Greenwich Council will move closer to transferring its libraries to a trust tomorrow when councillors agree to consider a report into the proposal.
Tuesday’s cabinet meeting is likely to rubber-stamp a new contract for Greenwich Leisure Limited to carry on running its leisure centres, which includes provision for GLL to take on the borough’s libraries as well as its swimming baths and gyms.
Councillors will be hoping the proposal will preserve Greenwich’s library service. Neighbours Bexley and Bromley are merging theirs, while five of Lewisham’s outlets are now “community libraries” run by volunteers.
But unions are nervous – while GLL is a social enterprise, they say there is little union recognition there, and they fear jobs could be put at risk. GLL was set up to take over Greenwich’s leisure centres during cuts in the early 1990s, and has expanded across London and beyond.
GLL hasn’t wasted any time – it’s expressed an interest in running Croydon Council’s libraries, but clearly the “home” contract of Greenwich will be close to their hearts. The company has already set up a new libraries division, to be headed by Diana Edmonds. Ms Edmonds ran a company called Instant Libraries, which used to run Haringey’s libraries.
“GLL has demonstrated the capability to manage the borough’s library services,” a report to be presented to Greenwich’s cabinet on Tuesday declares. “The new contract enables library services to integrate into a single contract if the council wishes to pursue this option.”
The council will ask GLL to “clarify and fine tune” the proposals before bringing them back to the cabinet at a later date.
GLL saw off competition from Fusion Leisure (which runs Lewisham’s pools) and Sport and Leisure Management Ltd (which run Sutton and Havering’s centres) to be selected for the 15-year contract, which is worth £1.96m a year.
This is the sight that Greenwich councillors want to avoid – while Greenwich’s recently-revamped Blackheath Library (top) is thriving, Lewisham’s Blackheath Village Library (above and right), a mile across the heath, is closed and deserted.
While Greenwich kept 12 of its 13 libraries (Ferrier Library is due to close soon as part of the Kidbrooke Village redevelopment, without replacement), Lewisham opted to shut five of its 12 branches. With Blackheath Village costing an eye-watering £75,000 a year in rent, it was always going to be first in line to go.
But five months after it shut, books are still gathering dust in the old library. With Lewisham presumably still paying rent, they’ll surely have to be cleared out soon.
Wander around the corner, though, and there’s a new, much smaller library, at the rear of the Age Exchange centre (which, curiously, is actually in the borough of Greenwich), whose volunteers staff the new service.
The Blackheath Village Community Library is tiny – possibly even smaller than Charlton’s minuscule library – and there seemed to be more volunteers than borrowers when I popped in one afternoon. It’s a work in progress, though, with the full project not due to be finished until next summer.
The other four libraries have also reopened as volunteer-run centres to a mixed reception, although New Cross People’s Library seems to doing very well for itself at the moment.
Greenwich isn’t totally averse to handing things over to volunteers – but the fiasco of the St Alfege Park gravestones shows how such an approach can go badly wrong. Will hiving off the library service save it from Lewisham-style cuts, though? We’ll have to wait and see.