‘We’re still here!’ – report from 2nd May meeting

A packed public meeting in Longfield Hall on 2 May, organised by the Defend the 10 campaign, called for Minet and Carnegie libraries to re-open. 

Re-open, that is, as the real thing – not the small-scale, unstaffed “neighbourhood libraries” planned to replace four out of the ten badly-needed libraries in the borough.

A hot topic was the millions being handed by the council to outside companies in deals described as “stitch-ups”. 

It’s now known that the secret deal with GLL to install unwanted gyms in library buildings was fixed long before it was revealed to stunned residents. The story has gone national in Private Eye – with more revelations in the pipeline. 

Meanwhile, commercial cinema chain Cineworld is being given £3m of Lambeth taxpayers’ money – and five years’ free rent – to take over much of the West Norwood library building.

The council’s strategy of “ignore them and they’ll give up” is not working, Michaela Loebner of Defend the 10 told the 80 people who filled Longfield Hall near Minet library: “We’re still here. We’re the conscience that Lambeth council hasn’t got. We will remain a thorn in their side.”

Laura Swaffield of Defend the 10 accused the council of telling outright lies. “They say they are not closing any libraries but they won’t even tell us how small the neighbourhood libraries will be and we know they won’t have staff. Without librarians it’s not a library.

“They say it’s down to evil government cuts, but they wanted to spend £4m on gyms. They were given a viable plan by the library managers to make all the savings they wanted and keep all 10 libraries. They delayed for a year and then said there was no time to implement it.”

Local resident Xandra Pitcairn told how a 1997 attempt to close Minet was foiled by occupying the library and getting maximum publicity. “They spend money on useless consultants, and security to keep libraries closed. The council doesn’t listen. We should name and shame all those who want to close libraries.”

Stephen Carlill, Friends of Carnegie Library, explained that closing it has cost more than keeping it open, with all the building’s expenses still being paid, the extra cost of security guards and income lost from businesses formerly renting space there.

It had been thriving, with the second-highest issues per hour in the whole borough and so many community groups based there it was hard to fit them all in. These had no help until very recently, as local elections start to loom…

Meanwhile the planned gym will be so unfit for use, and the destruction of the community garden is so unnecessary, that locals suspect “the real purpose is to prepare the site for conversion into flats”.

Marj Landels, Friends of the Minet, said that the community’s business plan to preserve the library had been completely ignored. “They just want to knock it down and put housing on it. Resources are being taken out of the community.” 

Colleague Tori Sherwin added that Vassall & Coldharbour Forum is now working on an economic development plan with 60 local organisations. All agree that a core need is a full-scale resource centre in the library – not a fake “neighbourhood library”.

Rachel Heywood, the sole Labour councillor to criticise policies such as estate demolitions and library closures – now suspended from the party – said: “Councillors are frightened to speak. Some candidates were de-selected if they admitted signing petitions. 

“People know what is right and what is needed. The library closures have had massive effects on my constituents. The council is downgrading services for the people who need them most.”

David Duncan, of Brixton Rec User Group, revealed another hand-out to GLL. A community room at the GLL-run Rec was for hire at an unaffordable £45 per hour. Now it has been given to GLL for office space – rent-free, of course. 

Audience members kept the points coming until the hall had to be closed. They returned again and again to the need – regardless of what party people belong to – to attack council “disinformation”, hold individual councillors and MPs to account, and break down the party machine that bullies councillors and even party members who speak out.