What Wandsworth reveals about the Big Society
For a phrase that no one seems to understand, the ‘Big Society’ really does seem to cover a lot of ground. Concerned about less police, cuts to legal aid, fewer hospitals, closed post offices? It turns out you really don’t need to be. In our bigger society, we get to empower ourselves. If we were under any confusion, Culture minister Ed Vaizey just re-defined the phrase once more. Are libraries involved in this far-reaching term? Why, but of course. “Libraries,” he said, should have a “home in the heart of the big society.” Yes, that’s right, everything is covered. Each and every borrowed book.
It was only a matter of time, but this week one borough in London announced it was considering its very own pilot ‘Big Society’ library. After an extensive consultation period, a committee in Wandsworth Council – governed by 47 Tory councillors and 13 Labour ones – has proposed a plan. In a bid to reach the 27% budgetary cuts it faces over the next four years, it will give York Gardens Library the most politically incorrect makeover in town. Firstly, opening hours will be reduced from 44 to 30 hours a week, community space will be leased out to a private Christian college, the IT training centre will be relocated to another library and the majority of adult books completely removed from the site. Sound good? Of course, the Big Society treatment wouldn’t be complete without throwing in some volunteers. Five library staff will be fired, or “deleted,” to use the council’s terminology, but a children’s homework club will be set up, ensuring of course, local residents aid its running, for free, two or three evenings a week.
Unlike Mr Cameron, Wandsworth council are not denying that their ‘Big Society’ library is connected with the need to cut costs. In fact, they offer it up as an alternative to closing York Gardens and predict, unsurprisingly, that their revamp would save the borough more than £155,000 by 2012. Why this library, you ask? Well, there are eleven libraries in leafy Wandsworth and the one chosen for treatment just so happens to sit in the most deprived ward in town. Residents here earn almost half the income of those in the wealthiest ward and are the most disadvantaged in terms of health, economy, crime and education indicators. This bespoke library just so happens to cater for six times as many Black African and Caribbean people than the one up the road, more disabled people than any other library in the borough and teenagers who are much less likely to have a computer at home. As 44-year-old library user Samuel West asks, “If we are going to ask the community to run a library with volunteers, why not choose the most prosperous area where parents are more likely to have time on their hands?”
Well, West shouldn’t worry. The most prosperous ward has been selected for something – its very own free school. While Wandsworth council are shelling the library in the borough’s most deprived ward, they are hoping to invest £13m in Bolingbroke academy, to be situated in the most privileged. The school would to cost an estimated £6m to run each year, but the same children who are losing IT training in York Gardens Library would not make it past the front gates. All four feeder schools for the academy are based in the wealthiest ward in the borough and a primary school in the poorest has been excluded from the catchment area. Welcome to the Big Society, where you get your very own library and free school, but only if you can afford your own books and private tutors already.
Ed Vaizey said the Big Society would exist when “communities have more of a role in determining the shape of the public service and what it delivers.” What he really means is the Big Society will exist when one community can determine the shape of public services for another. And if Wandsworth is anything to go by, there’s no guessing as to which one gets to make the first move. My advice: Hold onto your books while you can. Who knows when they will be redistributed to the rich man living at the end of your street, to the sounds of a millionaire wailing, “We are all in this together.”Tagged in: big society, david cameron, ed Vaizey, wandsworth council
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