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
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.