Public Libraries and Local Government Re-organization

A fundamental review of the structure and organization of local government in Britain is once again on the political agenda. A quarter of a century after the report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Britain, and twenty years after the implementation of a major re-organization of the service (which went ignored most of findings of that Commission) local government is once again in the melting pot. In April 1991 the Department of the Environment issued two discussion papers on the structure and financing of local government, which in turn led to the establishment of the Local Government Commission in August 1992, to review English Counties. Proposals for the first group of these were published in July 1993. In Wales and Scotland, however the procedure has been somewhat more accelerated and at the time of writing, detailed legislation to effect the changes proposed by the Commission is about to be introduced into Parliament.

The public 'rationale' for the review has been the wish to move responsibility for the provision of local services from the existing multi-tiered structure of County/Region, District, and Community Councils to single-tier 'unitary' authorities. The idea is to bring local government closer to identifiable communities, and therefore to make it more responsive to local needs and more accountable to local electorates. Thus the overriding emphasis has been on designing services that are subject to local control, as opposed to securing the most effective means of delivering them. This is directly contrary to the philosophy behind the 1974 re-organization which tended to move responsibility for a number of services away from local councils, in order that they might benefit from greater economies of scale.

Ever since the establishment of the present system of local government in 1974, there has been a power struggle between the District and the County Councils, and twenty years of persistent lobbying by the Association of District Councils against supposedly remote County and Regional authorities seems to have had some effect. In particular, those artificial English and counties created in 1974, such as Humberside, Avon, Cleveland, Dyfed, Clwyd etc. have not been able to gain the same acceptance and local loyalty as that of their predecessors. However the previous county boundaries had existed for about a thousand years and so perhaps it was unrealistic to have expected much to be achieved in a mere twenty.

Another reason behind the timing of the current Local Government Review has been the desire by central government for a fundamental change to the role of local authorities, which might be effected co-incidentally with the new structure. Thus the new councils will act as enabling authorities rather than as service providers wherever this is possible. In common with the government's national policies on privatization, as much of the service provision as possible will be devolved to the private sector.

Yet most commentators also accept that there is an even more pressing 'hidden' political agenda behind the Review - the wish by central government, to curtail the power of local authorities to defy or hinder its policies. Throughout the 1980s certain local authorities were a constant 'thorn in the flesh' to the government, and in particular to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Indeed it is arguable that the inability of her government to control local government spending, or to introduce a politically acceptable means of reforming local taxation which brought about her ultimate downfall. The recent publication of the Thatcher memoirs makes it clear that structural reform of local government was envisaged by her in 1985, but fatally, was deferred until after the introduction of her proposals for local government finance (Thatcher, 1993).

As a result of the above, there has been a relentless transfer of decision making, and the power to allocate central government resources at a regional level away from elected local authorities to government appointed QUANGOs (Quasi-Autonomous Non-governmental Organizations). This trend has been noticeable since the late 1980s and is particularly apparent in Wales, where there are few elected local authorities which are sympathetic to the policies of central government. The Welsh Office has therefore been forced to pack an ever growing number of QUANGOs with a relatively small number of its political friends (Evans, 1993 and Heath, 1993).

From the recommendations published so far, it is clear that there will in future be no uniform pattern of local government throughout the land, but rather a range of solutions depending upon local circumstances or vested interests. There is no clear idea emerging as to exactly what constitutes an 'identifiable' community, either in terms of population size or character, as so there appear to be enormous variations and inconsistencies in the proposals published so far. In most instances the new 'unitary' authorities will be based upon one or more of the existing district councils such as the Forest of Dean, or Darlington each with a population of about 75 000, or else North East Lincolnshire which will consist of Cleethorpes and Grimsby with a total population of 160,000. At the other extreme some 'unitary' authorities might be existing county councils with the excision of one or more urban areas - for example Derbyshire without Derby (population of 710 000) or County Durham without Darlington (population 495 000). All of the new English and Welsh counties created in the 1974 re-organization will however be abolished.

The impact on the public library service

Inevitably, library and information professionals, will be particularly concerned about the potential implications of the Local Government Review for Britain's public library service. In financial terms, public libraries represent a very small, and seemingly unimportant, player in the field when compared with other local services such as education or social services. However they provide a service which is generally popular with the public, and one which is perceived as operating at a local level. Most library users will judge the quality of the service by the materials that are available at their local library, and the assistance they receive from the local staff. They will be unware of all of the bibliographic and other services which are an essential pre-requisite of any library collection, nor of the various special services for particular groups or communities that are frequently provided by most large library authorities.

