Controversy surrounding the proposed changes to Bath Central library has led to the council putting plans of a shared use of the building on hold. Their original plan of relocation was met with criticism so it was decided to merge other council services with the library, without holding a public consultation. This has now been put on hold due to budget concerns. A statement released by the council commented: ‘The council remains committed to a library at the Podium in Bath and its successful wider Modern Libraries programme of capital investment to secure the future of the library service in Bath and North East Somerset.’
In December 2016, 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 are. By January 2017, hundreds of people had signed a petition and prominent authors including Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell had shown their support to keep the library where it is. Film director Ken Loach became 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’.
The new plans involved 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 library in Keynsham, though many staff members as well as the public had voiced concerns. With libraries in decline across Britain, regular users were concerned that Bath will join the list of places without access to a professionally-run library. One of Bath’s library branches, Weston, has been taken over by volunteers after it was threatened with closure.
Originally, the intended 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 be consulted about and asked for feedback.
It has been suggested by opposition members within the city council that the proposed merger had sidestepped normal planning procedures and gave the public no chance to comment. Lib Dem Councillor Richard Samuel said to SomersetLive: ‘The Conservatives appear willing to use any means necessary to avoid public scrutiny, including bypassing the normal planning process. This is a shameless attempt to avoid having to face objectors in a public meeting.’ However, cabinet member Councillor Karen Warrington called these claims ‘deliberately misleading’ and the council has argued that as the proposals did not constitute a change of use, a certificate of lawfulness is all that would be required to bring the One Stop Shop into the Podium, rather than full planning permission.
It’s been revealed by the anonymous 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 caused great alarm amongst the staff, especially as concerns were harshly dismissed as ‘trivial’ by senior managers. “On a daily basis in this busy city-centre library, we deal with multiple violent incidents and aggressive members of the public. A colleague of mine spoke to a senior manager regarding their concerns about lone-working and the response given was that ‘the police lone-work’. We are not trained police-officers but library assistants.”
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, commented about the original plans to move the library: “The library has worked very well since the 1990s, everyone is happy with it…why can’t it stay the way it is? 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 will be harmful to learning for so many people. “
Many questions are now left unanswered with no clue as to if or when the planned merger will happen – the council has still not provided successful examples of this scenario working within another authority.
Below follows a brief interview with a regular user of Bath Central Library and Sports Studies student, Samuel James, aged 26.