Whose library is it anyway?

After being closed by the Conservative council and then run by Occupy London, Friern Barnet Library is now in the hands of residents. But does this development represent a Pyrrhic victory over the cuts?

On 5 February 2013, activists from Occupy London handed over the keys to Friern Barnet Library to an official from Barnet Council who promptly passed the keys onto the trustees of local residents’ group Friern Barnet Community Library. Ten months on from its closure by the Conservative council and five months on from Occupy London moving in to re-open it as a community facility, this represents a pragmatic victory for Friern Barnet residents.

Public library closures are arguably the hallmark of the Coalition’s austerity programme – at the end of 2012 the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy reported that around 350 libraries (out of just over 4,000 nationwide) had closed in the last two years. Some say that by accepting a lease Friern Barnet Community Library has effectively acknowledged Barnet Council’s case for closure and staff cuts. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) report A Changing Landscape: A Survey of Public Library Authorities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland 2012-13 showed that local authorities were reducing staff and cutting opening hours. They also noted an increase in community managed libraries, which are set to top 120 nationwide, of which Friern Barnet will be one. The Library Campaign by contrast promotes the “improvement of libraries through the activities of friends and user groups” and seeks to “affirm that publicly funded libraries and information services continue to play a key role in lifelong learning”. Have residents won a Pyrrhic victory?

In Friern Barnet, a north London suburb, the library had stood since 1934. A purpose built red brick and limestone structure this building incorporated windows and ventilation blocks specifically designed for its use as a library. As with so many historic libraries up and down the country it is regarded as a beautiful part of the local townscape. This was threatened by Barnet Council’s plans to close the building and sell the site for redevelopment. Despite a vociferous local campaign it was closed in April 2012, leaving a forlorn back-drop to Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympic Torch relay in the summer. Residents in the Save Friern Barnet Library group continued their campaign, including holding weekend pop-up libraries on the green outside. New impetus was added to their cause when activists from Occupy London moved-in in September 2012.

Despite the shameful number of empty homes in Britain residential squatting was criminalised in September 2012. It was therefore to the disdain of Barnet Conservatives that activists moved into the empty Friern Barnet Library a few days later (and also ironic as local Tory MP Mike Freer had campaigned against squatters after some had occupied Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s mansion in his constituency). The activists quickly gained the support of residents, re-opening the building as Friern Barnet People’s Library. Maureen Ivens, Chairwoman of the Save Friern Barnet Library group, said of all the different groups that had come together "We are here as one".

The campaign was re-invigorated, gaining national and international coverage. The library was arguably better than before. The hours were extended to six-days a week 11am till 7pm. Thousands of books donated by local residents filled the shelves. Regular events such as kids’ parties, live music, yoga and a talk by New Statesman columnist Will Self were put on, creating a genuine community space. However, Barnet Council would not let this continue and brought legal action for repossession.

The case came to court in December 2012, originally adjourned from October – a clear sign that the judge felt the two parties should reach a negotiated settlement. Technically the Council, as owners of the building, were in the right and were granted repossession. But the judge gave a clear direction that the Council should not send in the bailiffs immediately but should negotiate over the establishment of an officially sanctioned community library.

Hemmed in by the judicial decision, the almost contemporaneous listing of the library as a community asset under the Localism Act and the press coverage Barnet Council did indeed negotiate. A number of local residents hurriedly became trustees of the newly formed Friern Barnet Community Library, the group that is to take on a two-year lease from Barnet Council. The library will remain, a volunteer run service with limited public funding.

A local service and a beautiful building are (at least for the time being) saved. Residents and Occupy London stated that the People’s Library was only ever an emergency service organised as a protest; the volunteer service a stop-gap. Both wanted the library to be a publicly-funded professionally-run service. One of the occupiers, housing and squatting activist, Phoenix, stated: “We have collectively helped to save this library from the bulldozer and being sold off for development … we want to make it clear that putting in place a paid librarian is a priority. I believe consensus has been reached with the community on this point. As it stands, the funding offered by the council does not cover a full time librarian, but as the two year lease is negotiated and plans go forward, this will be kept at the front of the conversation.”

The previous public library, however, had limited hours and as its story shows was vulnerable to the Council’s machinations. The new service is to a large extent much better and has brought the community together. Sarah Sackman, the barrister who represented residents and the occupiers at the court case said about the campaign and re-opening “community is more than the market value of a building”.

Is this a victory for Tory cuts and the big society? Is the current situation a rebuff to the Conservatives – communitarianism in action? In this library, in society, in politics in general there is no final winner – only the latest settlement. Who knows how residents will step up to the plate to run the library or how councils will provide services in future. The Save Friern Barnet Library group have stated that they continue to call for the library “to be fully re-incorporated into Barnet’s library network”. Opposition Labour councillor Barry Rawlings said, at the re-opening, “this is the end of a chapter but not the end of the book”.

 

Friern Barnet Library. Photograph: James Dawson
Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.