Faced with huge cuts to their budgets, many councils up and down the country have been forced to close libraries, or hand them over to private contractors to run for a profit. Some argue that in an internet age, with ebooks and search engines replacing the need for physical repositories of fiction and reference books, libraries have had their day.
The last time Labour ran the city council, we built the award-winning Jubilee Library, one of the UK’s leading libraries and one which has only grown in popularity over the past decade.
Under the Greens, library hours were significantly reduced and one – the much-loved mobile library – was closed. Money from the Labour government funded new library buildings in Coldean, Whitehawk and Woodingdean, but Conservative cuts seemed to destine those new facilities to be short-lived.
Last week we put forward a plan for Brighton and Hove’s libraries for the next four years. It proposes keeping our library service in public hands, under council control, with our network of libraries maintained. We want our libraries to form the core of a citywide network of neighbourhood hubs, offering a wider range of facilities, extended advice and support services, and acting as a base for local services and community groups.
With our Libraries Extra scheme, opening hours – which library users tell us is the most important factor in using the service – will be extended, enabling greater community use in the evenings and at weekends.
Hove will get a new library in an extended Hove museum, just a few hundred metres from the current site, closer to users, and with outdoor space and a cafe. In a council survey of over a thousand people, a majority of Hove library users backed the proposal to create the new cultural and community hub. Another survey, conducted by Hove and Portslade MP Peter Kyle and Hove Labour councillors, showed an even greater proportion of local residents support the move.
However, in a vote at the council committee which oversees libraries, Green councillors voted against these library proposals in their entirety, saying that Hove library should not move, but instead remain in the current building which costs huge sums to maintain and run. Even when told that keeping the current building would mean the closure of up to SEVEN of the city’s other branch libraries they, and one Conservative councillor, voted against our ambitious plans for our libraries future. Another Conservative abstained.
I hope that Green and Conservative councillors will think long and hard about how they will vote at full council next Thursday when the Libraries Plan is put forward for final approval. I hope they can see beyond scoring a political hit on their opponents and do what is right for current and future library users in Brighton and Hove.
The Carnegie building, which currently houses the Hove library, is held in great affection but visitor numbers are dwindling, costs are rising and it is no longer fit for a role in a modern library service. We can’t, when faced with huge cuts to our budget, put the preservation of an historic building ahead of providing a service to many of our local communities. Any future use for this building will be protected by its listed status, but the money we will receive from the sale will guarantee a modern library service in public hands, in every neighbourhood across Brighton and Hove, for years to come.
When library services in towns and cities around the country are under threat, here in Brighton and Hove we have the chance to perform what one of my colleagues called “a miracle”; keeping our libraries open, with longer opening hours, and maintaining them in public control.
Warren Morgan is the Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.