'Closure by stealth' fury as key council service to reduce hours over school holidays

Families, campaigners and local politicians join forces at Hall Green Library, under threat of closure
-Credit: (Image: Save our library campaign)

Community libraries across Birmingham are to close for an extra day a week in the summer holidays because of staff shortages, the city council has confirmed. The announcement was slammed by campaigners fighting to save the 35 libraries located across the city.

They said the decision amounted to 'closure by stealth' and was a taste of what was to come as the council seeks to consolidate library services to save £2.3 million as part of £365m of cuts. Under the new plan, most libraries will close an extra day a week from July 22. It comes in the middle of a public consultation on the future of all libraries.

Protestors claimed the move would go back on a council pledge to do nothing ahead of a final decision on the fate of libraries. Affected libraries include Handsworth, Stirchley, Ward End, Hall Green, Erdington, Kings Heath, Kings Norton and Shard End. The Library of Birmingham is not affected.

READ MORE: Inside the battle over the future of Birmingham’s libraries amid budget ‘pushback’

Emma Lochery, co-founder of Birmingham Loves Libraries, said it was a massive blow, with the summer holidays just around the corner. "It seems like closure by stealth," she said. "The council has created a staffing crisis it seems, to hasten closures."

Leader of the Conservative opposition group at Labour-run Birmingham City Council, Coun Robert Alden (Con, Erdington) said the city's political leadership failed to mention the forthcoming announcement during a full council meeting on Tuesday, even though notices went out to staff that same day. "Simply put, they had already decided to begin winding up the library service in the city, having planned this cloak-and-dagger attack. This consultation was never intended to inform the Labour administration's decisions and has been conducted in bad faith from the start.”

His deputy Coun Ewan Mackey (Con, Sutton Roughley) added: “This whole exercise has just been about box-ticking for the Labour group in Birmingham. The total disregard and contempt this obvious stitch-up shows for residents and service users is disgusting."

In a statement, the council said: "This is a temporary arrangement while we are consulting on library service proposals and it will begin on Monday, July 22. Due to the consultation timeline and the requirement to make in-year savings, as staff leave the service, they are unable to be replaced. Due to the reduced number of community library staff available we are proposing the introduction of a temporary timetable with some sites closing for one day per week. Libraries that are supported by partner organisations will remain open for their current hours."

They added: "Staff will be asked to move around the city to avoid increasing ad-hoc closures, this will also enable us to deliver a full summer programme of summer reading challenge activities. In addition, this approach aims to minimise the strain on staff, prioritising health and well-being by building in resilience to facilitate annual leave arrangements, and unforeseen absence."

Four city libraries have closed since 2010, while those left have seen opening hours slashed, some operating in shared premises and others moved to smaller buildings. Campaign group Birmingham Loves Libraries said spending on community libraries had been cut repeatedly, reducing staff, resources and services, primarily due to central government cuts. This has been compounded by decisions made by Birmingham City Council not to properly maintain buildings, it argued, meaning several faced excessive repair bills. The number of qualified librarians has also been drastically cut back, resulting in less outreach work with schools and community groups.

Case Study - Stirchley Library

One of the affected libraries is Stirchley Library, kept open in 2015 thanks to the efforts of dedicated volunteers working alongside council library staff. It currently opens three days a week as a council operated service and a fourth day on a reduced service, run by volunteers.

Said campaigners: "Jigsaw club, storytots, children’s crafts, adult reading groups, Lego club, board games club, warm welcome coffee mornings, and one-off special events all grace the library. But as families were gathering to enjoy a book reading for Refugee Week and a poetry book launch on Saturday they learned the council had announced it was to close an extra day a week, Thursdays, starting July 22."

As a result of the decision, planned activities will be shortened and some lost all together, they said. Among the activities in jeopardy is the Jigsaw Club, a popular activity for adults, many with protected characteristics, that has met Thursdays for seven years. It is now 'homeless'."

Rowena Williams, from the Jigsaw Club, said she was amazed that the decision was made without further consulting the group running the group at the library for seven years. "We are entirely volunteer run, totally self funded and our group includes people with protected characteristics. But apparently we are not worth consulting."

She added: "We are so grateful to the library staff who have supported us fantastically well for the last seven years, and we will be devastated if we cannot find a way of continuing in a venue that we love." Resident Cheryl Homer said of the plans: "I suspect this is a move to closure. I’m fuming."

Emma, from the campaign group, said: "These cuts are coming into effect just as the summer holidays begin—a critical time when families and children, already largely ignored in the consultation process, rely heavily on the library. The summer reading challenge, essential for combating the literacy drop that often occurs over the school holidays, will be impacted. Come September, scheduling school visits will become far more difficult, with just one slot a week available for schools to take advantage of.

"The council's explanation for these closures is that Birmingham Community Libraries are in a transitional period while consulting on a new libraries model that amalgamates with the Neighbourhood Advice service. They claim that due to the consultation timeline and the need to make in-year savings, departing staff cannot be replaced, necessitating the introduction of a temporary timetable.

"We find this explanation unacceptable. It implies that the consultation is not being conducted in good faith and that the decision to close libraries and reduce staff has already been made. By creating the conditions of a staffing crisis, the council is effectively enacting library closures by stealth, without the required legal consultation for a statutory service. The temporary timetable will only end with the imposition of further cuts."

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