UK public libraries have simultaneously been accused of serving the needs of only an articulate and middle-class minority, and yet also of abandoning their traditions of providing education and information in favour of the provision of undemanding recreational reading. Yet in spite of such criticisms the service is generally appreciated by its clients. Even during the 'high noon' of Thatcherism, in the late 1980s attempts to abandon the idea of free public libraries failed because of the risk of electoral unpopularity far outweighed the financial savings.

Most commentators now accept that the local government re-organization of 1974 was generally beneficial to the overall level of the public library service in Britain, even if only in terms of offsetting the effects of twenty years of financial stringency. There are undoubtedly a few instances where well-established and thriving local library services suffered a short-term decline in standards as they were merged with larger, more remote, and less well funded county services. All those professional librarians who were involved with implementing the changes (including the writer of this editorial) suffered to some degree from the inevitable disruption inherent in any such change. Similarly the career aspirations of some librarians suffered as a result of the change, although those for others was greatly enhanced.

Yet ultimately the results of the change were beneficial. The larger library authorities were able to introduce a new professionalism into public library management, and undertake effective strategic planning. They operated at a sufficient scale to be able to take advantage of automated centralised acquisitions, cataloguing and circulation systems, which would not otherwise have been viable. Above all, however they had the resources able to build up comprehensive collections, employ specialist staff and offer a range of information and support services to both urban and rural areas. At the same time the better run services have given their staff working at a local level sufficient freedom and support to be able respond to the particular needs of the local communities being served.

Whilst some of the proposed unitary authorities will be of a sufficient size to be able to offer effective services to their locality, many will not. It would be possible for one authority to employ another to run its library service, or else for two neighbouring authorities to co-operate in a joint provision, this is hardly likely and would seem to go against the currently fashionable political philosophy. Public libraries in Britain seem be condemned to several years of disruption and stagnation, whilst the costly process of disaggregating of existing collections and services takes place.

Linda Hopkins, the County Librarian of Gloucestershire - one of the counties first examined by the Local Government Commission - has outlined a dismal scenario for the UK public library service following disaggregation and loss of the economies of scale (Hopkins, 1993). Her predictions include

        Reductions in the stock base and purchasing power of public libraries, and consequently greater reliance on inter-library loans

        Curtailment of access to reference and information services, or else the wasteful replication of such services

        Reductions in access to specialised resources and staff skills

        Reductions in the range of services available to disadvantaged groups

        Fragmentation of existing special collections

        Further decline in public library services offered to Schools

        The decline in the ability to take advantage of computerised systems

The alternative to these will be that the costs of maintaining the existing service levels will rise, and 'given the present Government constraints on local authority expenditure, the deterioration in service is far the more likely outcome'.

As Linda Hopkins points out, it might be argued that her predictions are unnecessarily despondent (or even biased!), particularly since her own job would be at stake. Yet at the same time it is difficult to see what advantage of such disruptive proposals would have for the public service as a whole.

There will undoubtedly be resistance to the various proposals for the reform of local government, both from the opposition parties in Parliament and also from those locally elected bodies which are likely to lose most power and influence as a result. It may be that the government will yet have second thoughts on this matter, although at present this does not seem likely. The question is, what should be the role of the professional officers who administer public library services on behalf of their local communities, in any such discussion? Local government officers in general, and public librarians in particular, have hitherto preferred to remain above party politics, seeking rather to work with whatever party happens to be in power. However, a distaste for politics, or a reluctance to discuss their own allegances does not absolve them from the responsibility of pointing out loudly and clearly to their political masters, and also if necessary to local electorates, what they believe to be the implications of the proposed policy changes, for the services they run.

It may be that too many of us remained silent for too long during the 1980s when much of what was worthwhile about British life was being systematically undermined or dismantled. I do not think that future generations will easily forgive us if we allow the same thing to happen again in the 1990s without at least speaking up.

David Stoker

(With many thanks to Linda Hopkins and Geraint Evans; the opinions expressed are those of the Editor)

NOTES

1. Evans, Geraint (1993) Back to the future in Wales, Public Library Journal, 8, (4) pp.103-6.

2. Heath, Tony, (1993) Placemen take control of Quangoland. The Guardian, 19 November 1993, 19.

3. Hopkins, Linda (1993) The local government review: England, the first tranche. Public Library Journal, 8, (4) pp.103-6.

4. Thatcher, Margaret (1993) The Downing Street years.