REPRESENTATIVES from the council were left red-faced on Tuesday evening when a staff proposal for an alternative future for Swindon’s libraries was leaked at their own public meeting.

The council team took receipt of the proposal last month but chose not to declare its existence to the public despite delivering an extensive presentation which purported to include alternative options to the existing strategy.

Last year the libraries budget was £2.6m, but by 2020 it will have been slashed to £1.1m – with the vast majority of those savings coming as early as next year.

As a result, the council is proposing to withdraw funding and support for all but four of the town’s 15 libraries from next year.

The Central Library will run at its current opening hours whereas the other three sites, North Swindon, West Swindon, and Highworth, will have their staffed hours cut to just 15 per week.

The staff proposal would see the number of libraries saved rise to five, crucially including Park Library which serves the more socially and economically disadvantaged communities in its surrounding area.

The model would also see far more staffed hours maintained, with 31 per week in North and West Swindon and 27 in Highworth and Park.

In addition, it proposes that the council continues to cover building costs for the remaining ten libraries until 2020, allowing community groups a softer, more viable transition into running their own libraries.

The staff model would be delivered through the formation of a trust, which would remove the burden of paying non-domestic rates from the libraries budget.

Estimates suggest that the trust proposal, including the continued funding of building costs, would require a budget of £1.4m per year, just £300,000 more that the council’s own proposal.

That would still achieve a substantial saving of £1.2m while maintaining a more extensive service.

Sarah Church, chairman of the Save Swindon’s Libraries campaign, said: “The proposal for an alternative strategy in the form of a staff-led trust must be given full consideration and tabled alongside the existing proposal for the public to consider as part of the consultation.

“The alternative proposal offers an affordable model that does not front-load savings into 2017; it addresses the concerns surrounding dramatic cuts to opening hours, and crucially includes the Park Library in south Swindon.

“One of the most important features of the staff proposal is the protection of all library buildings so that, as the trust becomes established, the potential for it to include more than the five core libraries continues to exist.

“Under the current proposal, the cessation of funding in June 2017 will see library buildings close forever.

“As we heard from many people last night, the current plan falls far short of the need for libraries in Swindon, it disregards its own Diversity Impact Assessment, it is not joined up with the changes to public transport networks in the borough, and it disadvantages some of the most vulnerable.

“People were rightly angry.”

A spokesman for Swindon Borough Council said: "The proposals put forward by library staff were submitted as part of the consultation process and will be considered along with the many other ideas and suggestions that have been submitted so far.

"The council has always been open to looking at alternative models and will assess this proposal, and any others that are received, in detail once the consultation period has ended."

  • Yesterday's public meeting came two months to the day since the council announced its plans to withdraw support for 11 out of 15 libraries. 

Campaigners, staff and concerned library users wanted to hear what had been achieved in those eight weeks, to judge whether it made the council’s claim that no library had to close any more likely. 

When a council officer told them the goal of the strategy was “building communities through literacy and learning” they laughed – they were looking for more than sound bites.

For the most part, the audience’s contributions were informed and constructive, but there was an underlying frustration that they didn’t feel like active participants in the conversation.

Discussions about the future of community libraries were shrouded in secrecy and direct questions about location-specific issues all seemed to be on a lengthy to-do list and went unanswered.

Despite claims that discussions with community groups were well under way, representatives of the Friends of Covingham Library and the Parks Community Forum both said they had yet to be contacted. 

Highworth Library campaigner Alison Durrant asked whether any further thought had been given to the proposed use of electronic access technology during unstaffed hours - none had. 

In just ten months, community groups will be expected to take over the running of their own libraries.

Yet as they left the meeting on Tuesday they appeared disengaged. 
The council now faces a difficult challenge if it is to reverse that feeling and make a success of its strategy in the time available.