Following the fantastic news that, after months of hard work and dedication, we are able to keep open all of the 11 libraries that were at risk of closure, it saddens me to read people referring to it as the council making a U-turn. This devalues the thorough consultation we engaged in but also re-affirms to me that some of the more vocal, radical campaigners were simply using this issue to drive their own political agenda.
It must have been very easy for people to get lost in the controversy and hypocrisy which has been drummed up over the last couple of months by politically motivated protests but, with the benefit of hindsight, I would hope people can now see the facts that were always there.
That is why over the last eight months the team at the Council have been working tirelessly with organisations and others to find solutions to continue delivering excellent services.
So, while people protested and told us how unfair it was, telling us to not close them, telling us to ignore the government and set an illegal budget, we looked for opportunities, worked with organisations, created partnerships and reached a position where we can now keep all 11 of the libraries open.
To have people claim we have made a U-turn when clearly we have made £1.7 million savings from eight months of negotiating new arrangements is political tripe.
The very people who make this point have, I believe, behaved in a despicable way – even engaging schoolchildren as young as six and seven, using templates to write to me about the libraries, knowing full well they cannot understand the complexities of the financial situation we are in as the savage cuts bite hard on our city and its people. That kind of politics, the politics that exploits children, is unforgivable.
These people also smear, lie and distort for their own ends. Alan Gibbons claims in the Echo, that four weeks ago I said there was no alternative to closure and therefore public pressure had changed my mind. You will note that Mr Gibbons writes fantasy and fiction. At no time did I say any such thing. Why would I, when four weeks ago we were close to reaching deals that would keep seven of our libraries open?
Of course, over the last few months, we have listened to people’s opinions, genuine people who were concerned and offered solutions and I thank them for all their help. And of course people are well within their rights to protest and march – but the reality is that petitions didn’t save the libraries, nostalgia didn’t save the libraries, banners and blogs didn’t save the libraries. What did save the libraries was months of dedication and hard work by Cllr Wendy Simon and officers at the City Council. They deserve the credit for a phenomenal job that we should all be immensely proud of.
Despite the drastic 58% cut to our funding from the coalition government, I am proud of our city’s record on protecting services, finding ways to work differently, using our invest to earn capacity, we’ve managed to protect day nurseries and adult services and identified private organisations to take on our golf courses. They weren’t U-turns, it’s just how we have been forced to do business now.
So before there are any further claims about U-turns let me be clear on our Children’s Centres. We are in negotiations now with schools, the CCG and other partners and have been for months on trying to find a way of protecting as many of our Children’s Centres as we can. If we don’t find arrangements then all but four centres will close. Unpalatable but it’s the harsh reality we face. We are in negotiations over leisure facilities and I mention it because the same principle applies. We need to work with suitable partners to try to avoid closure because this is realistically the only option to overcome the financial situation we’ve been forced into.
We’ve been looking for options to avoid closures ever since the proposals were announced. Whilst the short term political opportunists were scoring their points, my administration was getting on with the business of leadership and finding solutions to desperate situations. I think our residents will prefer our way of working.