Hertfordshire County Council may opt NOT to transfer libraries to new organisation

‘Libraries for Life’ had been due to take over the running of the county’s libraries last year

Monday, 18th October 2021, 9:50 am
Updated Monday, 18th October 2021, 9:52 am

Officials at Hertfordshire County Council have drawn up plans NOT to transfer its library services to a new organisation.

‘Libraries for Life’ had been due to take over the running of the county’s libraries last year – in a move that was expected to cut the cost of the service by £500,000 a year.

But the planned transfer was initially delayed and then – when the pandemic took hold – put on hold ‘indefinitely’.

Hertfordshire County Council

And now council officials have drawn up plans to halt the transfer plans and for the service to remain in-house.

The volt-face was backed by a meeting of the council’s education, libraries and lifelong learning cabinet panel on Thursday, October 14.

And a final decision is expected to be taken by a meeting of the cabinet today (Monday).

If approved, the council will then also develop a new ‘library service strategy’ to set out ‘a clear direction’ for the next decade.

At the meeting, executive member for education, libraries and lifelong learning Cllr Terry Douris pointed to the ‘very different place’ they were in today – compared to 2018, when the transfer was first discussed.

And – referencing the impact of the Covid pandemic – he said: “There’s a lot we have learned over the last 21 months. And there’s a lot we can incorporate going forward.

“And as part of that there is a clear intention, proposal, commitment […] to create the new libraries strategy for the next 10 years – but starting as soon as we possibly can.

“Libraries have changed. People’s use of libraries has changed and I think that we are in a great position – and our libraries are in a great position to recognise the future.

“And I think they will be best served by staying within the HCC family.”

The county council had planned to transfer the running of its libraries to Libraries for Life – a ‘public service mutual’ set up by the council – in April 2020.

When the approach was agreed in 2018, it was estimated that a transfer would achieve savings of £500,000 a year – while continuing to offer an affordable, sustainable and responsive library service for residents.

But just two weeks before the expected 2020 transfer, as the pandemic took hold, the council and the Libraries for Life board decided to delay the transfer.

At Thursday’s meeting councillors were told that the library service had ‘adapted well’ during the pandemic – but that income generation and physical library visits were ‘far from’ 2019/20 levels.

And the report presented to the meeting noted that ‘conditions’ remained below those set out in the contract specification for the service transfer.

“Although the Library Service is now on the road to recovery, it is still far from the levels of delivery achieved prior to Covid-19 which were detailed within the contract specification,” says the report.

“When considering the future of the service in a post Covid-19 context, it is critical to consider whether transferring the service out of the Council is still the right thing to do.”

In addition, the report suggested that because of the time that had elapsed many of the ‘critical tasks’ completed in advance of the planned April 2020 transfer – such as reviews of contracts, property surveys and testing of systems – would now have to be repeated.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Mark Watkin said it was clear that the mutual was not going to go forward and he said it was essential that that was made clear for staff.

He also suggested the ‘mutual’ had been treated ‘rather brutally’ – and suggested they only discovered the transfer had been put on the backburner in the cabinet panel reports.

Labour Cllr Judi Billing backed the proposal to halt the transfer as ‘the right decision’ – but did express fears that savings of £500,000 may still have to be made.

“I was not a huge enthusiast – like many people – of the idea of the mutual,” she said.

“But I went with it because I thought at the time it was the only way forward.

“I am not heartbroken at all. But it is not now perceived to be probably the best way forward and I admire the pragmatism that we are really all operating with.”

Earlier in the meeting director of resources Scott Crudgington had said that as part of the decision it was agreed the savings could not be made.

He said that £500,000 target would not be left only within the remit of the library service – but would become a ‘corporate challenge’.

However, he added: “That doesn’t mean that libraries won’t be encouraged – through the development of their next strategy – to look for new areas for income generation, for being able to reduce costs, whatever the case may be.

“But I do want to make it absolutely clear that the £500k savings target is not going to be linked to the library service directly. That is now part of the corporate response.”

According to the report the work to establish the public service mutual and other costs associated with the proposed transfer come to around £460,000.