Crumbling Britain: one town’s revolt against a bankrupt council to save its local library

From a child at the High Court to pensioners planning a sit-in, Desborough residents are challenging Northamptonshire’s closure of 21 libraries.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It seemed like an unremarkable rainy weekday morning in the Revive café, a redbrick coffee shop serving all-day breakfast on the corner of a small high road in Desborough, a north-west Northamptonshire town.

But amid the fish finger sandwiches and mugs of milky tea rumbled a quiet revolution. Almost everyone I met there was in exile. It was a Wednesday, and Desborough Library at the end of the road is closed on Wednesdays. Having once been open six days a week, it’s now also closed on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays.

In the library – a squat, modern building with an asymmetric roof – packed bookshelves were unattended in the dark. The opening hours were reduced last month – a precursor to its planned closure following Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to shut down 21 of the county’s 36 libraries (since 2010, 478 have been closed throughout the UK).

Though the town is small, with a population of 11,000, some residents are so outraged that they have launched a legal challenge against the council’s decision. After the Save Desborough Library campaign sought legal help, a little girl who is a regular library user took the case to the High Court with her mother’s assistance, to save all 21 libraries from closure. The family cannot be named for legal reasons, but I spoke to other locals who depend on the library.

“Parents get to know each other, you build friendships, your children go to school with some of the same children; you build a community,” said Carolyn Oakes, a 33-year-old cook at a care home who has been volunteering at the library once a fortnight, running children’s groups such as Baby Massage, Stay and Play and an arts and crafts club.

“Without that community, people will only care about themselves. They’ll become their own units rather than empathising with people. The elderly would become more reclusive. Teenagers would be on the streets.”

We had a cup of tea together at a wooden table in the cafe, where friends of hers stopped to chat. Carolyn’s four-year-old son tugged at her black and white stripy top, trying to get her attention. Carolyn, who moved to Desborough at the age of 15, told me she could not have coped without the children’s services (originally run by the now-defunct Sure Start centre) at the library – for both her son and daughter, who is six. The nearest library spared from cuts is in Kettering: a £6.70 return bus ride that Oakes, who does not own a car, cannot afford.

“I look at the cost of books – what if my daughter wanted to do something further in education? I couldn’t afford to get a book a week each for my children. That’s going to affect their learning,” she says. “Why deny them that chance to better themselves?”

A resident for 17 years, this is the first place Carolyn has called home. But she fears the loss of the library will limit her children’s future. “Without books, they’d be denied that chance – to find a cure something, for example. It’d be denying the world that chance. People aren’t thinking of the future.”

Desborough Library has been under threat since last October when the council launched a review of its library services. Paula Holmes, a former business consultant who was born and raised in Desborough, launched the campaign to save the library. She recalled a youth spent gazing at the maps and atlases she cherished in Desborough Library, which she calls a “mystical place” where her mother would take her and four siblings.

“It was a place for my imagination,” she told me, welling up at the memory. “We weren’t rich, so it was a good education for us. This town is going to lose that.”

In February this year, the Conservative council made national headlines by declaring effective bankruptcy – it could no longer balance its budget. Northamptonshire became the first local authority for two decades to issue a Section 114 notice: an official admission it did not have the resources to meet its current expenditure.

Ministers have been advised to scrap the council altogether, and deploy external officials while it is dissolved into two new bodies. A council spokesperson described the library cuts as “a necessary element of our budget-setting process for 2018/19 given the severe financial pressures the authority is facing”.

Northamptonshire MPs, who are all Conservatives, have criticised the council, while its former leader, Heather Smith, has said she repeatedly warned the government about the unsustainable finances. Upon her resignation in March, she said: “If the machinery of government is turned against you, you cannot win.”

While this political dispute plays out, vital services such as Desborough Library are overlooked. This is not merely a matter of books: the library is where pensioners renew their bus passes, students do homework, job seekers use the computers, young parents take their children and older people find companionship.

“I used to get the bus to the library when I was seven, because you could back then,” Avril Oakes, Carolyn’s mother-in-law, told me, grinning at the memory. She is 69 and has lived in Desborough for 34 years. Since her youth discovering books to now, taking her grandchildren to the library for the past six years (Rhyme Time, where they play and sing songs, is a particular favourite), she has always used Desborough Library. Oakes was resolute about saving the library of her childhood, quipping that she’d undertake a “sit-in” if she had to – her kindly blue eyes only half smiling through her glasses.

Every Thursday morning, she meets a women’s group whose ages range from the thirties to the nineties. “We talk about our health issues, children, we put the world to rights – you name it,” Oakes said.

She arrives at the library a little after 9am on Thursday, and finds a table large enough for the group of a dozen regulars. They stay chatting until 12.30pm. Oakes has been going for years, and said she’d be “broken” if she lost this meeting place, warning of depression in older people. “I think a lot of the older women would give up, and I can understand that. It’s a community,” she said, sipping her tea.

Northamptonshire has an ageing population; the number of people aged over 80 doubled between 1995 and 2015 and is expected to do so again by 2030. Corby, a town near Desborough, was identified as a “social isolation hotspot” in 2016 by the Co-operative Group and the British Red Cross, which found that almost a fifth of the adult population in the Midlands were either always or often lonely.

Accessing distant libraries is more difficult for the elderly and those with disabilities, and the alternative – paying to rent rooms for equivalent services, or sitting all day in a coffee shop – is not an option, financially speaking.

“The closure of libraries does tend to disproportionately impact people who are vulnerable,” says Caroline Barrett, the solicitor at law firm Irwin Mitchell instructed by the family of the young girl to fight this case at the High Court. “So people of low income, or elderly or disabled people, will rely on a local library service perhaps more than other people.”

Many of her clients are fighting the effects of reduced public services, and she finds more and more people feeling the effects of “years of austerity”.

“There was a time I believe where local authorities were trying to make backroom cuts and efficiency savings, and that’s just no longer doable,” she tells me. “So the cuts now being made are directly affecting people on the ground, directly affecting, in this case, library users.”

Desborough residents were dismayed by an unexpected 400 per cent council tax increase in 2016 – and yet their library is still closing. In a further dramatic twist of local politics, all the Conservative members of Desborough Town Council resigned en masse in February in protest at the alleged abuse their chairman endured over the tax rise. A new party of independents took control of the town council in May’s local elections.

“These politicians, these MPs, they have the money – they can go out and buy as many books as they want. They don’t think about it,” Carolyn Oakes told me before we said goodbye, as she placated her restless son with an ice lolly. “Without actually being on the other side of it, they will never understand what it’s like for regular people.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran