In an article in the UK Daily Telegraph, Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the Local Government Association and the most senior figure in British local government from the Conservative administration, has called for UK library services to be substantially outsourced to volunteers. This despite the fact that British governments have a statutory obligation to provide adequate library services.
“In some parts of the country at least, there is a growing sense of optimism about the nation’s finances,” he declares, but adds, “for the public services which underpin most people’s daily lives, the immediate future remains a huge challenge.”
And it’s curious that Cockell repeatedly calls for library services to be pulled back even “as the economy steadily improves.” I suspect he’s concerned not to be too pessimistic and undermine his own party in government, but it seems an odd time to insist that: “The public’s expectations need … to be grounded in a new reality. ” Then again, he declares, “when central government is bold and gets behind our efforts to take people with us, we can really make a difference and embrace the opportunities for change.” So it seems he’s using the financing pressures to drive people into the arms of new opportunities. “We are long overdue a fundamental reform of how public money is allocated and spent.”
Cockell says more in the same vein: “Local government is well used to having open and frank discussions with its residents about where the role of the individual ends and the state begins. In recent years, as an alternative to closure, many libraries have been moving towards a self-service culture with a greater role for volunteers.” Some might think it irresponsible to make local library services the testing ground for a debate over the role of the state, especially given the legal obligations on local and central government. But not in Cockell’s view, apparently.