Cutting mobile libraries ‘a disaster for rural communities’

mobile_library07:20 Friday 6th November 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: County councillors were meeting earlier on this week to talk about which services might have to be cut or reduced. They face of course a big budget deficit. And it was the issue of mobile libraries in Cambridgeshire that provoked the most debate. Cutting the service would save £160,000 over two years. You’ll remember that next year the County Council is looking to save £41 million. One councillor said these savings would be small but the damage would be costly. Another said that mobile libraries were dinosaurs of the past, and that services should be delivered in another way. So with the vans looking to be one of the first battlegrounds of the budget negotiations, our political reporter Hannah Olsson went to see one in action, as it stopped at Windsor Court in Somersham.
DRIVER: Welcome aboard. Nice to see you.
HANNAH OLSSON: It may be a very grey wet miserable day, but even as the van is pulling up, the ladies are ready with their bags of books.
READER: I only read at night. A little bit of sex.
HANNAH OLSSON: Really! How convenient is it that the library comes to you?
READER: Oh it’s lovely. I don’t know what we’d do without him.
HANNAH OLSSON: You’ve got a big pile of books there. What are you getting out today?
READER: That particular author, J.D.Robb, he’s very kindly getting me these ones in the order they’ve been printed.
HANNAH OLSSON: Norma, you’ve got a big pile of books there. You’re weighed down. How many have you got today?
NORMA: There’s my bag what I bring back down there.
HANNAH OLSSON: There’s probably .. a dozen books in there?
NORMA: About that. It’s like that every time. Well I don ‘t sleep at night, so I read at night, during the night. And I’d be lost without it.
HANNAH OLSSON: What sort of books do you get?
NORMA: Mills & Boons. I’m all Mills & Boons.
HANNAH OLSSON: This service. I think Norma, if they got rid of it, it would save about £160,000 over two years. Do you think it’s worth that money?
NORMA: Yes it is. We worked all our life so why shouldn’t we get some benefit out of it.
DRIVER: Can I offer to help you down with your bags? Thank you so much.
NORMA: Thank you.
HANNAH OLSSON: David Hamilton is a mobile librarian. He’s been helping these ladies out today. He’s been part of the library service for thirty years, and shows me around.
DAVID HAMILTON: We’ve got a range of non-fiction titles and fiction titles.
HANNAH OLSSON: Behind us here we’ve got all the children’s picture books.
DAVID HAMILTON: The book section for the very young children.
HANNAH OLSSON: And even some DVDs around the corner.
DAVID HAMILTON: DVDs as well as the audio books of course.
HANNAH OLSSON: So we’re at a care home today, some residential flats. Is that some of your stops?
DAVID HAMILTON: In fact there are a couple of days when I actually devote to just doing the care homes.
HANNAH OLSSON: The ladies that were coming on earlier, they’re taking out a lot of books, aren’t they?
DAVID HAMILTON: Their satisfaction is reading. It’s almost like a hobby to them.
HANNAH OLSSON: So this is just one of the vans that travels around Cambridgeshire. Christine May is the Head of Communities and Cultural Services.
CHRISTINE MAY: We’ve got four vehicles altogether, three of which are out full time on the roads, and another which works part-time.
HANNAH OLSSON: And they cover so many villages, don’t they?
CHRISTINE MAY: They do. 245 villages, stopping at 421 locations. So yes, it’s really extensive.
HANNAH OLSSON: Although obviously the books are the primary reason of going round, today we’ve got this winter health bag, which has got lots of leaflets and a cup of tea that they can have. Is that also important? It’s kind of the Council’s link to these communities?
CHRISTINE MAY: Yes. When I first got to know the mobile service, I really felt this is more a social service really, because of the highly personal nature of it. And we’re giving out information as you can see on the notices behind you there, particularly health information and information aimed at older people and young families. As part of the options looking forward we’re also talking to some of our partner services about whether there’s an option to do more with the mobile services, those that remain.
HANNAH OLSSON: When are you likely to come back again?
DAVID HAMILTON: The next visit is scheduled on Wednesday 2nd December.
READER: Right. Thank you very much. See you then.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Our reporter Hannah Olsson there, catching up with the mobile library at Windsor Court in Somersham. Well councillor Ian Bates is a Conservative who represents the Hemingfords ward. And Ian, you’ve come out fighting for mobile libraries. Tell me why.
IAN BATES: Good morning to you. Well having just listened Dotty, I think it just demonstrated why I’m fighting for it. It is not just a library. It is part of our social structure. People go there. They talk to other people. They have interaction with each other. They go to care homes. So I think actually it is very much part of our rural life. I know that my wife uses it. OK. We live in a rural community. I represent a rural community. I therefore felt that I should speak up for the libraries services, which is absolutely crucial for lots of people.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How many people do use the mobile libraries?:
IAN BATES: Well I think Christine, who you’ve just had on, identified the number of villages. I don’t actually know how many in total go, but there are lots of library access points that go to lots of villages throughout the county. So I think there are enormous amounts of people that do actually go there. And remember we are very much a rural community.
DOTTY MCLEOD: This the thing though. If it’s only four or five people at each stop who are using the mobile library, it doesn’t add up to a huge proportion of the population.
IAN BATES: No I understand that Dotty, and I think people understand where the county is coming from in respect of the challenges that we’ve got for the budget. And obviously this if you like has to go forward with all the other suggestions which are coming forward for possible cuts. And therefore it will have to be dealt with in the round, and I spoke up for them. I think that’s quite right, quite proper. I represent a rural community. I have all my villages that actually use it. They don’t have access necessarily to the big libraries that we have. Not all people have transport. Younger people, for instance if their husband perhaps only has one car and goes to work. There’s access there for children as well, particularly at pre-school, that might go to those libraries before they actually go on to school.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But what if it came Ian to cutting the mobile libraries or cutting the number of roads that are gritted? Or cutting the number of social workers in the families department?
IAN BATES: Well that’s one of the discussions that has to happen Dotty. It’s about what is our priorities. OK? I understand exactly what you’ve just said, and I think that people understand exactly what that says. That is hard decisions which we will have to make, and I will have to be part of that. And therefore there will have to be the debate about what is the highest priority. Is it social workers, is it gritting the roads, is it mobile libraries? And that discussion and those debates have to happen over the next couple of months Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Councillor Ian Bates there, who represents the Hemingfords ward for the Conservative Party on Cambridgeshire County Council. A final decision on the mobile library service and everything else in the County Council budget won ‘t be made until next year. Had this text this morning, which comes in from Fen Ditton John, responding to a comment made by councillor Pete Reeve, who is a UKIP councillor in the Ramsey area. He referred to the mobile library vans as ‘dinosaurs from another age’: says “Dotty has this councillor calling mobile libraries dinosaurs got any idea about pensioners? My elderly mother lived in Cheveley near Newmarket. That mobile library was a lifeline to her and many others. Cutting them would be a disaster to rural communities like hers“. John, thank you very much for your text this morning.