Running of Herts libraries to go out to tender – but council’s ‘public service mutual’ will bid

Tring Library
Tring Library

The running of Hertfordshire libraries could be contracted to a outside provider, as part of a drive to save £500,000.

But the County Council – which currently runs the library service – is set to establish a ‘public service mutual’, which would be among the bidders to run the service.

The two decisions were taken on Thursday (October 18) at a meeting of the county council’s Education, Libraries and localism cabinet panel.

And – if endorsed by the council’s Cabinet on Tuesday – the tendering process could start next year, with control of the libraries being handed over by the autumn (2019).

The plans have been drawn up to make savings of £500,000 from the library budget – without impacting on planned library improvements.

If no change is made to the way the services are delivered, there are fears libraries may have to close, opening hours may have to be reduced and fewer materials purchased.

But executive member for education, libraries and localism Cllr Terry Douris says the plans could bring exciting and positive benefits to the library service – reflecting local needs and requirements and developing libraries for the 21st century.

Following the meeting Cllr Douris said: “My view is that this gives us the opportunity to develop our library services and to explore new and innovative ways to provide a service to the widest public.

“We are so proud of our Inspiring Libraries strategy. We have had to make savings, but we have invested hugely. We don’t want to see that work cease – but keeping it in-house, there’s a risk of that.

“An independent organisation can come in and continue the trajectory of improving services, whilst helping to make these savings.”

Backing the plans in the committee, Cllr John Wylie told the meeting: “I see it as a massive positive and we will see great benefits from this.

“The fantastic library service we have will improve and be able to offer better facilities to people locally.”

But Labour councillor Dreda Gordon said the council had been forced into considering this step because of government ‘austerity’.

“We are between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “If we don’t go down this route we are going to further cuts to our service.”

And she said she would like a clause that would enable the council to take back control of the service should the financial position change.

According to the plans, any alternative provider would have to commit to deliver the improvements in the council’s ‘Inspiring Libraries’ strategy.

They would also have to make the required savings, focus on quality provision, invest in the service and be rooted in the community.

If agreed by Cabinet the tendering process would start in January, with the transition complete by October 2019.

Meanwhile – at the same meeting – the cabinet panel also agreed to push ahead with plans to set up a ‘public service mutual’, which would bid for the contract to run the library service in Hertfordshire.

By definition, as a ‘public service mutual’, it would deliver a public service, aim to have a positive social impact and be run with a significant degree of input from staff, volunteers and local communities.

The council backed an ‘outline’ business case for a public service mutual in April, following a period public consultation. And since then the council has drawn up a detailed business case.

This concludes that the public service mutual would have the greatest scope to deliver an affordable, sustainable and responsive library service, now and in the future.

It could, it is said, achieve significant savings without requiring reductions in services.

That’s largely because – provided it’s accepted as having charitable status – the ‘mutal’ would be exempt from national non-domestic rates (business rates).

The report states that achieving charitable status is “crucial” to the mutual business model.

According to the report the cost of the procurement process would be around £280,000.