Dear Mr Harker,
We write on behalf of the St. James Residents Association and the Friends of St. James Library Group in reference to the above.
We are very dismayed at the way the recent consultation on the future of the Library Service has been carried out. We note that only 1555 people took part in the process and answered what were, certainly in the case of the first question, loaded and suggestive questions. The first question; “People have said they don't mind paying for the service. How much would you be willing to give?” gives an unfair slant to the process and leads people to believe that they should give something too because others have said they would. It is misleading because no information is given as to what people or how many have actually said such things. A figure of 1555 is no basis to claim that the populace has spoken and the vast majority of Northamptonshire people are all in favour of the County Council suggestion of paying twice for a service they already receive, and certainly no basis to make policy on.
It is not surprising that the results of the consultation were in favour of donations and volunteers, for after all, the way the questions were phrased left the respondents completely unaware about the Council’s intention to cut public funding and to axe full time permanent staff. Therefore, library users quite innocently responded without knowing the underlying context of the questions and could have conceivably given a different response had they of known.
The consultation ended at 5.00 pm on Friday 30th September, We know of at least four persons responding late Friday afternoon before the deadline, with detailed comment, but it appears that the “Appendix A”, that contains all the results may have actually been compiled on Friday 30th September, certainly it was finished and uploaded by Monday the 3rd October. It leads us to wonder of the sincerity of the process for it would seem that the strategy documents may have been already largely completed based upon the Council’s already well known intention. If this is true then we wonder how meaningful the process actually was. Were all the last responses actually considered for example? Were the documents able to be compiled extremely quickly because of the very low turnout for the consultation?
We are concerned that this process was just a sham and that decisions have already been made and this consultation was just a tick box exercise. We do not believe that people were adequately consulted; they could not have been on such a low turnout and we wonder how many vulnerable groups were contacted for their views? It also seems that no Library users were actually and personally informed of a consultation taking place. At the very least they should have been written to.
For the record, the strategy is a huge risk and we believe the NCC is gambling with peoples’ services and jobs. It is simply unrealistic, unsustainable and unfair to expect our citizens to raise money and also give up their time to save their own Library. Certainly, some people obviously will be able to donate time or money, but they will be under no obligation to and it seems very unrealistic to base a strategy on things that might happen if we are extremely lucky, particularly during the worst financial crisis in recent years.
Using Parish Council and Councillors Empowerment Funds to subsidise the Library Service is, we believe, unsustainable as it is not what these funds are intended for: they are for other community projects; and other citizens would be right to be angry to find there is no money left in the pot when it comes to applying for monies for their own projects. We do note however, how the rules governing Empowerment Funds were relaxed late last year to enable things such as Libraries to fall in to the scope of the Empowerment scheme. In addition, the Parish Council precepts will eventually rise as they will need more money to fund a now additional Library Service. This is double taxation on something local people have already paid for and have had no reduction for in their Council Tax.
In addition to the seemingly indecent haste with which the consultation results were actually produced, it also seems they were added to the Cabinet Meeting agenda with indecent haste too. Most people were expecting these results a few weeks down the road and for them to be fully accessible to the general public. Instead we stumble upon on them completely by accident buried within the CMIS system, placed on the agenda of the next Cabinet meeting of 11th October. Nowhere else is it conspicuously apparent that the results of the consultation are available for the general public to digest.
To add insult to injury we then find out, after all the above that if people have actually found the documents, or are even aware of their existence, they will then have to travel all the way to Silverstone race circuit to lobby the cabinet and exercise their democratic right to comment on the proposals, as the Cabinet meeting is taking place in the new wing buildings. We consider this to be unacceptable. A highly emotive subject such as the future of our library service is being hidden away from the public and the first round of ratification will be taking place in private buildings on private land some distance away from the majority of people.
The public have a lawful right to protest and to comment on proposals that affect their lives; we believe the Council are making it very difficult for people to exercise their democratic rights.
We would like to know why the decision was taken to hold this meeting at Silverstone, even though the buildings have been built with public money, it is still private land and we would like you to inform us if this is constitutionally correct to be able to hold such an important public meeting away from the public buildings of the County Town?
Will the County Council be providing free public transport for any person who desires to attend this meeting?
We feel that the results of the consultation should be made freely and conspicuously available to the general public for a reasonable period of time before these proposals are brought for approval at Cabinet and therefore we request that these library items are removed from Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting agenda until such a time they can be heard at County Hall, and in doing so promoting a spirit of fairness, transparency, accessibility and accountability. The good people of Northamptonshire deserve nothing less, and if the County Council is to preserve any shred of credibility then we hope you will accede to our reasonable request.
Acting Secretary, FoSJL