Council defends bid to privatise library servicesBy Victoria Smith
February 23, 2012
The borough’s libraries will be cheaper, fit for the 21st Century and offer more services to attract new visitors, it is claimed, under plans to privatise the service.
Wokingham Borough Council is to approve high-level specifications for interested companies to fulfil in order to run the borough’s library service.
The council’s executive committee will meet today to discuss the specifications, which are being kept secret due to EU procurement law, and the top three primary objectives of the tender process.
These are achieving greater value for money in the service, which costs the council more than £2 million a year, transforming libraries to provide a more appropriate service for the 21st Century, and broadening the functionality and appeal of libraries.
The council agreed to investigate privatising its libraries in May 2010, with the expectation of appointing a partner in March this year, however the project has been delayed and is now expected to be operational by October.
Plans to outsource the service caused controversy among residents concerned it will mean that libraries will close.
Although the council is putting conditions in place, such as engagement with library users when making decisions, there is no specific condition to keep all libraries open.
The council says the winning provider will allow library users and communities to have input into policy and services, and provide libraries offering people better opportunities and improved quality of life.
Councillor UllaKarin Clark, executive member for internal services, said: “I am excited at the prospect of this process moving on and hope the executive agrees the high level specifications.
“Our aim is to find a partner who can help improve our already excellent libraries. Libraries across the country face challenging times; with cheaper books, greater internet usage, increasing availability of electronic books and – let’s face facts – less public money around. What we are saying is that we do not want our libraries to fall victim to these challenges but, instead, hope to find the right partner to help them thrive.”
The Wokingham Liberal Democrats produced a petition with hundreds of signatures last year against the decision to outsource libraries.
The Conservatives have said the campaign led to an inaccurate picture being presented to the public.
Cllr Clark said: “I am delighted that the draft specifications to be considered by the executive would be requiring any selected partner to work with library users and local communities in the future.
“The technicalities of EU procurement law are complicated and restrictive in terms of what we can say – and that is frustrating because it has allowed misconceptions to spread and scaremongering to take place. The truth is that we are seeking a partner to improve our libraries and safeguard the service for the future.”
Cllr Prue Bray, leader of Wokingham Lib Dems, said the accusations of scaremongering was an “insult” to the people unhappy with the idea of handing over running of the library service to a private company.
She said: “The Conservatives can’t blame EU rules for imposing secrecy on them – because those rules only applied after they made the decision to outsource the service.
“Given the importance of this issue to the community as a whole, the council should be listening to people and be open about what is going on.”