Parties united as save Sutton Coldfield Library petitions submitted to BCC

Thousands of signatures across four petitions to save Sutton Coldfield library were handed in to Birmingham City Council on Tuesday 10th January.

In a strong show of solidarity, representatives from Sutton Coldfield Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties gathered with members of The Library Lobby and Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham outside of the Council House prior to the meeting.

library petitions - group gather outside of Birmingham Council House

Martin Sullivan, Secretary of Friends of the Libraries and one of the public faces of this campaign said:

“We are here to support Sutton petitioners that are against the closure of this library. Libraries are vital to people, kids and students and when one is closed there is no way back.”

Jon Hunt, City Councillor and Leader of the Liberal Democrat group added:

“I understand the concern among citizens in Sutton Coldfield, and we should work together to improve a library instead of close it. Something has to be done about its future.”

The petitions, totalling almost 5,000 signatures, were submitted to City Council by Rob Pocock (Lab. Sutton Vessey) on behalf of Sutton Coldfield Labour and Friends of Birmingham Library / Unison, Ewan Mackey (Con. Sutton Trinity) on behalf of Sutton Coldfield Conservatives and Jon Hunt (Lib Dem. Perry Barr Ward) on behalf of Sutton Coldfield Liberal Democrats.

Jenny Wilkinson, Vice-Chair of the Sutton Coldfield Liberal Democrats commented:

“It is fantastic to see the show of unity across the political divides today. We have certainly seen an outpouring of support from Sutton Coldfield residents for the Library Lobby’s campaign to save our library. When I have been out on the streets collecting names for our petition, people have been queuing up to sign and to give their support for our efforts. I can only hope the City Council will take into account the strength of feeling against their plans which adversely impact library users who live in and travel to Sutton and which are detrimental to our town centre generally.”

Following the meeting Cllr Pocock said:

“It was the second biggest petition ever submitted to the City Council from Sutton Coldfield, and I was pleased to be able to hand in the petitions raised by the Friends of Birmingham Libraries, and the staff union UNISON, as well as the one my colleague Manish Puri has led. The fact that we also teamed up with both Sutton Liberal Democrats and Conservatives was a great show of strength from across our very diverse community.”

With Cllr Mackey adding:

“I was honoured to present a second petition of Sutton Coldfield residents to Birmingham City Council’s Full Council asking for Royal Sutton Coldfield’s Library to be saved and it was encouraging to see other petitions were presented as well.”

A previous petition presented to Birmingham City Council had raised around 1,500 signatures.

Zoe Toft, Sutton resident and The Library Lobby campaigner said:

“I was delighted to see 4 petitions presented in support of Birmingham libraries and opposing the proposed cuts – over 6,500 signatures show that people really care and value their local libraries and I hope Birmingham City Council will hear their voices. I’m very grateful to all the volunteers who put in hours of their own time to collect the signatures and talk to their fellow residents about the proposed library cuts. Seeing the community come together over this has been something to take great heart from.”

In addition to the petitions, several questions about the library were heard from the public gallery and a motion about a possible model for public libraries in the Birmingham area was debated and passed (with amendments).

Questioner Jonny Mayner (left) with Jon Hunt and Jenny Wilkinson

Questioner Jonny Mayner (left) with Jon Hunt and Jenny Wilkinson

Question 1: Will the Council reconsider?

Martin Sullivan, of Friends of the Libraries of Birmingham asked whether the Council would amend its proposals in light of public responses to the Council’s proposals.

Cllr Ward to Mr Sullivan by responded by saying:

“We will conclude our position on any amendments to the proposals once we have considered the full set of consultation responses; and the consultation is still open and it runs until the 27th January.”

Question 2: Librarians doing DWP work

Another member of the public, Lynne Gregory asked whether plans to outsource librarians to undertake work for the Department of Work and Pensions (such as carrying out verification checks on benefit applications) would be limited to ensure that services to library users are not undermined.

Cllr Ward responded to Ms Gregory by saying:

“By undertaking verification work we have secured income that has enabled the number of retained library staff to be increased from 83 to 88. In addition, we believe that local residents will be pleased with the fact that they will be able to provide proofs to enable their housing benefit claims at 19 locations in the city, instead of the current four main neighbourhood offices.”

Question 3: The local archives at Sutton library

Manish Puri, Sutton Town Councillor (Vesey, Labour) asked how community groups and other parties are meant to prepare a counter-proposal to closure of the library when the work of cataloguing the unique archive of local history materials within it has not been completed by the City Council.

Cllr Ward replied by saying:

“The archives and local history material held at Sutton Coldfield library is very very important not only to the history of Sutton Coldfield but also to the wider history of the city. The current position is that the archive and local history material will either be held in the library of Birmingham or locally in Sutton Coldfield according to the covenants and other legal and environmental requirements.”

Question 4: The Red Rose Centre and finances

The Library Lobby campaigner, Jonny Mayner pointed out that since the City Council purchased the Red Rose Centre for £10.4m and the office space above the library is left vacant (although charged to the library), the library is in fact the Council’s only tenant in that part of the complex. He asked how closing the library down was going to help the Council’s finances (since it will only be robbing itself of rental income) or build value in the Council’s investment in the complex.

Cllr Ward responded by pointing out that while a degree of interest had been shown in the vacant units which are charged to the library, the configuration of the building and the vacant office space had not been attractive to prospective tenants. He said “When the future of the library is resolved, Birmingham Property Services will be able to implement a specific targeted marketing campaign to bring in tenants to any void accommodation.”

Speaking after the Council meeting, Zoe Toft commented:

“I was hugely disappointed to hear Deputy Leader Ian Ward say that only after a decision has been made on the future of Sutton Coldfield library will he and BCC put together a plan for renting out the space which currently lies empty above the library, generating no income at all. The floor above the library could raise enough money to cover virtually all the savings that would be made were the library to be closed – in other words, that rental income has the potential to completely change the financial situation of the library, so that it doesn’t use more funds than BCC has allocated should their proposals go through.

I can’t help but wonder whether BCC actually wants to get rid of the library so that it can maximise the rental income from the Red Rose Centre. Ian Ward stated it would be much easier to rent out the floor which currently lies empty, if the library were not in the building. Having viewed the vacant space with an independent commercial property surveyor, I’m confident that with creative thinking, tenants could be found for the floor above the library – but only if some effort and energy is put in to seeking them. Why not start that process now, embedding it into a plan for saving Sutton Coldfield library?”

Jonny Mayner, who asked the question of Cllr Ward said:

“We came looking for answers and I suppose we got one. This is the strongest public statement from City Council so far to the effect that they regard the library as being an inconvenience to their plans for the Red Rose Centre.”

To keep up-to-date on the work of The Library Lobby campaign group visit thelibrarylobby.org.uk

To have your say visit the Birmingham City Council Be Heard site and take part in the consultation (closes 27th January 2017): www.birminghambeheard.org.uk/place/community-libraries/consult_view


Photos courtesy of Nuria Riquelme of Birmingham Eastside