or even 3 libraries.

Oxfordshire’s service appears inefficient compared with other counties.  Using CIPFA data, we find that in 2010-11 Oxfordshire ‘s library service, with a population of 639k spent £2.4 million on Service Support and £3.1 million on Other Expenditure; whereas in 2009-10 Staffordshire, with a population of over a million spent only £713k on Service Support and under £2.2 million on Other Expenditure.  (The years are different because OCC failed to complete its CIPFA return in 2009-10.)  So OCC spent over 2 million more in these areas than Staffordshire with its larger population.  OCC’s high central cost mean that the per population cost is £8.58 compared with £1.58 per population for Staffordshire.  Similar examples could be adduced by comparisons with other counties.

Oxfordshire could do much more to reduce its cost base by sharing back-office or full service functions with neighbouring local councils. The recent MLA report [Future Libraries 2011] indicates that up to 25% of library costs can be saved in this way. In June 2011 Ed Vaizey, Minister for Libraries, endorsed the merger between 2 library services and stated ‘ we really do need to see much more of this type of merger, saving back-office costs to save the front-line.’  We note that the section of Northamptonshire County Council’s website about their library service talks of “provid[ing] services to other authorities that save them money and generate income for us”: this is clearly an opportunity for OCC.

The current proposal is unfair to rural areas.

In formulating their proposal OCC “determined that, all else being equal [our emphasis], the most appropriate areas for library sites would be those places where the highest numbers of people already either live, work or study etc.”  But in Oxfordshire all else is not equal.  Oxfordshire is the most rural county in SE England, with 78% of the land under agricultural management[8]. It is unusual in so far as almost half of its population live in rural areas[9] 

Increasing recognition is given to the challenges faced by many people in rural areas where services are declining in number and access becomes more difficult because of distance, relative unavailability of transport and expense.[10] Age Concern has reported that nearly half of our rural areas are in the worst 10 per cent of the country in terms of access to services, such as GP practices and supermarkets.[11] 

Among the criteria that OCC used in the previous proposal, was one defined as, ‘evenly spread geographically’; the inclusion of this criterion indicated that the Council recognised then that there was a need for (at least some) libraries to be fully funded in areas at some distance from town libraries.  This criterion of geographical spread has been dropped this time around: presumably, it did not fit with the Council’s emphasis on catering for the ‘highest number’.  Consideration of where libraries are currently situated and the broad ‘catchment’ area of many rural libraries would enable a plan more in line with the population spread of Oxfordshire. 

It should be noted that the Council’s own graphs posted on their website in February of where “active users” come from to use libraries shows that many people choose to travel 2 miles and even further to what they regard as their local library – if anyone had actually asked users the reason for this, instead of using a speculation about how far people might be willing to travel, they would have found, as library groups did when talking to the people signing petitions in favour of keeping a staffed library service, that people in rural areas use the library that is near the Post Office, near the village shop (not supermarket), near the local school, or in the same building as a community activity.  In short, the local library is an essential element of what constitutes the hub of a community.

Council officers have used some strange arguments to justify their proposal, such as: “Cuts to larger libraries would devastate the library service”.  This is not logical.  The Council are keen to use volunteers in the rural libraries and do not mention that their use there would devastate these libraries. Given that many of these rural libraries would be almost wholly dependent on volunteers to keep going, surely the claimed negative impact of volunteers would be greater in rural than larger urban libraries.

Service and Community Impact Assessment

An Initial Service & Community Impact Assessment for the previous proposal was carried out December 2010 and published among Council papers in January 2011.  At its meeting with OCC on September 6th 2011, SOL was told that the Council intends to carry out a full assessment for the current proposal, as required by law.  While the initial SCIA included details of alternatives that had been considered up to that point, we do not know what other options were considered before the new proposal presented at the end of May.  The December document considered how to mitigate the effects of greater isolation for older people, children and those who have limited access to transport.  We trust that the new SCIA will cover the same considerations and more, including what would happen if our prediction is correct that the number of volunteers demanded will not be available to maintain the library service in some areas.  We also trust that the new SCIA will be complete before there is any question of seeking Cabinet approval for the new proposal.

The Council’s new defence, which is NOT in the consultation documents.

Faced with so many criticisms of the consultation documents and the proposal, OCC is now relying on “hearsay” reporting of dialogue with the MLA to underpin rejection of any attempt to suggest alternative proposals.  They claim that any suggestion that volunteers might be spread more evenly across the libraries would undermine the provision of a “comprehensive” service, and that the MLA agree with this; except that they also say they have not sought endorsement from the MLA![12]  Attempts to use Freedom of Information requests to find out what was said between OCC and the MLA are blocked by claims that there are no minutes of the meetings.  (We have now been told that they gave draft copies of the consultation documents to the MLA in May, but nothing more.)  On top of this, they make threats that the Secretary of State could intervene if they do not stick to their version of a “comprehensive” service, even though they know that legal cases are still ongoing which seek to produce a clearer definition of “comprehensive”. 

This intransigent stance means that no attempt can be made to design proposals which would be fairer in the sense of having equal impact across the county.


Throughout the consultation process, Save Oxfordshire Libraries has sought to work in co-operation with the Council to design better proposals.  Within the groups represented by SOL are people with all the range of skills needed for this task: the equivalent of a consultancy firm offering its services at no cost.  We trust it is not too late.

Contact details for Save Oxfordshire Libraries: c/o Dr Judith Wardle, 21 Common Road, North Leigh, Witney OX29 6RD.  Tel: 01993 881880.  E-mail:

This response is endorsed by groups from Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Botley, Burford, Charlbury, Chinnor, Goring, Grove, Headington, Hook Norton, Kennington, Littlemore, North Leigh, Old Marston, Sonning Common, Summertown, Watlington, Woodcote, and Wychwood.  Individual library groups will also be making their own submissions, with particular points appropriate to their local circumstances.

[1] Assignments written by first year undergraduates would be rejected if sources for references were not given in one of the standard formats.
[2] For a straightforward explanation of “confidence intervals” see Ben Goldacre’s piece in the Guardian of 20 August 2011.
[3] BBC Oxford News 19 June 2011.
[4] “Volunteers in Proposed Community Libraries”, OCC August 2011 – author not stated.
[5] Agreement between Volunteering England and the TUC, 2009.
[6] For instance, at their meeting with OCC on 20 June, Burford Friends stated “Those that already volunteer in Burford are sitting in this room, and we simply cannot take on more volunteering commitments.”
[7] Taking the cheapest sources we could find: training in First Aid would be £203 per person every 3 years, Fire Marshalls £93 per person every 2 years, Health & Safety £93 per person every 3 years, and induction courses by council staff  £82 per person, per day.  Provision should be made for a turnover in volunteers of at least 10% per year.
[8] Oxfordshire Partnership report ‘Oxfordshire 2030’.
[9] This compares to 19.3 % for England as a whole DEFRA ‘Rural Communities’
[10] Rural Framework for Oxfordshire 2007 – 2010. ‘Rural areas in Oxfordshire rank relatively poorly on national measures of access to services, such as health, education and retail compared with other rural areas in the South East’.
[11] Indices of Deprivation  2007 quoted in Age Concern’s ‘Tale of two Counties’ 2010
[12] In answer to questions from SOL, the Council replied on 5 August, “the county council has been in dialogue with the MLA throughout the development of the proposal that is the subject of the current consultation.  The council has not however sought their formal ‘endorsement’ and hence it is not documented.”

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