How co-operatives can help save our community libraries

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In these financially strapped times, libraries are an easy target for a local authority looking for economies. 347 libraries closed in the last two financial years (out of 4,500 nationally) and there will be many more by the end of this current year. But does the struggle of the public library service provide an opportunity for the co-operative movement?

The current government enthusiasm for “mutuals” has embraced at least one libraries service, in York, where the government is supporting the development of a new social enterprise which will take on the 15 libraries and the archive service currently run by the city. The community management of libraries was also the focus of attention at a conference run by community development organisation Locality in Tower Hamlets on March 5th, which looked at the outcome of Arts Council-funded research.

Those present clearly recognised that, while discussion of different ways of doing things might be a necessary evil, it was important in preserving the huge contribution that libraries have made to community learning over the last 100 years. There are clearly opportunities to recognise the different contributions, needs and aspirations of staff, volunteers, and users of library services through a co-operative approach.

A multi-stakeholder library service, run as a co-operative, could have users of libraries — parents, children, learners and readers of all ages — involved in the ownership and management of their library service, with a democratic voice for staff and volunteers alongside them. Such a service could invite those members to invest in it, through participating in a community shares issue; and even take advantage of the benefits of achieving charitable status, given guidance issued by the Charity Commission.

If local co-operators are interested in protecting their library, then there are some tools available for them. Under the Localism Act 2011, community groups worried about the fate of libraries can apply to have them listed as “assets of community value”.  Listing demonstrates to the local council, and anyone else, that the library is of value to the community and it means that if the council tries to sell the library building, the community can ask for a compulsory six month period to work up a bid, before it can be sold on the open market. In addition, the council may have to take the community value into account if they are asked to consider a planning application for a change of use.

If a council are determined to sell a library building, then using the listing process under the Act won’t stop them. But it can open a window for negotiation, and also give the opportunity for a group to express an interest in running the library service itself using the Right to Challenge under the same Act.

Making an application in plenty of time can be crucial. In Brent, the Friends of Kensal Rise library applied to have the library listed at the end of October 2012, only a month after the legislation came into force – but the owners, All Souls College, were already in negotiations with a developer. All Souls managed to conclude an “option to purchase” agreement with their developer on 26th November, before the Council had decided – on 11th December – to list the library as an asset of community value.

What is crucial about this case is that if All Souls could show that the college entered into a legally binding option to sell the building before it was listed as an asset of community value, then the compulsory six month delay doesn’t apply and under an exemption in the Act they could go ahead and sell the building.

The point, of course, is that if savvy owners – whether councils or otherwise – are quick off the mark, then they can avoid the intentions of the legislation.

The message to local co-operators is clear. There are opportunities, in the chill wind that is blowing through our public services, to embed co-operation in a new way. But if a community group is at all worried about a local asset – a library or anything else – then they must apply to list it under the community value legislation, to get what protection there is. The rule is, don’t wait, or it might just be too late.

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