SPECIAL REPORT: When Wirral's humble libraries became the centre of a bitter feud

Flashback to 2009: Library closures caused a public outcry

Flashback to 2009: Library closures caused a public outcry

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RENEWED interest in the fate of the borough's libraries has been sparked by a call from the council for volunteers to help run them.

Editor Leigh Marles goes back to 2009 when most of our libraries were in danger of being swept away - and recalls a tale of secret reports, clandestine meetings and bitter arguments that still rankle in the corridors of Wallasey Town Hall to this day.

THERE scarcely could be a more sensitive subject among Wirral politicians than the threat of another library closure row.

The last time any move was made against the service, the fallout was enormous and saw our councillors at each other’s throats.

Senior officers became dragged into the debacle and some were openly accused of lying to elected members - at the time a rare if not unique step in the history of the authority.

The controversy ended in a fiasco.

The closure policy was abandoned amid a confusing vortex involving Government ministers, secret reports, a public inquiry, angry demonstrations, claim and counter claim.

After all the bad blood that was created, which many believe still festers to this day, it seemed doubtful anyone would risk opening that can of worms again.

And yet...

THE STRATEGIC ASSET REVIEW:

It had all begun innocuously enough.

Towards the end of 2008, the council coyly announced it was carrying out a “Strategic Asset Review” of its buildings. The move caused barely a ripple in the local media.

So far, so good.

Early in 2009 the reality of exactly what was going on became clear.

Under the front page headline “Council Cuts Send Shockwave Through Wirral” the Globe reported that eleven of the borough’s public libraries were to close.

A further 24 community centres and village halls across the peninsula were also to lose their funding and would be transferred instead into “voluntary community management” – a partial echo perhaps of the latest proposals from the town hall.

The announcement was the catalyst for a massive backlash.

At the next meeting of the council’s ruling cabinet, more than 600 protesters turned up outside to demonstrate with flags, banners, whistles and loudhailers.

They then crammed themselves into the Civic Hall to hear leader of the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition, Cllr Steve Foulkes, explain why the shocking measures were necessary.

Barracked loudly by protesters, and taking plenty of personal abuse, Cllr Foulkes said that despite making multi-million pound cuts, the council was still facing an £8.7m budget shortfall.

He said: “If I was to be hit by a bus tomorrow (cheers from the gallery) there would still be the budget issues and problems for this council.”

And so the plans were set in motion.

Community consultations were carried out, although they were later derided as being entirely inadequate by a Government inspector.

Despite the ever-darkening storm clouds, the council gritted its teeth and pressed ahead.

On March 17, 2009, a timetable for the closures was published.

In the first-wave, Higher Bebington, New Ferry, Ridgeway and Wallasey Village libraries were to shut in April.

Phase two would see Irby, Prenton and Seacombe libraries close in May. Beechwood, Eastham, Hoylake and Woodchurch were to follow in July.

A town hall spokeswoman said at the time: “A dedicated team has been established to implement the closures including the transfer of book stock and the removal of IT equipment.”

No one now was in any doubt the libraries were doomed.

Then, 24 hours before the “first-wave” were to close forever, the Labour Government dropped a surprise bombshell on the Labour-led council.

ANDY BURNHAM STEPS UP:

Wirral Globe: Andy Burnham

Former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham

On April 3, 2009, the then Culture Secretary Andy Burnham stepped-in calling for a local inquiry to test whether the council's plans met its statutory duty to provide “all residents with a comprehensive public library service.”

The move followed a report by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council which wrote to the Secretary of State to express concerns about the situation in Wirral.

Mr Burnham said: “Public libraries play a central role at the heart of our communities, providing a rich source of information, wisdom and learning. This is all the more true in difficult economic times.

"They should never be an optional extra for local authorities.

"I have a statutory responsibility to ensure everyone has access to a comprehensive and efficient service because ready access to high quality libraries for all is absolutely central to a truly public service.”

Councillor Foulkes said: "I have spoken to the minister and welcome the inquiry announced today by the Secretary of State.

"We are confident any inquiry will find that the strategic asset review will create on Wirral a comprehensive and efficient library service.”

How wrong he was.

SUE CHARTERIS TAKES CHARGE:

Shortly after Mr Burnham’s intervention, a chairman was appointed to lead the local inquiry into the controversial closure plan.

Sue Charteris, a public policy consultant specialising in local government and service reform, was picked by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to head the probe.

Wirral Globe: Inquiry inspector Sue Charteris

Sue Charteris leaving Eastham library in 2009

Mr Burnham said: “I am delighted Sue has agreed to take on this significant and valuable role.”

