Whether you believe in David Cameron’s “Big Society” or not, the promotion of this initiative has had some puzzling side effects. Take Gloucestershire for example. An attempt to launch a review of the council’s plans to cut the service has been rejected by the council’s overview and scrutiny management committee (which, like the council, is Conservative run). The council’s plans are based on funding reductions of around 25 per cent by 2014. The cuts by the council could lead to Gloucestershire’s library service being cut in half. But here’s the weird thing, Gloucestershire are also promising £50,000 per district for ‘Big Society’ projects. With around 16 districts in the county, that makes a grand total of £800,000 in cash set aside. £800,000 that could, of course, be better invested in the library service. But it’s not just Gloucestershire that is pulling money out of libraries to invest in the ‘Big Society’.
Oxfordshire and Kent have both also recently announced that they will be putting money aside for ‘Big Society’ projects. Oxfordshire are keeping £600,000 back and are intending to close around 20 out of 43 libraries. But most mind-blowing of all are Kent. Although no closures have been announced (yet), they are keeping back an astonishing £5 million for the ‘Big Society’. One hopes they don’t announce any closures after the impending consultation. If so, one wonders why they were unable to reduce the fund to £3-4 million without affecting the library service in the county.
So is it really the case that the ‘Big Society’ project is the cause of these closures? It is hard not to come to that conclusion when you see the money that is being held back. Scrap the ‘Big Society’ initiative and suddenly library services can be kept fully operational (most councils are already protecting what they see as ‘essential services’ so these budgets are not under threat to the same extent as libraries). It seems that the answer is obvious, instead of focusing on possible savings that the service could make (which is debatable anyway), campaigners should be asking their council why they are withholding money that could be used to ensure that their library service is not subject to disproportionate cuts. The cause of the cuts to library services is not the cut in government funding, it is an eagerness to experiment with the ‘Big Society’. It is a sad irony that, given the role that libraries play in communities, it is the ‘Big Society’ which is killing libraries.