Controversy surrounding the proposed changes to Bath Central library has led to the council backtracking their original plans of relocation and planning a shared use of the building without holding a public consultation. Back in December 2016, it was reported that Bath and North East Somerset Council were planning to move the library from its current location in the Podium alongside Waitrose to Lewis House, where other council offices currently are. By January 2017, hundreds of people had signed a petition and prominent authors including Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell have shown their support to keep the library where it is. Director Ken Loach has even been involved and commented at a protest in 2017 that moving the library, which is a ‘big feature in the centre of Bath’ was a ‘bad sign’. It has also been reported that a temporary home for the library, while renovation work is carried out, has still not been secured with staff unaware of where they will be working.
The new plan will see the council’s One Stop Shop services, based in Lewis House, to move in alongside the library. This is the first point of call for residents who need to contact the council for issues ranging for benefits and council housing to disputes and recycling. A similar approach has been taken at the libraries in Keynsham and Weston-super-Mare, though many staff members as well as the public have voiced concerns. With libraries in decline across Britain, regular users are concerned that Bath will join the list of places without access to a professionally-run library. One of Bath’s library branches, Weston, has now been taken over by volunteers after it was threatened with closure.
Originally, the planned move of Bath Central library was planned without consulting the public. An ex-library assistant, who wishes to remain anonymous, commented that the council have been planning a lot of changes to the library service which normally the public would first be consulted on. It has been suggested that in order to save money, the council was planning to avoid a formal consultation – Bath and North East Council declined to comment on this. It has now also been suggested by opposition members within the city council that the proposed merger has sidestepped normal planning procedures and has given the public no chance to comment. However, cabinet member Councillor Karen Warrington called these claims ‘deliberately misleading’ and the council has argued that as the proposals do not constitute a change of use, a certificate of lawfulness is all that is required to bring the One Stop Shop into the Podium, rather than full planning permission.
It’s been revealed by an ex-library worker that a controversial lone-working policy had been suggested as a way of cutting costs. This would have seen the smaller branch at Moorland Road operate with just one member of staff rather than two. This has caused great alarm amongst the staff, especially as concerns have been harshly dismissed as ‘trivial’ by senior managers. It’s reported that when a library staff member raised concerns regarding the number of incidents dealt with on a daily basis in Bath’s libraries – which include violent, aggressive and intimidating members of the public – the response given was that ‘the police lone-work’.
The Save Bath Library Campaign has amassed a huge following on social media and Mary English, founder of the campaign and Secretary of Friends of Bath Podium Library, said: “I know that the library was built specifically to be located exactly where it is. It was purpose-built, so it’s not a ‘belief’ about its location being important, it’s a fact! I have no idea why the council isn’t listening to the residents.”
A former manager of the library, Andy Halliday, commented: “The Podium offers great floor space, a wide variety of books, a super exhibition room and a great children’s area which was redesigned after long consultation with the users. I think it’s a backward step which is detrimental to our city centre library and the culture of the city. Having to reduce the service in the new settings will be harmful to learning for so many people. “
Many questions are still left unanswered with no clue as to where the temporary library will be, how the planned move will be actioned and the council has not provided successful examples of this scenario working within another authority.
Below follows a brief interview with a regular user of Bath Central Library: