“Six mothballed libraries, and a decommissioned swimming pool”. It might sound like a line from a Christmas carol gone awry, but sadly there’s nothing merry about the situation faced in Aberdeen this festive season.
Following a programme of enforced closures, the future of facilities in Bucksburn, Cornhill, Cults, Ferryhill, Kaimhill, Northfield, and Woodside remains clouded in uncertainty. Wednesday will usher in the pointy end of a lengthy process. Councillors are set to meet in the City Chambers to revisit these contentious closure decisions.
Back in the spring, the libraries and pool fell prey to budget cuts as the cash-strapped city council searched for a quick fix to balance its books. The same council that was later pressurised into recognising the hastiness of its decisions, offering a thin-lipped admission that insufficient attention had been paid to the views of communities and clubs who previously depended on these vital facilities.
Last week, we finally got to hear the views of the people. Given the opportunity to participate in a public consultation, they got properly stuck in. Hundreds voiced a mixture of frustration, anger and dismay, detailing the range of negative effects that reduced access to a library or a swimming pool bring.
Engagement was serious and sustained. Responders took the time to explain how, given their age, mobility issues, household budget, or kids’ needs, journeying to a more distant alternative facility or accessing services online just won’t cut it.
The official report on the consultation runs to more than 200 pages. It is detailed and data driven. It comes supported by appendices that evidence the rigour and robustness of technical assessments undertaken to measure the social impacts of closure.
It itemises differential running costs for the assorted buildings and estimates the price of maintenance and repair work necessary to get each one back up and running. But, for all this depth of detail, its recommendations are hamstrung by a fundamental failing.
Two options are put on the table, formulated as a brutal binary: it’s a case of all or nothing. Option one: confirm closure. Option two: recommission and reopen.
When applied to a single swimming pool, this makes every sense. But bundling up six different libraries into a “job lot”? That’s what gives asset-strippers a bad name. Just imagine meting out the same treatment to half a dozen primary schools.
Why drive a steamroller over the subtleties?
All or nothing crudely flattens the very things that the public consultation was designed to bring to the surface: local implications, personal impacts, wider disadvantages determined by the social and economic conditions experienced in particular city neighbourhoods. After all this effort, why drive a steamroller over the subtleties?
The rationale behind the two-option choice presented to council is certainly open to interpretation. If it is a way to comply with legal requirements and, thus, stave off the threat of further legal action, then Scrooge himself could do no worse.
If it amounts to an effort to corral councillors into confirming closure for fear of the aggregate costs to be incurred by reopening all six libraries, then it is a very poor version of a process which ought to be undertaken in neutral fashion. Alternatively, if it reflects the fact that hard-pressed staff from library services lacked the capacity to devise a more nuanced third way, then now is surely the time.
It is incumbent on councillors, whatever their affiliation, to drop the cross-party rancour and panto politics, instead recognising their responsibility to those who elected them by requesting that another option is drawn up for consideration. There is every reason to do so, since so much else remains up in the air.
In parallel with the consultation on closed libraries, there has also been a citywide “Future Library Service Consultation“, including a survey specially designed to collate feedback from children and young people. None of the findings from this exercise have yet been reported.
If the design of Aberdeen’s library services in the 21st century is truly up for grabs, ramming through a tranche of branch closures in advance makes as little sense in December as it did in March.
Hayden Lorimer is a resident of Woodside and member of the Save Aberdeen Libraries campaigning group