She was tasked with answering the following questions: Did Wirral make a reasonable assessment of local needs in respect of library services and, in any event, what are those needs?

Did Wirral act reasonably in meeting such needs through their proposals in the context of available resources and their statutory obligations?

What assessment was made by Wirral through the process of consultation of local needs?

Now began another chapter of bitter argument.

The two-day “local inquiry” got underway on June 9 at the Floral Pavilion.

Representatives from both sides of the argument were called to give their views.

Wirral Council's regeneration director at the time, Alan Stennard, gave evidence in support of the closure programme, saying the plan “aimed to deliver an enriched service for the borough.”

He said the council was committed to spend £20m on new facilities and an additional £6m on IT provision.

After hearing all the evidence, Ms Charteris closed proceedings and went away to write her report, which was expected to be published within a matter of weeks.

THE SECRET REPORT:

In fact, the inspector’s report did not see the light of day for many, many months.

And by the time it did, the plan had been dropped anyway.

The circumstances surrounding publication of her conclusions sparked one of the most acrimonious episodes in the council’s history.

By August, no-one bar an elite group of councillors and senior officers had been allowed to view Ms Charteris’s findings.

Public disclosure was delayed, said the council, for "fact-checking."

The list of who was permitted to read the report caused huge controversy at the time.

Conservative opposition group leader Cllr Jeff Green was apoplectic he had been denied access.

Wirral Globe: Tory group leader Jeff Green

Cllr Jeff Green

Worse, some officers who had read it told the Tory leader that they had not.

Councillor Green wrote to the town hall’s legal chief at the time, Bill Norman, asking if this was in breach of the officers’ code.

He received the following reply: “In your email you asked me for guidance regarding officers who have told you direct untruths.

“Under the Officers’ Code of Conduct, employees are required to perform their duties ‘with honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity’.

“Telling a direct untruth clearly conflicts with the requirement for honesty.

“Equally, however, all of us who have received copies of the draft report have been conscious of the exceptional obligation of confidentiality attached to it.

“I do not say this to justify the telling of an untruth: it does not."

Councillor Green told the Globe: “I am absolutely astonished.”

The blood-letting continued: The issue caused a split in the Liberal Democrat group, which formed half of the ruling coalition with Labour.

Lib Dem councillor David Mitchell resigned the whip over the late inclusion of Eastham library on the hit list, saying the authority was "not operating on a level playing field."

END GAME:

While all the cloak and dagger was being played out behind the scenes, the fate of the libraries remained unknown.

Then, as autumn came around, there was an astonishing U-turn.

Council leader Steve Foulkes announced the libraries closure programme had been scrapped.

He said the decision was made by the administration and stood as testament to its "strong leadership."

Yet the Globe was able to reveal that the decision had been made within hours of the council learning that the Government was about to publish its findings of Ms Charteris's local inquiry

On September 29, 2009, the council's press team was told by its counterparts in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that an announcement was imminent.

In an email sent the next day to Conservative group leader Jeff Green, the council's director of law Bill Norman said the press office was told the announcement by Secretary of State Ben Bradshaw was "70% likely" to be made on Thursday, October 1.

That night, September 29, members of the council's ruling Lib-Lab cabinet committee had held a midnight meeting at Wallasey Town Hall.

Also in attendance, although not in the actual meeting, were four senior council officers including the deputy chief executive, the regeneration director and the head of the press office, said Mr Norman.

Shortly before 6pm the following day - September 30 - the media were alerted to a statement from the council's Lib-Lab cabinet that the library closure programme was being scrapped.

The cabinet said the length of the inquiry meant any cost savings they were hoping to make - and reinvest in "fewer but better" multi-purpose facilities borough-wide - had been lost.

Wirral Globe: Cllr Steve Foulkes

Former Labour leader of Wirral Council Cllr Steve Foulkes

Councillor Foulkes said at the time: "People can speculate as much as they want but the fact is, the savings we wanted to make to reinvest elsewhere were not being realised and we had to consider the budget."

Councillor Green said: "Unfortunately, the council is still spinning an ever-more complicated web in their attempt to justify their original actions and the fiasco that has followed it.

"What remains clear is that the public had closures imposed on them that nobody wanted, from leaders who don’t listen, and implemented by officers who appear unable to provide answers to the most basic questions.

"The Wirral public will not forgive or forget this administration's behaviour throughout this self-imposed debacle."

CONCLUSION:

WHEN the inquiry report was eventually made public, in November of 2009, it revealed that had the closure plan proceeded, the authority would have breached its legal duties.

