Protestors occupy Lambeth libraries to prevent closure as Green Party criticise ‘shambolic’ council plans

Against a backdrop of nationwide library closures and cuts, a Lambeth library is being occupied by peaceful protestors after it closed on Thursday evening – and they are still inside the building.

Protesters gathered for candle-lit vigils this week at two Lambeth libraries earmarked for closure, Carnegie and Minet libraries are due to be converted into gyms.

Library users are also protesting to keep all ten much-needed Lambeth libraries open, which they say would cost much less than closing them or converting them into fee-charging GLL gyms.

Chair of Friends of Carnegie Library, Jeff Doorn, said: “Our Carnegie Library has provided the light of learning and inspiration for nearly 110 years.”

Children’s events, a farewell party and candle-lit vigil were held to celebrate the popularity of these much-used libraries.

“A fitting way to express our gratitude, as well as our determination not to let the light be extinguished,” said Mr Doorn on the candle-lit vigil.

Lambeth residents are determined to fight on and their occupation has been backed by a challenge from the Green Party.

Lambeth Green Party held a meeting in Carnegie Library to stand alongside campaigners who occupied the 110-year-old building before taking part in the protest with staff and library users.

London Assembly candidate Rashid Nix was among those who stayed through the night, as a local restaurant sent in food, and police were turned away from the gates.

Green Party Councillor Scott Ainslie, who protested alongside Green Mayoral candidate Sian Berry, said: “The more we find out about Lambeth’s plans for libraries, the more shambolic they seem.”

Last November Cllr Ainslie called in the council’s Culture 2020 decision to close libraries, which forced council leaders to consider an alternative proposal for a staff-community mutual organisation, put together by the head of Lambeth Libraries Service, Susanna Barnes.

In February, a panel made up entirely of council officers, plus one consultant from Mutual Ventures, rejected this alternative proposal which would have made the necessary savings while keeping all ten Lambeth libraries open.

A Lambeth Council spokesperson said: “These protesters are misleading residents and the public – Carnegie Library is not closing for good.

“The building will re-open to the public, for longer hours, in early 2017 and will have a neighbourhood library service, health and fitness facilities and space for community groups to use.”

Currently occupying Carnegie Library, protester Laura Swaffield replied: “I’m afraid it’s the council misinforming the public as the four libraries they want to trash are going to put enormous pressure on the remaining six.

“They’re turning people away already as they don’t have enough study space or areas for mother and toddler groups, those libraries are bursting at the seams already.

“Lambeth want no staff at all and that is not a library! It’s not even a safe place where children can visit without taking a bodyguard with them, the dangers are obvious and that is what the definition of what a neighbourhood library is.

“Children come to the library to do their homework and to study for exams. They’re trying to close this library just as the peak exams season starts.

“Everybody thinks this gym idea is absolutely ridiculous. We’re not playing one library off against another, Lambeth needs all ten libraries.”

Lambeth Council boast on their website that both Carnegie and Minet will be retained, but can only affordably run by changing the nature of the services there.

In partnership with Greenwich Leisure Limited, the social enterprise organisation that runs Lambeth’s leisure centres, the two libraries will offer fitness centres alongside some library services.

As the Culture 2020 report states, GLL are facilitating £1m in revenue over two years, and £1m capital towards the fit out of the buildings and the closure is only temporary for refurbishment work this April.

Cllr Ainslie has replied to the report saying: “The GLL proposal involves capital investment by the Council of £3m – £4m on setting up the gyms. This is a huge waste of public money on facilities that Lambeth residents clearly do not want.

“It’s impossible to read this ludicrous assessment without coming to the conclusion that Lambeth had already made up its mind. It was determined to gift libraries to GLL – for reasons we can only wonder at.

“The reasons given by the so-called independent panel for rejecting the staff-mutual proposal read like something out of Kafka. They give the alternative plan a very low score because it would keep 10 libraries open, while Cabinet policy at the time was to close five.

“Since there has been no transparency about the GLL financial model or detailed plans, the Council’s choice of GLL over the mutual cannot be justified. It is time Lambeth looked properly at this issue and finally decide to do the right thing.”

Protester Ms Swaffield said “They want to use three million smackers on building gyms that nobody wants and nobody needs.

“All those libraries that were handed over to volunteers in Crofton Park and New Cross have plummeted in terms of book issues and visits.

“They’re not functioning as libraries anything like the level they used to and it doesn’t have a guaranteed future or the same level of service you would get from a trained librarian who knows how to help you.”

Lambeth Council have responded by stating GLL are a not for profit, charitable social enterprise. As a charitable social enterprise they are able to make a surplus, which must be reinvested in pursuit of their charitable objectives.

Lambeth has an existing leisure contract with GLL until 2022. GLL are not being contracted to deliver a library service, and service delivery will remain within the council meaning there is no need for a new procurement process.

The refurbishment will mean a change in service but will offer self-service facilities providing residents with access to a limited supply of books which they can loan and return, as well as free Wi-Fi, computers and study space.

Talking on the ten libraries in Lambeth protester Ms Swaffield said: “It’s barely adequate. If you look at the population, ten is the absolute minimum; they could do with more as they’re very heavily used.”

Lambeth Council are currently seeking a court order to evict those occupying the library.

Three police officers and security organised by Lambeth Council are currently on site.

Campaigner Ms Swaffield described the protest as peaceful and said: “People are just quietly reading talking enjoying the garden at the back just doing all the things that nice people normally do on a normal day in a normal life really.

“There’s no need for security at all, it spoils it really to have a bunch of Police outside the door and makes it look as if something awful is happening when it isn’t.

“It seems that the Council is not in the least bit interested in dealing with our concerns, they just want to get us out.”

The campaigning in Lambeth is gathering strength and looks set to continue into the weekend.

Leader of Lambeth Council Lib Peck visited the library asking protesters to leave to which they declined, meaning the Council can now go to court on Monday. Protesters will be able to stay over the weekend.

Featured picture courtesy of Libraries Taskforce, with thanks

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