Liberal Democrats oppose County's Plans to outsource the Library Service

April 22, 2018 9:40 AM
By Mark Watkin
Originally published by Hertfordshire Liberal Democrats

Libraries play a key part in the community

At a meeting of the Education, Libraries and Localism Cabinet Panel on 18th of April 2018, the Liberal Democrat team voted against the County's plans to outsource their much loved and highly popular Library Service.

The Labour Group Leader abstained.

However, in spite of Liberal Democrat protest, the Conservative led Panel agreed to the County developing a detailed business case before finally deciding whether to go ahead with the scheme.

The Conservative run County Council is being forced into making deep cuts across all of its services, and so is looking to save £1m in the Library Service as a result of the Conservative Government withdrawing funding from all local councils. The Hertfordshire Conservatives are hoping to make these savings by establishing a Public Service Mutual (PSM) company to operate all the existing libraries. To do this it is paying significant sums for consultancy advice from Mutual Ventures - money which could instead have been used to improve the current service.

The Council admits it is a high risk approach as the financial benefits of over £600k per annum will only be achieved if the PSM is awarded charitable status and is able to reclaim 80% of the business rates that the Libraries pay.

Mark Watkin, Opposition Spokesperson for Libraries explains, "By their own admission, the County Council recognises that the current Library service is relevant, versatile and innovative. Its total usage through visits and online access is increasing. However the outcome of the recent consultation showed that more residents opposed the proposals than supported them, similarly so did a majority of the hard working library staff. The Council needs to have greater confidence in their ability to generate income from a wider use of their facilities. Expecting the County's 10 District Councils as well as the County Council to forego their business rate income, is not a socially acceptable approach to solving the financial challenge."

County Councillor for Tring, Nick Hollinghurst, added, " This is a desperate move which exploits a tax loop-hole. Even if the council succeeds in setting up a Public Service Company with charitable status to get this business rate saving this year or next - there is no guarantee that the government will not move to close the loop-hole at some time in the future. And then where would we be? They're proposing a risky strategy that has another serious disadvantage insofar as there is a loss of direct control over an important and much-loved service. And finally there will also be a negative effect on the county's overall finances because this will reduce the county's business rate take - a proportion of this comes back to it from the government."

Nick concluded, "Will the loss of control really be worth it in the end? This could be a very serious mistake."