Libraries tell us a tale on the transformation of local government


by Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO

Unsurprisingly, CIPFA’s annual survey of libraries in Great Britain showed the number of public library branches and paid staff continues to drop, as stretched councils reduce their spending on the service.

Spending by local authorities on public libraries fell by £30m, with the service losing 712 full time employees (FTEs), as well as a net loss of 127 service points in 2017/18. This follows a trend which has seen the number of public libraries and paid staff fall every year since 2010, with spending reduced by 12% in Britain in the last four years.

In many ways this is an old story for local government. What is most interesting, is what it tells about the transformation of local government. Where government can get people to pay directly for services, it is often doing so. For some services, such as collecting garden waste, new charges have been introduced. In libraries there has been a rise in voluntarism, and a decline in paid staff.

CIPFA’s survey showed 51,394 volunteers putting in 1,780,843 hours in 2017/18. Over the past four years, this was an increase of almost a quarter, or just under 10,000 volunteers. Reading between the lines, this growth in volunteerism makes it clear that communities find libraries valuable, and want this service to continue. Public outcry has often followed many closures. 

However there is a lot the numbers cannot tell us, or would require a significant amount of analysis. What is the difference in levels of service between libraries which have turned to volunteers, as compared to those with professional librarians? How is this affecting service in different socio-economic areas? Are all people in Great Britain getting similar levels of access?

Libraries provide an important service, in terms of education, and provide a place for communities to gather, or for some individuals to connect to the internet, for some to seek employment, or others to complete homework. In disadvantaged areas it’s arguable that libraries are incredibly important for these purposes, beyond issuing books.

We can view libraries as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for what is happening to our public services, as similar changes are happening to many services, with previously free services such as green waste collection now being passed on to the community, or tougher criteria for receiving legal aid.

In our Performance Tracker with the Institute for Government it was shown that long term the UK will not be able to maintain public services of the current scope and nature without a large rise in tax. But there are of course other steps which can be taken by the Government which can help strengthen the resilience of local government.

Recently, we have been calling strongly for a review of statutory services, which should lay bare some of the pressures on local government. This would seem timely, with the permanent secretary of MHCLG recently giving evidence to Parliament that councils’ financial sustainability and resilience is defined by the provision of statutory services. 

Clarity is important, and we would argue some services which are technically described as non-statutory play an important role in the fabric of local communities, and their loss would be to the detriment of the UK. While the transformation of these services is inevitable, in some areas of local government, such as neighbourhood services, a lack of data makes these shifts difficult to track.

However, the libraries survey provides an informed base for discussion, as the statistics reveals both change, and the creative means councils are using to maintain services. This is an incisive example of what is happening in local government, highlighting the need for honest conversations about the direction of travel of our councils, and the future shape of our public services.

Webchat is available Monday to Friday, 09:00 - 17:00 (excluding UK bank holidays).