In her 90-page review, Ms Charteris wrote that the council "failed to make an assessment of local needs - or alternatively to evidence knowledge of verifiable local needs - in respect of its library services."

She continued: "In the absence of such an assessment, I conclude the council therefore cannot have reasonably met such needs in the context of its statutory duties and available resources.

"Without any such reference point of the needs to be met, the council was unable to identify a reasonable option for meeting such needs both comprehensively and efficiently.

"I am profoundly concerned at the lack of transparency of this process."

And that was pretty much it for Wirral libraries, whose funding and importance to our communities was more or less accepted as a given.

Until now.

Comments (3)

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3:05pm Wed 18 Jun 14

Cheesy Peas says...

So now they're having another stab at it.

Best way to save money is reduce all salaries to a maximum of £30,000. No one at the town hall should earn anything more than that, and yet a horrifying number of people do.

And that's *before* they start handing out cheques to the Untouchables.
So now they're having another stab at it. Best way to save money is reduce all salaries to a maximum of £30,000. No one at the town hall should earn anything more than that, and yet a horrifying number of people do. And that's *before* they start handing out cheques to the Untouchables. Cheesy Peas
  • Score: 5

3:29pm Wed 18 Jun 14

WirralAl says...

It just goes to show that as always they never dropped the ball. They just hid it waiting for another year.

This council is a disgrace to public service, The fact that Steve Foul kus is Mayor when he got so much wrong it is beyond belief. He should be under investigation not rewarded for failure.

Wirral Labour party is a disgrace to the word Socialist!

Never has a council got so many things wrong, Wasted so much money, abused so many, wasted so much on consultants Failed at so much and yet they still remain in power.

The only money they have not cut back on is spending on the town hall, councillors and senior officers.

" Love Wirral but why are they doing their very best to ruin it!! !"
It just goes to show that as always they never dropped the ball. They just hid it waiting for another year. This council is a disgrace to public service, The fact that Steve Foul kus is Mayor when he got so much wrong it is beyond belief. He should be under investigation not rewarded for failure. Wirral Labour party is a disgrace to the word Socialist! Never has a council got so many things wrong, Wasted so much money, abused so many, wasted so much on consultants Failed at so much and yet they still remain in power. The only money they have not cut back on is spending on the town hall, councillors and senior officers. " Love Wirral but why are they doing their very best to ruin it!! !" WirralAl
  • Score: 10

2:33pm Thu 19 Jun 14

Joeblogg85 says...

I remember this time very well. I remember telling people that the process was shambolic and was clearly trying to be rushed through without proper due diligence being performed. The end result was then inevitable.

I remember Bill Normans first public meeting at the Floral Pavilion when he was partially hidden by the stage curtain. It was embarrassing. He must have thought what the hell is going on here? He quickly caught on however!

My thoughts then and now are that Wirral has too many libraries for the size of the borough. I know this is an unpopular opinion but 24 libraries is an awful lot when services like a Meals on Wheels is being slashed.

I said previously that say 4 per Constituency should be enough to service the boroughs needs. An example is that we now have libraries in neighbouring Pensby and Irby. Is this really necessary?

The problem we have with the people running the show now is that they let their inflated egos get in the way of common sense. Having worked closely with the people of Wirral I know that when given all the facts and options they usually understand why certain decisions have to be made. However, when only offered with a fait accompli they will rebel.

People of Wirral need to be given the respect they deserve and not the nonsense that is presently wrapped up as "open and transparent" consultations.
I remember this time very well. I remember telling people that the process was shambolic and was clearly trying to be rushed through without proper due diligence being performed. The end result was then inevitable. I remember Bill Normans first public meeting at the Floral Pavilion when he was partially hidden by the stage curtain. It was embarrassing. He must have thought what the hell is going on here? He quickly caught on however! My thoughts then and now are that Wirral has too many libraries for the size of the borough. I know this is an unpopular opinion but 24 libraries is an awful lot when services like a Meals on Wheels is being slashed. I said previously that say 4 per Constituency should be enough to service the boroughs needs. An example is that we now have libraries in neighbouring Pensby and Irby. Is this really necessary? The problem we have with the people running the show now is that they let their inflated egos get in the way of common sense. Having worked closely with the people of Wirral I know that when given all the facts and options they usually understand why certain decisions have to be made. However, when only offered with a fait accompli they will rebel. People of Wirral need to be given the respect they deserve and not the nonsense that is presently wrapped up as "open and transparent" consultations. Joeblogg85
  • Score: 1

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