Save Barnet Libraries campaigners protest after council delay review into ‘exlusionary’ 2017 library service changes
PUBLISHED: 14:55 13 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:55 13 March 2019
For the Save Barnet Libraries (SBL) campaign group, this year’s World Book Day was bittersweet.
The date coincided with the meeting of the town hall’s community leadership and libraries committee, which had been slated to see a long-awaited review of the 2017 changes to library provision discussed.
But when that was pulled from the agenda – Barnet says, to allow the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to rule on the formal complaint made by SBL – a protest was organised outside the meeting.
SBL has compiled a number of figures it claims show the impact of the controversial changes – which saw staff numbers cut and “self-service” opening hours introduced.
Some libraries also saw children’s rooms removed.
The changes mean under 18s are only able to use the libraries during staffed hours, or when accompanied by an adult.
Emily Burnham, one of the campaign’s leaders, told the Ham&High: “It was quite a lively evening in the end. They really didn’t want to talk about libraries.
“It was all a bit ironic given it was World Book Day.”
SBL also says its data show attendance falling at the borough’s libraries, and added the changes have made it so that vulnerable groups – particularly children and disabled people – are excluded.
According to its figures. Golders Green and North Finchley, which have pin-code restricted access for under-15s, and have lost their children’s rooms, have shed 66 per cent and 51pc of their visitors respectively.
SBL is also querying why the council has not been recording attendance at East Finchley library “due to a technical fault with equipment”.
For the campaigners, an almost 50 per cent drop in participation in the annual children’s summer reading challenge – from 4,216 children taking part in Barnet in 2016 to 2,113 last year – illustrates the impact of restricting access for young people.
Addressing the data, Emily added: “This really backs up residents’ concerns. For example, Barnet’s Youth Assembly called for an end to restrictions on library access for young people and for more study space and communal areas. But the council was dismissive of their concerns.”
After the meeting, Harriet Connides said she felt the reduction in staffed hours had excluded vulnerable groups from Barnet’s libraries.
Harriet, 56, has multiple sclerosis and said the lack of staff meant she didn’t feel safe attending her local library in East Finchley.
She said: “I can’t risk a fall in an unstaffed library and I also need access to a toilet.
“But it’s hard to arrange to go during such limited staffed hours.
“It feels exclusionary. I fall often – I don’t feel like I would be safe there.
“It’s meant that because I can’t go, neither can my 13-year-old daughter if she wants to do homework after school. So it’s a double effect. It’s very discouraging.”
Cllr Reuben Thompstone (Con, Golders Green), who chairs the committee, said: “We’re proud that in Barnet all 14 of our libraries are open and continue to offer an array of fantastic services and events.
“Every library has a children’s library area, which children and young people continue to use.
“The last survey of young people in the borough showed satisfaction with libraries had increased. This included the views of 500 young people, whereas the forum highlighted involved eight young people.
“It’s also important to recognise that the way people use libraries continues to change and we see year-on-year increases in people using our wide range of digital services.”
Cllr Thompstone added figures cited by SBL showing an 85 per cent drop in users at East Barnet Library were “incorrect” and he added the group’s data from 2017 also included months when libraries were in the process of being refurbished.
He said: “The visitor figures quoted compare visitor numbers with a period in 2017 during which some of our libraries were closed for several months at a time for refurbishment – therefore, we would expect visitor numbers to have reduced.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
“We have received a number of representations about the library changes agreed by Barnet Council and are carefully considering these.”
DCMS confirmed it would be issuing a final decision on the complaint shortly.