|Herne Hill's Carnegie Library packed with angry residents for a meeting to|
discuss ways of resisting Lambeth's weird 'bookish gym' scheme
The library was packed. It was standing room only. The Lambeth library-using demographic was thoroughly represented, and the crowd, cheerful to begin with, grew increasingly angry as the absurdities of the council scheme, and the real danger of the loss of at least three treasured libraries - were examined in forensic detail by members of the Friends of Carnegie Library, by a Lambeth Unison rep, and by many, many speakers from the floor.
What became clear was that the Lambeth plan to hand three libraries - Carnegie, Tate South Lambeth and the Minet - over to GLL - were not merely unpopular and almost universally derided as "bonkers".
They were also strangely thin on detail - fuelling suspicion that there's a hidden agenda here, and that a real long-term aim could be to flog off some of the buildings (but not until the next local elections are safely in the past, that is post-May 2018).
Such speculation was based on some good digging-up of intelligence: a land registry map of the Minet Library, for example, showed how it was not yet ripe for the property-development plucking, as there are two adjacent residential properties with windows overlooking the site.
Then there was the matter of the formation of a "shadow trust" to run the new "Healthy Living Centres". As the same names of the same councillors cropped up time again, it seemed this was again just a hastily-formulated attempt to formalise the scheme. "Anyone can set up a trust. You just download a form from the Charities Commission, and fill it in."
A degree of scepticism was also noted regarding Lambeth's rejection of the librarians' own proposals to save all ten libraries. Their neat plan to save the requisite cash was rejected for lack of "a proper business plan".
We were then shown the business plan submitted by GLL: looked like one and half sheets of hasty Microsoft Word processing. No detailed financial breakdown. The vagueness of it all - for example, the estimated cost of £1 million per library for conversion into a gym - was perplexing. Normally these planning and property developer deals are very efficiently cloaked in acres of luxuriant verbiage, charts, diagrams, spreadsheets, computer animations, and what have you.
One thing that is clear is that running gyms and leisure centres seems to be a damn good way of minting money. Apparently GLL, the Greenwich Leisure group that has been picked for this plum job, has been embarrassed by the money it has made from running Lambeth's recreation centres, and has generously decided to reinvest a million or so into these new bookish gyms.
The Friends of Carnegie Library were themselves consulting lawyers on the legality of the proposals.
As for the morality of the proposals - well, you don't need a Pope or Archbishop to tell you that the idea of an elected council deciding to dispose of properties that were donated to their local communities by individuals (Carnegie, Tate, William Minet) on strict conditions they should remain as community assets - is not merely wrong.
It is actually - if you'll excuse an outbreak of upper-case - BORDERLINE FREAKING CRIMINAL!
This meeting began at 7pm: by 8pm, when it should have ended, it was just hotting up.
People were volunteering, lists were being drawn up of skills, contacts. A local resident who'd run public consultations on a new park in New York offered to help with drawing up a business plan. A man from Wandsworth Libraries gave an account of their similar struggle two years ago, and how they'd emerged with some success - but only by keeping totally united.
By 8.30, people were arguing the merits of a sleep-in at the Carnegie, should our worst fears be realised, on April 1 2016.
The spirit of 68, or was it 76, or 81, or 89 (do I mean 1989 or 1789? I mean both!) was in the air. It was a brilliant meeting.
The next one is Wednesday 18th, at 6.30 at the Elmgreen School in Tulse Hill.
This is a full council meeting: The Friends of Carnegie and the Save Lambeth Libraries campaign will be handing in their petitions, all of which will have sufficient signatories to ensure the campaigns have the right to send deputations to the meeting. So it will be a crucial one.
PS: People wondering why the council is holding its big meetings in schools were reminded that the main council chamber in Brixton is currently closed. The old Town Hall on the corner of Acre Lane is being redeveloped, and the council is building a new town hall further up Brixton Hill. At some expense. A bit more than the cost of keeping these libraries going….? No, surely not.