Future Libraries come to cost-cutting Greenwich (and beyond)

Thanks to Brockley Central for the heads-up on this – Greenwich Council is teaming up with Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark in a scheme called Future Libraries, which, according to the press release, “aims to help the library service during the current challenging financial situation, with an ambition to ensure libraries play a central role for communities in the Big Society”. Whatever that means.

The seven boroughs, making up all of south-east London and a bit more besides, will work together on finding ways to save money and “greater connection with other local services and an ambition for services to be designed around the needs of the public, rather than based on organisational boundaries”.

It’s worth putting this into the context that Brockley Central puts it into – Lewisham’s plans to close five libraries, at Blackheath Village, New Cross, Crofton Park, Grove Park and Sydenham. On one hand, it could be very easy to for Lewisham to turn around to Blackheath Village Library users and say “right, we’re working with Greenwich now, so trot across the heath and use their Blackheath Library“.

On the other hand – this could be about making libraries hubs for local services; or, as is more likely, moving libraries in with other services. Greenwich is already planning to do this with East Greenwich Library, moving it into the Heart of East Greenwich development whenever – or if – that ever gets built, despite opposition from its users. It’s already done it with Eltham library (the “Eltham centre” handily incorporating the old library building”) and wants to do it in Woolwich too.

Or this could be about merging back office functions – 12 boroughs have already combined their catalogues to form the London Library Consortium, for example.

Chances are, it could be a combination of all three. With cuts on the horizon, it’s a development that’s worth watching if you like libraries and want to see them stay open.


  1. I can see Abbey Wood closing in Greenwich borough despite it’s relative popularity and people told to go to Thamesmead. New Eltham is near to Bromley so that would be threatened.
    Joing up does make some sense but if it encompases most of London then services may as well be managed by the Mayor’s office perhaps if that’s how it’s going.

  2. I take it you mean Bexley Council’s Thamesmead Library rather than Greenwich’s Claude Ramsay Library further north?

    I agree there’s some sense in joining the services up – I’ve still got a stack of old library cards from London boroughs from my student days – it does put into question why the boroughs exist if they’re merging services like this.

  3. The axe was always a threat dangling over our heads when I worked for LBG’s libraries back in the 80’s early 90’s. Only by a sheer miracle and a lot of hard work by the librarian at Blackheath and his staff did the Standard library come to fruition.

    I wonder what happened to the sports library at Plumstead. It had the biggest collection of sports books you could imagine, all housed in a very dingy basement

  4. I was in Woolwich Library the other day and there were a couple of people walking around discussing the building. ‘Where would you put the bar?’ was the question which intrigued and slightly worried me. I didn’t quite have the balls to follow them around or openly ask them what was going on. Perhaps there is a refurb in the offing (seems unlikely in the current economic climate); Plumstead’s refurb is a big improvement (despite the fact that the auto checkout machines have never all been working whenever I’ve been in).

  5. Darryl – Yep I meant the Bexley council library. Greenwich’s Claude Ramsay library will stay open due to the large and expanding Thamesmead population I’d have thought.
    The self service machines cost hundreds of thousands and Greenwich got rid of around 20 staff in libraries a couple of months ago. Since the opening week the self service machines have never worked in West Greenwich either.
    I worked in an area of the country where libraries had joined forces like this idea. It worked fine and is a good idea though it’s no secret every authority will be closing libraries in the next 12 months and clousures will go hand in hand with this.

  6. Details – well a paragraph or two – on the specifics of the project are in a PDF to be found on that MLA link. I reckon it’s going to be shared back-office services.

    Closer working in South East London (Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark)

    The Future Libraries Programme is an exciting opportunity to deliver a step change across library services in South East London. Through it, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham, and Southwark, will look at options and opportunities for improving quality and reducing costs by working more closely together.

    These library authorities – members of the South East Libraries Performance Improvement Group (SELPIG) – will build on individual strengths and distinctive features, to retain and improve best practice models and introduce new solutions.

  7. Two key phrases from the above report :

    “an ambition for services to be designed around the needs of the public”

    “despite opposition from its users”

    says it all really – the coming changes really have nothing to do with the needs of library users, and everything with the coming blitzkreig of ideologically driven cuts in public services

  8. Martyn, I think you’re risking conflating the apparently laudable ambition for services to respond to the needs of the public with Darryl’s comment, specifically about the unpopularity of the East Greenwich development, which has been planned since well before the ‘coming blitzkrieg’ was even a glint in Osborne’s eye.

    I think it’s worth acknowledging that, sometimes, developing (and perhaps innovating) in services does mean giving users what they don’t think they want, or even what they think they don’t want. (And now, the old cliche from Henry Ford – ‘If I’d listened to what my customers wanted, I’d have built a faster horse.’)

    In terms of this libraries thing, if it’s about shared back-office stuff, improvements in front-office service, and developing community uses, that sounds great.

    If this ‘central role in the Big Society’ is saying that the council will support volunteers in keeping the library open because front-line staff are being cut, then that’s a slightly different matter …

  9. John, What the readers want, is well-stocked, convenient libraries, open at convenient times, in convivial buildings. Too many library buildings have been neglected, and over the last twenty years the quality and quantity of books have diminished as book budgets have been seen as an easy option for saving cash, and older books have been sold off (and I don’t just mean worn out Mills & Boon but irreplaceable items of lasting value).

    Big prestige projects have often been financed by closing smaller libraries, and external consultants have been spoon-fed local authority cash for generic reports adapted according to whichever library authority commissions them. These reports have resulted in extensive re-organisations that have left staff demoralised, and increased bureaucracy, particularly in HR, services have been cut while central overheads have increased.
    Deck-chairs have been reshuffled over and over again.

    Developing “community uses” has frequently been at the expense of providing a proper library service – and it isn’t simply sharing “back office staff”, front-line job cuts have already been announced in Hampshire and Lewisham is talking about closing several community libraries. Cambridgeshire, which pioneered the use of volunteers to staff community libraries, now plans to replace paid staff with volunteers in all except four of its libraries. One library at least has been making a charge for use, in breach of the 1964 Libraries Act. There is nothing wrong with using volunteers to extend the existing service in many ways, as they have often been used for housebound services, for example, but the current plans are in effect suggesting that libraries should be staffed for nothing so that the consultants can get a bigger rake-off, Councillors can increase their expenses (Essex) and multi-nationals can run the outsourced “back office facilities” overseas (Essex again).

    Personally I think things should be run locally, but the Big Society is a con-trick – based on an ideological position. Look at the multi-nationals like Mott-Macdonald scrambling to run the so-called new free schools that Gove has proposed. The plan is that Libraries should go the same way. Unless we have a vision of a better locally run service, we stand little chance of fighting the cuts and their effects

  10. I *knew* I’d come across as an apologist for a project about which I know nothing except what I’ve written above.

    Martyn, you’re clearly much more knowledgeable and passionate about it than I am – I suspect that in some ways the knowledge drives the passion. FWIW, I think I agree with most of what you say, and share the concerns you express.

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