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  • Writer's pictureDavid Taylor

How to save our libraries

Havering council have launched a consultation on the closure of a number of libraries across Havering, this includes a proposal to close the Collier Row and Gidea Park libraries.


Whilst technically a consultation, many residents are already expressing their upset at the plans.


Cabinet Member, Councillor Paul Middleton (HRA) published the administration's Library Strategy in May 2024. In his introduction, Middleton outlines that 5 libraries are at risk, with 4 of the 5 to be closed. The at risk libraries are;


  • Collier Row

  • Elm Park

  • Gidea Park

  • Harold Wood

  • South Hornchurch


Closures, Middleton suggests, will deliver "full year recurrent savings... in the region of £334,613 and £350,855". In their February 2024 budget report, the administration outlined £150k of savings this year and £150k next. This could suggest a phased closure.


The fact that this budget was passed, with HRA and Labour backing, suggests that the closures are a given despite the current consultation. It appears that the consultation is more about which library to close, as opposed to whether to close libraries.


The consultation, which contains a whopping 40 questions, does not seek alternative suggestions from residents. This is deeply disappointing and I believe that these library closures are short sighted. Outlined below is my plan for keeping our libraries open, as vital community hubs delivering much needed services. Nothing in my plan hasn't been done before, by others, including by Havering Council.


A lot of opposition to the library closures will appear over the next month. It is vital that we don't just oppose, but also propose. A strong opposition must provide alternatives.


Finally, before getting to my plan, we must address two elephants in the room. Government funding, and the last administration's apparent plans.


Government funding:

It is not secret that Havering is struggling financially. The services we are asked to deliver, by government, have rocketed in price thanks to inflation and demographic changes. However, our grant for these services has not. This puts the council in a difficult situation of having to reduce spending and increase income.


I believe that the government should give Havering an emergency grant, not a loan, to allow us to close the gap this funding shortfall has caused. This will give the borough time to restructure the way we operate and to deliver a new model of working. The funding formula, for local council's must also be revised.


"Tory plans":

Pre-election, the HRA shoved a leaflet through every letterbox warning of Conservatives apparent plans to "sell off Havering's assets to fund election promises". This claim was made on the basis that, apparently, HRA members had been leaked a report on proposed closures.


This report has yet to be produced but, the HRA claims, it contained plans to close libraries and sell car parks.


When reviewing previous years budgets, it is clear to me that a deficit was predicted for this year and next. Therefore, I would not be surprised that some sell-offs were planned. This leads me to the conclusion that the HRA must have known cuts and sell-offs would be needed.


I say that as I find it hard to reconcile this "beware the Tories" campaigning with the HRA's current actions. They are doing exactly what they claim Conservatives would have done.


This is why I say "Don't just oppose, propose". We must present alternatives.


OK, politics over (sorry, not sorry), to my plan!



The Plan

Like the great Captain Kirk in Wrath of Khan, I don't believe in no-win scenarios. Whilst the administration claims that their backs are against the wall and they are being forced into "difficult decisions", I say we focus on that second word, decisions. Closing the libraries will always be a choice, they can be saved and we can afford it.


But we need to save £300k!

The goal, we are told, is to save £300k a year. The starting place, for my plan, is to look at other areas where we can save this, instead of libraries.


The most obvious place for this is in our homelessness bill. Havering council spend £6m a year on homelessness, at a cost of nearly £20,000 per family per year. This is because we're placing people into hotels and B&Bs.


If we could house 30 families (we currently have hundreds) then we'd save £600,000 a year. This is twice the saving of closing 4 libraries.


So step one, we seek to house 30 families. At this point, it is vital to remember that the budget proposes a saving of £150k this year and then £150k next.



The library land

Both Gidea Park and Collier Row libraries are in excellent locations and their land is valuable. The Gidea Park library is less than 200m from the Gidea Park Lizzie Line stations. Developers would fall over themselves to get hold of this.


