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
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation