Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Library Budgets

22 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson

Witnesses:
Ms Katherine McCloskey ) Belfast Education and Library Board
Ms Rosemary Frawley
Ms Hilary Sloan
Mr Michael McFaul ) North Eastern Education and Library Board
Ms Beth Porter ) South Eastern Education and Library Board
Mr Barry Mulholland ) Western Education and Library Board
Ms Helen Osborne
Mr Peter Aiken ) Southern Education and Library Board
Ms Kathleen Ryan

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome the representatives of the Belfast Education and Library Board. Katherine McCloskey is the chief librarian, Rosemary Frawley is the vice chairperson of the library committee, and Hilary Sloan is a member of the library committee. I refer members to the letter from the chairperson of the Belfast Education and Library Board library committee, which is included in the members’ packs.

Ms Hilary Sloan ( Belfast Education and Library Board):
Thank you. I am a member of the Belfast Education and Library Board with a library interest. For the past year, I have been vice-president of the Association of Northern Ireland Education and Library Boards (ANIELB).

I thank the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for inviting us to attend to outline our concerns regarding the library budget for Belfast.

Before we do so, we must, in general, keep in mind that the present budgets for the Library Service are inadequate to provide what we consider to be a twenty-first century library service for Northern Ireland. All they will do is, possibly, sustain a second-rate library service. Funding of library services in Northern Ireland is well behind that of library services in the rest of the United Kingdom and, according to the comprehensive spending review, actually shows a decline in spending over the next three years, in real terms. That should be noted. Therefore, the crisis in library funding, in which we consider ourselves to be, is likely to deepen in the future. Ms Frawley, the vice-chair of the library committee, will outline some of our specific concerns about the budget for Belfast libraries.

Ms Rosemary Frawley ( Belfast Education and Library Board):
Ms Sloan has referred to the concerns of the NIELB about the overall budget. Belfast has an additional problem with which to deal. In recent years, DCAL has revised the ARNE (assessment of relative needs exercise) formula. That has had implications for the Belfast Education and Library Board and has led to a serious reduction in the library budget. To put that in perspective, the BELB budget in 2003-04 was £6·1 million; in 2008-09, it is £4·8 million. That represents a decrease in funding of 30% over five years. As far as we are aware, that is far in excess of that with which any other body has had to contend. To offset the serious deficiencies in the budget, the chief librarian has already rationalised services and reduced staffing levels, and savings of over £1 million have been made in staffing alone.

There has been considerable pressure on BELB to rationalise the library estate and, recently, many special library committees have dealt with that matter. A rationalisation plan will be completed shortly. However, even if the library estate is reduced by an agreed 25%, the estimated savings will be approximately £224,000. That figure is considerably less than the £1 million that has already been saved by the chief librarian, and is insufficient to keep the Library Service in budget next year.

Our major concern, and the reason for requesting the meeting with the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, is that our projected budget for next year shows a shortfall of £770,000. The impact of that on our library service is devastating.

Ms Katherine McCloskey ( Belfast Education and Library Board):
As Ms Frawley stated, an anticipated reduction of approximately 15% in the Belfast budget for 2008-09 is indicated. That means that our current level of service at all locations is simply unsustainable. We have made year-on-year reductions to live within the declining budget over the past few years. Now staffing levels are at their extreme limit to sustain the current services.

Despite the reduction in funding, BELB has sought to minimise the effect on our front line services. We have tried to make savings in the back-of-house area and others. A reduction in the opening hours and the range of services in many libraries is now unavoidable under the current budgetary constraints. We have had several special library committee meetings in the last weeks to discuss the matter and to agree a way forward.

In addition, a reduction of over £700,000 in the libraries budget will impact on the world-class historical collections in Belfast Central Library. Resources will be inadequate to fund, sustain and preserve those for future generations. Such a reduction will have an irreversible effect on those collections.

At a time when the wonderful Belfast Central Library should be celebrating its 120th anniversary, it will struggle to survive. Our predecessors — who strove to deliver a comprehensive library service for a generation of library users, researchers, students and writers and to preserve the unique memory of our society — would be very disappointed at the fate faced by Belfast Central Library.

In response to being asked exactly what the £770,000 shortfall in funding will mean, we recently submitted a paper to the library committee on the impact on library services, details of which I will leave with the Committee. Certain actions will be imposed on us. For example, a reduction in book funds means that children’s books will not be bought, and that will impact on the reading and literacy levels of pre-school and school children in Belfast. In order to keep to the budget, there will be a reduction in staffing, and that will force the closure of branch libraries across the city for up to three days a week. Newspapers will be cancelled, binding and periodicals will be discontinued, and the newspaper library, which is a major resource, will be under threat, forcing the use of the newspaper resources in Dublin or London. Furthermore, we will be unable to purchase spoken-word tapes for the visually impaired.

The cancellation of business resources such as market-research reports, which are vital to students, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and microcompanies, will have a negative economic effect on Belfast and Northern Ireland. If staffing levels are reduced, outreach work including visits to playgroups, mother-and-toddler groups and schools, will be discontinued, and the programme of classes to improve literacy will be curtailed. If money for maintenance is reduced, there will be less money to spend on the maintenance of our already-dilapidated buildings and grounds, which may lead to health and safety issues for users and staff.

Library staff, out of a sense of public service and commitment to the communities that they served, strove to keep branch libraries open in Belfast and services accessible during the Troubles. Those people would be puzzled by the future faced by library services throughout Northern Ireland at a time when peace and a local administration should herald a golden age for libraries.

Mr K Robinson:
Thank you for that comprehensive overview of what is happening to library services in Belfast. Given that many library buildings are from a previous era, and are very expensive in their upkeep and running costs, is there still scope to rationalise existing buildings into a more modern, effective and flexible type of library without affecting the services even more than you described?

The Chairperson:
Given that time is at a premium, Pat Ramsey will ask his question, which you can answer with Ken’s.

Mr P Ramsey:
We acknowledge that the education and library boards’ representatives have come here at short notice. We too are concerned about the effect of a shortage of funding on the availability of library services. One concern — which you mentioned, although it was not in your letter — is the ARNI formula. What is your justification for changing the formula? To be objective, the Belfast Education and Library Board serves the lowest population of the five board areas, and, if the Government are intent on targeting social deprivation and social need, that must be a high priority in all of the board areas. Therefore, what is your justification for taking money away from, for example, the Western Education and Library Board?

Ms McCloskey:
I do not advocate taking money from the Western Education and Library Board —

Mr P Ramsey:
I used that example because it covers the area that I represent.

Ms McCloskey:
I know that. The Western Education and Library Board may well face a similar situation in the next year, although not as bleak and, perhaps, less quickly.

The basic problem is that libraries do not receive the funding that they deserve. We have benchmarked ourselves against library authorities across the water, such as Liverpool and Bolton, and they spend approximately £25-£28 a head of population on library services, while we spend between £18 and £21. I do not advocate the ARNE formula, because that must be examined so that the funding is there to provide us with a good library service and everyone receives what they require.

Our statistics from 1995-97 showed that we spend £800,000-£900,000 on our book fund. This year I have spent £189,000. The funding has been chipped away; however, if we want a state-of-the-art twenty-first century library service for Northern Ireland the money must be put into it.

The Chairperson:
I thank the Belfast Education and Library Board representatives.

Mr K Robinson:
I did not get an answer to my question.

Ms McCloskey:
We do have some older buildings, and we costed what we would save by closing six of them. The figure was £224,000. Older buildings are not necessarily costly.

A couple of years ago, we submitted a review to the Library committee, and are examining that again. I know all the reasons why we should review the estate, and, as manager of the Library Service, I want the best possible, flexible library service for Belfast, delivered through the best buildings. However, that cannot be done overnight, and certainly cannot be done when the budget is cut year after year.

Mr K Robinson:
The figures that you have quoted will not make a dramatic difference.

Ms McCloskey:
Not in a shortfall of £700,000.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, once again, to the representatives of the Belfast Education and Library Board.

I now welcome the representative from the North Eastern Education and Library Board, Mr Michael McFaul, who is the assistant chief librarian.

Mr Michael McFaul (North Eastern Education and Library Board):
Thank you for inviting me. I apologise that the chairperson of our library committee and our chief librarian were unable to attend.

There has been a long-term decline in the library budget. It is not something that has happened in the last few years. That supports what the Belfast Board representatives said. In 2002, we calculated that the money available for buying book stock in the North Eastern Education and Library Board was less than 25% of what it had been 20 years before.

We became so concerned about the increasingly declining budget that in 2004 we began a major, strategic review of the Library Service in the North Eastern Board area. We were aware that, with 38 service points, we had many more than any of the other boards, and we were finding it very difficult to sustain the service with that network of service points. We decided against carrying out measures that we had used on previous occasions during the 1990s when the budget was under severe pressure, such as completely eliminating our book fund, carrying out ad hoc closures of branches or reducing our opening hours, because we found that they were self-defeating, and always ended in borrowers leaving the service, not to return.

We carried out an extensive review of the service, and took a proposal to our library committee. The situation was so serious that we either had to close some of our service points or make several staff compulsorily redundant. That was the stark reality.

There were other minor cost-saving measures, but those were the two significant ones. They were all designed to preserve the stock fund, so that we could carry out the purchasing of book stock, which is, after all, what libraries are for.

We carried out an extensive public consultation, the result of which was that, in 2005, we were forced to close nine of our smallest branches. We followed that with a major restructuring of the service, involving redundancies, mainly in the middle-management grades. The net result is that, in three or four years, we have managed to bring our staff costs down from 75% of the overall recurrent budget to about 60%. We have reduced our middle-management posts from 31 in 2005 to 19 in 2007. We have managed to increase opening hours in some of our branch libraries, in line with our overall strategic plan, and we are able to meet the targets that the Department has set for stock purchasing.

However, I must stress that existing budget levels — never mind the proposed draft budget levels — are totally insufficient to maintain a service that will meet future customer expectations. Our service merely survives; there is no room at all for any meaningful service development and, importantly, our libraries are far behind in the adoption of current technologies to assist with service delivery.

We have been forced to make so many staff redundant that our staffing levels in branch libraries are as low as they can be. We still have single staffing in many of our smaller branch libraries. When permanent staff are away for any reason — whether absent on sick leave, annual leave or for training purposes — it is almost automatic that agency workers must be brought in to cover for them and keep service points operating. We have real problems. Staffing levels are now so low that we are just about able to keep the service going, but there is little time to provide advice and support, or the added-value services that must be provided in a dynamic library service of the future.

One of the saddest things that we had to do on carrying out our review was to close two branch library learning centres that we had opened with the assistance of New Opportunities funding. They had been very successful; we had long waiting lists of members of the community anxious to undertake programmes that we had set up. However, with the resources available, we were simply unable to carry on, and we had to close those learning centres. It was most unfortunate.

In the new financial year, if this budget goes ahead, we will be unable to implement all the planned increases in opening hours of branch libraries. We will be able to operate a library service on a flat level, which over time, will decline more and more. Although I make the case that we have done our best to cope with, and live within, our budget, I do not wish to imply that we are satisfied with the situation. We support the other boards in making the case today.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Michael. Two members will ask questions.

Mr K Robinson:
I thank Mr McFaul for coming along and depressing us even further.

You have painted a clear picture of what has been happening. I have never forgiven you for closing Monkstown Library and the community high school. The area has not recovered from it.

Mr McFaul:
I did not do it personally.

Mr K Robinson:
I never before heard it called a “service point”: you use interesting technical language.

Can you see any way out of this decline? Obviously, the north eastern board area has a fairly widespread population, which you try to service equally across the board area. We felt that the urban part of the board was easy to pick off and that the rural communities would not be picked off. However, from what you have said today, there will be no improvement, despite everything you have done to reduce staff and costs. You are at rock-bottom now. Are we now looking at further substantial closures, even in rural areas?

Mr McFaul:
No. We are in a position where we are able to motor along at the bottom, and I do not foresee us making any further closures. To some extent, some of our closures were inevitable, as we had branch libraries open in areas where they would not normally have existed, perhaps in areas of very small population. Even having closed nine libraries, we still have significantly more branches than any of the other boards. We are certainly do not anticipate any further closures.

Mr K Robinson:
It is hands off Cloughfern library as well?

The Chairperson:
I admire your magnanimity in going beyond parochialism, Ken.

Mr K Robinson:
My point is that we try to encourage people to use libraries — particularly young people — and here are examples of centres, where young people were available; where they had learning difficulties and where they needed that extra support. We talk about children’s funds and so on and yet, when we get down to the coalface, a facility is taken out of an area. I have a very strong interest in another library, because, when it was burned down, I insisted that the Board rebuild it, and that was done. Given the picture that you paint, I am fearful that even that sort of library, and investment, may go at some point in the future.

Mr McFaul:
I assure you that there are no plans for that in the case of Cloughfern. In fact, Cloughfern was not even on the original list of 12 libraries.

Mr P Ramsey:
I am trying to distinguish between the introduction of efficiency savings, as a result of the single authority being brought in, and the present Budget, because there is a crisis. The incoming chief executive talked to the Committee last week about enhanced library provision across Northern Ireland — greater access; greater participation; disabled groups; women; immigrants — and one would have thought that new money was being put on the table. However, I fear that that is not the case.

In terms of redundancies under the single authority, as a result of cutbacks, do you fear staff resources being removed as well?

Mr McFaul:
We are not in a position to make further redundancies at the moment. Our staffing levels are as low as they could possibly be in the existing structure. I cannot second guess what might happen under a new authority, however, under the existing staffing structure, there is very little room for movement. We do not anticipate further redundancies in the near future.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Michael for coming along today.

We shall now hear from Ms Beth Porter, chief librarian of the South Eastern Education and Library Board, who is very welcome.

Ms Beth Porter (South Eastern Education and Library Board):
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee on the budget. I bring apologies from the commissioners and from my chief executive, who could not attend today.

I am here to convey the commissioners’ disquiet about the draft Budget proposals for the public library service. I, and my officers, share this disquiet, particularly regarding the allocation for the South Eastern Education and Library Board.

It has been helpful, somewhat early in the process, to have had sight of the potential allocations for the coming year, because that has enabled us to look at the impact on our services, and, I suppose, to be prepared for occasions like today. We are aware that the potential figures could have changed following the outcome of your consultation process; however, it is our hope that, by making robust representations about the effect of such poor settlements on our ability to maintain the current levels of service around access, stock and staff, that there will, perhaps, be a change for the better.

It perhaps serves to remind all of us that libraries contribute — if I may quote from your Programme for Government —

“to a peaceful, fair and prosperous society”

and to all the other strategic priorities in that programme. We provide innovative services and programmes across information, learning and culture. We support children, young people, the elderly, learners — I could go on — and we help to develop the skills-base and the well-being of individuals and communities. All of that is done in a neutral and welcoming environment.
Perhaps I do not need to persuade you of that; sometimes I like to repeat it to myself.

Furthermore, that contribution can be enhanced through the establishment of the Northern Ireland Library Authority; however, crucially, we believe that it will be diminished by the proposed reduction in funding over the next three years.

The effect in the short term — 2008 and 2009 — as boards work to keep within their budget limits, will be measures with an adverse impact on service provision across Northern Ireland. In the longer term — from April 2009 on — the ability of the new library authority to deliver on its full potential may be affected.

The Southern Education and Library Board worked out the sums on the basis of the potential allocation for next year. There is no doubt that the result is disheartening. The figures show a potential decrease of 2·6 %, which is equivalent to approximately £138,000. That is nowhere near the sort of cut that the Belfast Education and Library Board faces; however, I shall explain the considerable steps that our Board had to take in previous years. In real terms, of course, that decrease is closer to 5% for the Board.

The allocation is disheartening because, in 2005-06, we, like the North Eastern Education and Library Board, conducted a major review of our library service to prepare for an adverse outcome from 2006-07 on, particularly given the movement around the ARNE process, and because we had had signs of a poor indicative budget settlement for 2008-09.

We put in place a range of measures that were similar to those that the Committee has just heard about. We reduced our staff complement, which affected the way in which we could open our libraries and manage those services. We moved £450,000 out of the staffing budget, to be spent mainly on our stock budget in order to meet the Department’s target for that key objective. It was a target that we too felt had to be met. That entailed a major public consultation exercise, considerable movement of staff, and changes in our opening hours, which were reduced for a few hours in some cases and throughout the week in others, and we are still waiting to see how that beds down. We took major steps in those years to prepare for what is in place at the moment, and to meet the key objectives of the ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’ policy document.

The commissioners believe that the potential allocation of just over £5 million for 2008-09 presents difficulties for the Board. To continue to live within the budget and meet the target of improving the book stock would result in a further diminution of the service. There have been immense improvements, however, because we, in particular, had had real difficulties, perhaps over and above those previously experienced by the other boards, and we had quite a bit of time to make up. We must keep to the set targets.

The measures to put in place would have to include taking £70,000 from maintenance spending and reducing that to a minimal figure. We would have to run without a contingency fund, and we would have to achieve further staff efficiencies. We have run what we consider to be an efficient staffing complement since the measures were put in place in 2005-06. Apart from some work that we could do with our headquarters establishment, those changes would, if we had to go further, impact on the service delivery to the public. I am sure that the Committee does not wish us to be in that position and neither do we.

In conclusion, the proposed allocations for 2008-09 may result in fundamental change to the size and the range of library services in some boards, as we all struggle to live within budget. However, if there is no prospect of real-terms improvement in subsequent years, the effect may also impact on the new library authority, as I said earlier. It would be more than disappointing if the authority was not able to fulfil its potential because of lack of funding.

Mr K Robinson:
Thank you for your presentation. Did you have to close libraries, as other boards have had to do?

Ms Porter:
The new Lisburn library was opened at the same time as the Board’s estate building programme, which had been sought after for 30 years. Two smaller libraries in that area were closed, because the new service point in the city of Lisburn was much larger and more efficient. As part of the review of the span of opening hours across the Board, and during the public consultation in 2006, we reduced those hours, with considerable pain, in four small, part-time libraries. We changed the opening hours in, more or less, all the rest of our libraries, increasing some and keeping others the same. We moved the range of opening hours during the week, allowing us to use our staff more effectively. That process entailed the relocation and redeployment of staff from headquarters and several branch libraries. That was not as easily effected in rural areas as in the city, where the city perimeter made the move logistically simpler for staff.

Mr K Robinson:
My former colleague, Billy Bell, would be delighted to hear the Lisburn City Library being mentioned at this table. Thank you.

The Chairperson:
Beth, in your experience of library provision, are increasing numbers of migrant workers and ethnic minorities availing themselves of Library Services? If so, how has that changed things for the board?

Ms Porter:
A fair number of migrant workers and their families use the libraries, particularly the larger ones that provide more services and have longer opening hours. They make particular use of the electronic services and the facilities for children. We have had to change the range of books that we stock and ensure that our staff are up to speed with the needs and the interests of the people concerned.

I do not want to harp on about Lisburn in particular; however, because of that library’s size, it has been interesting to see how much it has been used by the fairly large population of migrant workers in that area. The library extended its opening hours and now has the longest opening-hour regime of any South Eastern Education and Library Board library, which helps those migrant workers who do shift work, as they can use the facilities until quite late at night.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your presentation.

We shall now hear from representatives of the Western Education and Library Board. I welcome Helen Osborne, the chief librarian and Barry Mulholland, the chief executive. The Committee has received a letter from Bill Riley, the chairman of the board’s library committee, who apologises for his unavoidable absence and reinforces the points that Helen Osborne will make.

Mr Barry Mulholland (Western Education and Library Board):
Thank you, and I thank the Committee for inviting us to make our presentation. Bill Riley would have liked to be here today; however, as the Chairperson said, the letter outlines his concerns.

Geographically, the Western Education and Library Board is the largest in Northern Ireland: it caters for a population of 290,000 and is coterminous with five district councils: Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Derry and Limavady. The board operates 15 libraries, the Centre for Migration Studies and seven mobile libraries. The board covers urban and rural areas, containing some of the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland.

We have heard colleagues express the difficulties in the various board areas. I will not rehearse those difficulties because they are common to ours in the west; however, I make one point. We recognise the genuine difficulties that the revised ARNE formula, which has been phased in over several years, presents to the Belfast Education and Library Board. In saying that, however, any reversal to the ARNE formula would have an impact on the Western Board, possibly doubling the difficulties that we will now outline.

The difficulties that have been created for the Belfast Education and Library Board must be recognised in an effective formula that allows Belfast to be funded on the basis of objective need. Helen will talk through the difficulties in the Western Education and Library Board’s situation.

The Chairperson:
Before that, will the person whose mobile phone is on, please switch it off? Mobile phones interfere with the recording equipment in the room, and, at the start of the meeting, I asked that they all be switched off. Please do not think that I am blaming you, Mr Mulholland.

[Laughter.]

However, any phone interference may have done you a disservice by making what you said to the Committee indistinct.

Ms Helen Osborne (Western Education and Library Board):
Thank you. Some 512 library customers in the Western Board area submitted comments on the draft Budget. I hope that a small sample of those comments has been made available to members.

Those submissions indicate the broad range of library users, which includes children and young people, parents, carers, the unemployed, ethnic minorities, learners and older people. They also show how libraries can contribute to the aims of the draft Programme for Government with regard to skills, education, community cohesion, and development.

Perhaps what the submissions do not show is an issue that the chairman of the Western Education and Library Board’s library committee referred to in his letter regarding the support that libraries give to the economy, which is clearly a key theme in the draft Budget. Libraries also contribute to health, and that is well documented — some 10% of library use relates to health and well-being.

Given those customer views, and the clear contribution that libraries make to the aims of the Programme for Government, it is extremely disappointing that the draft Budget allocates significantly less a head of population to public libraries than the UK average. That is a substantial cut in funding. The draft Budget indicates a 2·2% increase for libraries for 2008-09. However, that includes a necessary sum for initial expenditure on the new library authority. Therefore, the sum available to the five boards for 2008-09 is actually £500,000 less than for 2006-07. Taking inflation into account, that represents a cut, in real terms, of almost 5%, which — as we have heard from the representatives of the other boards — will make it impossible to maintain the current levels of access to services and expenditure on new stock.

Some of the other boards’ representatives outlined their rationalisation plans. Of the five boards, the Western Education and Library Board has the smallest number of branch libraries and has reviewed its provision. It did that by establishing a policy that was designed to provide equity of service across the whole board area. That policy links the level of provision to the catchment area served and sets a minimum distance between libraries. Moreover, it takes account of social need and community identity.

In implementing that policy, the Western Education and Library Board closed one branch library and took two mobile libraries off the road. As a result, there is no further scope for reducing service provision without introducing inequalities.

I have focused on the allocation for 2008-09. Clearly, looking beyond that, the draft Budget is equally bleak. Without adequate resources, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) will not achieve its potential.

Finally, the Western Education and Library Board welcomes the significant capital investment that is planned for libraries from 2009 onwards, but is concerned that, as yet, there is no provision in the draft Budget 2008-09 for plans for the Newtownstewart and Dungiven libraries. Projects, which are at a late stage of development, are ready to be rolled out, if only the funding were available.

Mr McCausland:
I can assure Helen that the Committee has heard about Dungiven library on several occasions. What amount is being given towards the Centre for Migration Studies library?

Ms Osborne:
Under ARNE, £100,000 will be given to the Centre for Migration Studies.

Mr P Ramsey:
I thank the witnesses for attending today. It is important to acknowledge and highlight the issues that have been raised, so that we can hope to be of some comfort. This Committee previously talked about the importance of ensuring that the same access to libraries is retained, particularly in rural areas. I am disappointed to hear of mobile libraries being closed down.

Could we again distinguish between preparing for the establishment of the library authority and the draft Budget? Wearing a cynical hat, I am worried that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is trying to place the boards on a crisis footing, so that when the new single library authority is established, it will be like a breath of fresh air.

Irene Knox, the chief executive designate of the new library authority, attended last week’s Committee meeting. She spoke of enhanced services and of addressing the literacy and numeracy issues. If the lack of funding continues, will there be further redundancies in the service? Furthermore, in revenue terms, will there be no book buying? What does it mean?

Ms Osborne:
The Western Education and Library Board will have a shortfall next year.

The Chairperson:
I apologise for interrupting you, but we are experiencing interference with the audio system. Please ensure that all mobile phones are switched off.

Ms Osborne:
Next year, there will be a shortfall of £200,000 to £250,000, depending on the precise outworkings of the budget. That is equivalent to the running costs of four small branch libraries. It will be up to the board and its library committee to take a view on how to live within budget. Several options must be considered in relation to branch library provision, expenditure on stock and staffing levels. However, none of the options is good.

The Chairperson:
The Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, will make a statement in the Assembly today. It is my understanding that there is a reference to libraries in that statement. That has not been quantified, but, later this week, the Committee will have an opportunity to speak to finance officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure about what it will mean for libraries, and we can all pay attention.

Thank you for coming along today and for sharing your thoughts with us.

I welcome the representatives from the Southern Education and Library Board. Kathleen Ryan is the chief librarian and Peter Aiken is the chairperson of the library committee.

Mr Peter Aiken (Southern Education and Library Board):
Thank you for inviting us to attend today. We welcome the opportunity to talk to the Committee about the Southern Education and Library Board’s budget.

In 2004, the board began to rationalise its public library services, as it was underfunded and was unable to purchase books. We created a new structure, which removed nine posts from stock services at headquarters. In 2005, a further nine posts were removed from the structure, which created savings of approximately £250,000.

In the 2006-07 financial year, the Southern Education and Library Board received funding using, for the first time, the ARNE formula, which is related to population size. That enabled us to provide — and exceed — the book fund target and to catch up on several years of extremely poor stock expenditure. We rationalised further and lost another post at headquarters in the middle of the year.

In 2006 the Southern Education and Library Board carried out a comprehensive customer survey, which showed a large demand for evening opening. We continued to rationalise the service during 2007-08. Mobile library services have been streamlined, allowing for the reduction of one vehicle in the fleet of mobile libraries. One small part-time branch library was closed, and two further posts were lost at headquarters. Two of the seven largest of the board’s libraries now open for four late evenings every week, and the Library Service hopes to extend that to all its larger libraries in the coming years. However, that will depend on finance.

There is a direct relationship between stock bought and books issued. In 2007-08, we will have met the book fund target set by the Department for the second year running. There have been increases in the issues developed through the first three quarters of 2007-08. The change in the ARNE formula has enabled us to rebalance according to population size. It puts the Southern Education and Library Board in the least difficult position of all of the boards. However, the budget shows a 0·35% increase. Allowing for inflation, we will still have to find approximately 2·5% of savings, which equates to approximately £200,000. We want to meet public need and to have the services open when they are required. The board’s smaller public libraries in rural areas open only for three to four days a week. We struggle to keep all the libraries open when there are staff shortages.

Chairman and members, thank you for receiving us. If you have any questions, we will endeavour to answer them.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. Do you wish to add anything, Kathleen?

Ms Kathleen Ryan (Southern Education and Library Board):
Given the population rebalance for the last two years and for the coming year, the SELB is in the best position of all of the boards. We are very pleased, because, before that, there was such a serious decline in the use of our libraries. Over the last 18 months library use has started to increase, and book loans went up by 8% in the last quarter. That shows that reasonable investment in libraries is appreciated by the public, with increased use.

Mr D Bradley:
Good afternoon, Ms Ryan and Peter. I corresponded with you recently about that very issue. Despite the fact that the SELB has not been hit as badly as other boards, £200,000 is a considerable sum. In your correspondence to me, you said that you would have to achieve savings by further streamlining headquarters and support services, which would leave you struggling to keep libraries open at times of staff shortages. Can you give me examples of what you mean by further streamlining of headquarters and support services?

Ms Ryan:
Technology is changing the way in which we buy books. There is much more automated, on-line ordering. That is happening in all five boards. We are also aware that, if there is a new library authority, there will be only one headquarters. Therefore, we seek to cut some additional posts in headquarters next year in order to meet, at least, some of the necessary savings, while keeping one eye on the formation of a new NILA one year after that. The board is convinced that having one Library Service for Northern Ireland will facilitate savings and benefits and equity over all, so we try to focus savings while looking forward.

Mr D Bradley:
Will those jobs be cut through voluntary redundancies?

Ms Ryan:
Yes.

Mr K Robinson:
Regarding the three- or four-day opening, will the physical structure of your branch libraries become run down when they are being used only part of the time? For example, the heating will be off when the building is not being used. Will that not cause deterioration of the buildings’ fabric and greater maintenance costs?

Ms Ryan:
Part-time libraries are not as cost-effective as bigger libraries, but small rural communities want their libraries just as much. It is difficult to achieve a balance. However, for the last two years, because ARNE finally gave the southern board a more equitable share of the libraries budget, we have been able to increase our maintenance budget.

Mr K Robinson:
Presumably, if the building is properly maintained, the stock in it is safeguarded, and there is no fluctuation in temperatures and so on.

Mr Aiken:
Last year, we closed one small, part-time branch library. The library at Moneymore was also on the closure list, but it was good that the local community rallied round to encourage people to use it more. The community recently made a presentation to the library committee, which showed that there is much concern in rural communities and that people are endeavouring to make greater use of the libraries in that area.

The Chairperson:
Just for the benefit of Peter, Kathleen and the other delegations that are present, Wallace Browne has kindly passed to us the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s 17-page statement, with which we are all wrestling this morning. It is being delivered in the Chamber, as we speak, accompanied by the larger Budget document.

Our Committee Clerk has had a quick scan of the statement for references to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The statement says that:

“the Executive has agreed an additional allocation to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure of £2 million in each of the next two years to address the concerns expressed during the public consultation process relating to Arts, as well as Sports and Library funding.”

The Committee will want to quantify that this week as the situation develops. The Department will also receive:

“an additional £5 million for the Creative Industries Seed Fund;”

Additional money is coming to DCAL, with a reference to libraries. I am sure that it will not be enough to meet all of the Department’s requirements, but we will pay attention to that on Thursday 24 January, when Mr Anthony Carleton and other DCAL financial officials attend the Committee. Libraries will be to the forefront of our minds when we pose questions to the officials. I thank Peter and Kathleen for their attendance today.

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