On Friday 7 March, Sheffield City Council voted through a budget that contains a host of cuts to services in Sheffield.
The main bulk is library cuts, which campaigners in Sheffield have been fighting since consultations started in the summer of 2012. The cuts involve a 40% cut to library staff across the city, cuts to the mobile library service and huge cuts to the local studies and archives library, including the trade union archives.
A flawed consultation asked questions which led people towards suggesting they prefered one method of cutting or another, rather than being able to oppose cuts outright.
Following the “consultation” the council proposed that 14 local libraries be cut, with the remaining libraries becoming hub libraries but with little visible addition to their staffing levels and opening hours to deal with the increased usage.
The 14 libraries set for closure were given three options. Five of them could become community run libraries with some financial support from the council, the rest could become community libraries with no financial support from the council or “independant libraries”, meaning businesses taking over library buildings and stock to run as they please.
One local library still has a bid for it from a bar/cafe which wishes to set up a cafe with books!
Vibrant and committed campaigns across the city, centered around libraries threatened with closure have kept the council under pressure.
Last month, in an attempt to show that it was listening, the council updated the proposals; all of the libraries threatened with closure would be given three years of funding to support them as community libraries run by volunteers, not paid staff. But these libraries will still be sold off, outside of council control. The council has not yet provided an answer to what happens if these libraries fail or what happens after the three years of funding runs out.
Throughout this whole process the Labour controlled council has played dirty games and hidden behind grand-standing speeches blaming the situation on central government cuts.
By promoting volunteer run libraries, providing resources for local groups to prepare bids (in many cases local Labour party people are leading the community groups bidding for libraries) the Labour council has been able to claim that is is not shutting any libraries.
This is yet another example of the voluntary sector, and well meaning volunteers, being used to help councils privatise and shed swathes of public services.
To add insult to injury, Labour councillors proposed an amendment to the budget that condemned the position they have been put in by central government and promoted their own “Fairer Deal for Sheffield” campaign, a campaign that weakly points out councils in the south of England are receiving less cuts per head than cities in the north. Presumably making all the cuts equal would satisfy Sheffield's Labour councillors.
Campaigners in Sheffield will continue to fight to preserve a library service under council control, with no staffing cuts, continued funding and democratic accountability. We want to safeguard a crucial resource and service for generations to come.