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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Council unmoved by 10,000 signature library petitions: welcome to local democracy, Lambeth style

All in vain? Two weeks of protests, petitioning, marches and meetings
and have failed to sway Lambeth councillors, who last night voted
through proposals to convert "at least two" libraries into bookish gyms
So, it was to be a climax. A full meeting of the council of the London Borough of Lambeth, with its plans for the future of the borough's library service on the agenda.

The opponents of the proposals were there to submit petitions with 10,000 plus signatures from Lambeth residents, none of whom want their local libraries to be closed or turned into gyms. How could this not make a seismic impact on the assembled councillors who witnessed it?

Well, as we all very rapidly learned, it was actually very easy for the councillors to take no notice of the public (oh, the ones who pay tax and vote) and to carry on just as if they were in some private club, with a few oiks pressing their noses up against the windows.

In fact we were in Elmgreen School in Tulse hill. A smart new building, very light and spacious, with a hall big enough, it seems for 1,000 school kids. But tonight it is arranged so that the public gallery is squeezed up against one wall. The Mayor of Lambeth and the officers are up on the stage, the councillors arranged in some sort of occult crop circles below, with the golden mace as a focal point.

All this ceremony and symbolism does have a good purpose - it's to remind the elect that they are no longer just themselves, but representatives of their electorate. They have been granted power, but it is entirely dependent on the trust of th epeople who voted for them.

Sorry. You can tell it is many decades since I last attended a full council meeting…and it is with renewed respect for local news reporters that I continue this personal account of my disappointment as a witness of Lambeth Council on the 18th November, 2015.

A good local reporter has to deal with this quasi-masonic ritualistic stuff all the time. They know how to decode some of the more runic exchanges, and how and when to challenge when something needs challenging. And, talking of good local reporters - read the Crystal Palace News service account of last night's proceedings.

As for the rest of us - well, there's heckling, and silent protest.

First up, however, was a "debate" on the refugee crisis, with input from invited experts - the  South London Refugee Association and the Calais Action group.  Lip service was paid, of course it was, to their excellent work, and to Lambeth's pledge to house 10 refugee families. A powerful address came from Unjum Mirza, a Brixton-based tube driver, a child of refugee parents, who invited councillors to join him on his next trip to experience the reality of the Calais refugee camps.

Other deputations made their cases, and were politely ushered away with soft reassurances that their  concerns had been noted.

Then came the Save Lambeth Libraries deputation. Its chair, Laura Swaffield, presented the case against the proposed changes with such eloquence and controlled passion that you felt certain that heads, and hearts and minds of the assembled council would surely be turned.

How could they not see that everything that is so good about public libraries in Lambeth has been built up over decades by professional and dedicated library staff working within their communities, and that  at least half of this is about to be swept away?

Sadly, the answer was: very easily. Because here we are in a separate bubble world, a council chamber, even though a temporary one - it's not the real world.

And so, for all the passion and the truths, the heckling and the placards and the signatures, the councillors were unmoved.

Yes, welcome to local democracy, London style, 2015 style. This was Alice in Wonderland meets Oliver Twist. We in the public gallery were Oliver, being told very clearly by the Red or Blue or even Orange Queen that we must not on any account ask for "More!" Or even,  for what we had already.

We did our bit of chanting and holding up of placards; it was a bit like being at a pantomime. And the mayor smiled for a while and then hh-hmmd a bit and things went back to normal.

In the background, Mad Hatters, Tweedles Dum and Dee and other upside-down characters, nodded away. It was clear that really we did not count for very much at all.

Given the effort involved in collecting those 10,000 plus signatures so deftly brushed aside by the architect of the  Culture 2020 libraries plan, Cllr Jane Edbrooke, it's surprising anger wasn't even more strongly expressed.

But this evening, red and blue were inverted. The Labour council made a good shot at putting forward a version of John Major-era Tory ideas about libraries being marvellous things, but just not possible any more. The Tory opposition were for a while sounding like Atlee-era socialists: libraries are a vital part of democracy. That £4million  is "a drop in the ocean!" Of course we can afford them, especially as our economy is doing so splendidly and we have a such a marvellously generous government!

Yes, you can see why there was a certain discomfort on the public benches. It got to the point where we were applauding the tall tory and booing Labour councillors. This cannot be right!

It was not right. And it got more and more wrong. Shouts of "Shame on you" greeted the rushed voting, which saw the anti-library cuts motion brushed into the waste bin.

Should we have been reassured that at least this council is not going to let Boris Johnson and his pals push on with the expensive and annoying Garden Bridge project, because a least Lambeth has the unique power to stop it, at least from the south bank perspective?

Well, I'd love to know. Because Lambeth leader Lib Peck's response was so fast and so opaque…that I have not the faintest idea whether her answer was yes, no or something much ruder.

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