“They think we’re an easy target,” Bob Cole tells me, casting an eye over the gathering of a hundred or so people on the steps of the Civic Centre, “but they’re wrong. If they were going after traffic wardens or tax collectors, it would be different, but people love libraries.”
The evidence would suggest that he’s right. Southampton City Council have enacted several cuts to public institutions over the last few months, but the plan to replace library staff with volunteers is becoming one of the first real battle grounds. Down the road in Bitterne, the potential closure of Southampton’s only remaining NHS Walk-In Centre is meeting similar resistance.
The surprising thing is, the other cuts seem to have targeted more obviously vital public resources. Grants to the Adult Stroke Service will be removed, and a variety of children’s services are having their budgets slashed. These include, among other things, free language courses (which will hit low income children from ethnic minorities), removing field space on some housing estates and taking away free swimming for school children. However, while these cuts have passed without much opposition the library plans are fast becoming the most controversial.
Under the new scheme, full-time library staff will be replaced steadily with volunteers until libraries are entirely volunteer run. The scheme would also involve closing the public library in Millbrook, one of the poorest areas of the city. This is all part of David Cameron’s big society idea- communities taking control of public institutions. But in some people’s eyes, that is just nice rhetoric to cover up slashing funding.
Bob Cole, who has worked in public libraries since 1982, explains the problem with the new system; “The truth is volunteers are always going to lack the skill and commitment of paid staff. You wouldn’t see volunteers staying until seven at night. They have other commitments. You would end up with libraries closing at short notice, and full of staff who weren’t fully trained.”
A petition opposing the plans has attracted over four thousand signatures. Slowly the talk of budget cuts, which has dominated the political headlines for several months, is starting to have an effect in real terms. When politicians argue over figures in the billions it can all seem wildly academic, and it’s hard to form an opinion on who’s right and who’s wrong. But when the local library closes down, people react. The NHS Walk-In Centre in Bitterne, also threatened with closure, is generating a similar story.
While no formal decision has been made, a public consultation is currently underway and closing the centre is mooted as a potential option. The explanation in the review is that there are ‘too many’ health services in the city, which causes confusion for patients. This seems an empty excuse for many in Bitterne, on the east side of the city, where GP services are already stretched to the limit. One elderly resident called the walk in centre ‘vital’ for OAPs and young mothers. Locals are currently building a campaign to guarantee its future.
The council are likely to argue that given the economic climate, cuts are inevitable, but, as Charlie Wong, a Central Library worker with six years experience said, alternative cuts could be made. Director Nick Murphy, who is ultimately responsible for the plans, earns a wage of £143,000 per year. “If he could take a pay cut of, say £43,000, we might be able to keep Millbrook library open. It would be easier to accept his plans if he led from the front in this respect.”
While a library and a walk-in centre may not seem like big news, this really is the frontline of the battle between the planned government cuts and the people they will affect. With a new budget due in a couple of months, and many more cuts expected, the outcome of these campaigns will be significant in shaping the future of cuts in the city. On this evidence, opposition from residence is likely to be strong.