Here, Ben Rymer, who sits on the committee of the Friends of Tate South Lambeth library, highlights the issue of regeneration and frequent failure of London Councils to support libraries with funds from developers. This issue affects Lambeth’s libraries and those of many other London boroughs.
Recent analysis of London’s booming property industry contains a notable omission: the humble public library. Despite recent cuts and closures, public libraries in England still welcomed 225m visitors in 2015, regularly feature among the most-used services for London boroughs, and are central to a range of outcomes across public health, skills and employment, social exclusion and community cohesion. Far from being ‘old hat’, public libraries are hugely undervalued – they deliver a wide range of services on shoestring budgets and with minimal staffing while being at the centre of many of our communities.
However, local Government funding cuts have presented a major challenge to library services, a challenge which has coincided with a surge in London’s construction sector. You may have assumed that libraries, being among the most-used services across London, would have been big winners from the contributions made by property developers to mitigate the increased need for public services driven by residents in their new developments (these contributions, negotiated between the relevant Council and the developer, are made via ‘Section 106’/S106 contributions).
But you would be wrong – far from being one of the winners from London’s construction boom, library budgets in many areas of the capital have not seen a penny in added income from S106 in recent years. Data obtained through Freedom of Information show a clear pattern of neglect for library services across London’s Councils when negotiating S106 agreements with developers. Year after year and borough after borough, despite hundreds of millions of pounds of S106 funds being secured and spent, libraries simply do not get their fair share.
The figures paint a clear pattern. Despite some London Councils receiving tens of millions in S106 in recent years, the amount directed to public libraries is mostly trivial, with many spending no S106 funds at all on their library services. While only 16 out of 32 Councils responded to FoI requests for information on their S106 library spend, these 16 have seen S106 income of £387m over the seven financial years prior to 2016/17, of which just £5.4m (1.4%) was directed to libraries. Of this, £4.9m came from just three Boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) – and some of these funds went to supporting the effective part-privatisation of libraries to become ‘healthy living centres’, ie gyms with a downgraded library offering. The others – Barnet, Camden, City of London, Haringey, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Merton, Richmond-upon-Thames, Waltham Forest and Wandsworth – spent no S106 funds at all on libraries over the entire seven year period, a time of drastic Government austerity when library budgets were cut to the bone, staff numbers decimated and volunteers increasingly called upon to run local libraries. Even this partial picture shows libraries have been almost totally overlooked in S106 negotiations, to the huge detriment of the many thousands of people who have seen their library service downgraded or their local library close.
There are several plausible causes of this neglect of libraries. First is the consultation method used to prioritise S106 spending which is often based on relatively small groups whose views are collected via survey or interview. My own area of Lambeth is instructive; the recently published Community and Local Investment Plan (CLIP), which sets out how S106 will be spent in my area from 2017-2022, mentions libraries just twice, stating curtly that “[t]he council’s programme for libraries is being taken forward separately”. Strikingly, the plan was based on the views of just 651 of the 48,000+ residents who will be affected by the CLIP’s outcomes. And a search of Lambeth’s recent S106 reports shows libraries’ omission from S106 allocation is not new – no S106 was spent on libraries at all for two full years in 2013/14 and 2014/15, just before the Council announcing their intention to close/downgrade services of several libraries due to lack of funds. This trend is illustrated by Keybridge House, a new “high end” development near Vauxhall, where a 43 square metre apartment costs a cool £515,000. Despite being just a few hundred yards from the brilliant, bustling Tate South Lambeth (TSL) library, which in 2016 was threatened with closure due to Council cuts, none of the £2m+ S106 funds from Keybridge House have gone to support TSL, nor Lambeth’s library services more widely. Regeneration is also likely to have a role in the neglect of libraries. A recent open letter from Haringey Council Leader Cllr Claire Kober, justifying the establishment of a controversial new joint venture, explicitly mentions libraries, painting a stark choice between economic growth (via the ‘Haringey Development Vehicle’) and an “inevitable decline” for libraries and other services. However, the letter fails to mention that Haringey received a total of £15,539,466 S106 funding from 2010/11-2016/17, funds which could probably have refurbished the Borough’s library service several times over. Libraries are exactly the sort of community infrastructure S106 should be helping in tough times. But the money just isn’t reaching these vital frontline services, despite the proliferation of often costly luxury developments in recent years.
Whatever the cause, S106 is not working for libraries, and new ways must be found to secure these funds for a service under huge pressure. One idea would be to ringfence an amount – 1% would not be unrealistic – of all S106 funds for libraries. Such simple mechanisms are used to good effect in other countries to fund cultural services and would provide a reliable source of funding for library services. We also need to know far about how S106 spending decisions are made for such important services as libraries. No-one pretends that recent years have been anything but terrible for local Government finances, however this makes it even more important that value is achieved in all cases and that funding is linked to levels of need and use.
Whatever the method, it is surely time to rethink a system which fails to support a service used and loved by millions of Londoners.