Instead of selling them this land, we should redevelop it, with new homes and a community hub underneath. If we took all 4 sites and put 8 homes above them then we could house 32 families who are currently homeless. This would save us around £640,000 a year. Twice what the HRA/Labour administration are proposing, and enough to keep the libraries going. If we built 10, keeping some for social and some to be sold or rented, then we'd also get an income.


Remember, rent from those on housing welfare is paid for by government!


The land at Gidea Park library is 26m wide by 37m, up to the pavement and including the parking behind. It is an aging, single story building and, according to Cllr Middleton's report, requires roof repair and has cracks in it.

The library sits next to land designated for a new special needs school, and is surrounded by low-density housing at an average of 2 storeys in height.


There is no doubt that this building could be redeveloped, to at least add another storey on top. By making the footprint larger, it is feasible to deliver at least 6 2-bed flats on this site.


Admiral Lodge, located on Western Road in Romford, gives an example of what can fit onto this land. Whilst Admiral Lodge is taller than my proposal, it accommodates homes and parking, plus some garden, within a footprint of 35m x 25m (similar in size to Gidea Park Library).

This demonstrates that the land at Gidea Park library is plenty enough to contain a combination of homes and a community hub. I suggest just 2 or 3 storeys, to protect the character of the area.


Who else is doing this?

Well, just about everyone.


In Shenfield, their library has been rebuilt with housing above it. Built by Essex County Council, who have a predicted budget deficit of £100m, the site delivers a larger library with community meeting rooms and commercial space. It also contains a public garden and a community meeting room.

Trafford Housing Trust constructed the Limelight facility in Manchester. It is a combination of over 50's housing, with a library and community cafe below it. This is much bigger than what I'd propose for Gidea Park or Collier Road, but it serves as inspiration.

Even Havering it doing this already, with Rainham Library sharing a space with 16 homes, a community hall, cafe, and a creche.


Collier Row library sits on a high-street, as the only single storey building.

So, it's quite clear that we can develop these sites into community hubs!


Show me the money!

Ah, but we're broke. So where does the money to redevelop these sites come from?


OK, grab a chair and a kit-kat, things get a bit complicated here.


Havering isn't broke.


To simplify, massively.


There are two pots of money in Havering. The General Fund (GF) and another pot for housing and investment etc. The GF is where we pay for services from, such as paying for libraries or bin collections. This is where your council tax goes into. By law, the expenditure and income in this pot must match every year. It didn't this year, hence the "going broke" messaging.


Yet, at the same time as "going broke" Havering is spending £tens of millions in buying up old warehouses in Bridge Close, to turn into tower-blocks. It is also borrowing £millions to lend to a property developer, who will use that to buy the council car parks (another storey).


This can be done because the other pot of money is allowed to go into debt. In fact, it has a lot of debt already, for projects such as the Waterloo Estate and Bridge Close. The reason is can go into debt is because the money is used to build assets that will give us an income in the future.


Given that homelessness is paid for by the GF, building homes will reduce the GF costs.


Simply put, we will be investing into a more secure financial situation. This is why I say cuts are a choice.



Conclusion

Havering council can, if they want, conclude that these library sites could be rebuilt to contain a mixture of housing and community facilities. Doing so would reduce our budget deficit and also ensure we have much needed homes.


By redeveloping the sites themselves, instead of just selling them off, the council could ensure that what is built is suitable for the area.


I am disappointed that the library consultation doesn't contain an area for suggestions. However, I have some hope. After I published my proposal in the Havering Daily, Councillor Keith Darvill, leader of Havering Labour, this week said; "Each site has got the potential for future regeneration.. Rainham Library is a great example... the council was able to provide additional housing... as well as a brand new library".


Given that Rainham Library was redeveloped in that way under the Conservatives, I find it encouraging that Darvill and I are in agreement. I hope that, should a vote arise, Havering Labour would back a Conservatives plan to save our libraries!


 


 

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