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.
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:
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.