Through grimy windows underneath a former branch of HSBC in the seaside town of Pevensey Bay, East Sussex, you can see sun-damaged books practically wilting as they gather dust. A “closed” sign is on the locked automatic doors, and torn strips of paper cling to thumbtacks still stuck on a community notice board, the only sign of this library’s public purpose.
For campaigner Helen Burton, the lack of progress in re-opening the library here, since it was closed by the county council alongside six others in May last year, is extremely frustrating. “The books are in there, the shelves are in there, we just can’t go in yet,” she says. Burton is a member of a voluntary group keen to see Pevensey’s library re-open as a community effort – effectively free from local council control and financial support. They are one of several groups trying to help shuttered libraries rise phoenix-like from the ashes after swingeing county council cuts. Yet Pevensey Bay is far from unique.
Government figures show nearly 60% of the population currently holds a current library card. Despite Britons visiting libraries more often than the cinema, Premier League football grounds and the country’s top 10 tourist attractions combined in 2015, they have come to bear the brunt of local authority “spending reviews” under austerity.
At least 846 public libraries have been closed since 2010, according to figures from library association Cilip, which has left several local authorities with the lowest library provision in Europe. Meanwhile, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 professional library workers have lost their jobs. Stats show some £400m has been cut from local library and culture budgets since 2010. The situation led Cilip’s boss, Nick Poole, to comment last year: “This is not normal. This is not ‘living within our means’. This is a wholesale assault on a vital civic institution that is, in turn, a vital part of the fabric of an equal, prosperous and inclusive society.”
But while the closure of a local library, like Pevensey Bay’s, is not perhaps itself enough to generate national headlines, the reporting of local decisions like those in East Sussex helps paint a picture of how government-led austerity is quietly changing Britain.
In our HuffPost UK series, What It’s Like To Lose, we are exploring how these changes link up to paint a national portrait – from the closures of local leisure centres and the centralisation of medical services to the disappearance of bus routes and post offices. As local authorities find themselves picking off the “low-hanging fruit”, we are examining what it means to the people who are now losing out.
“Those who suffer most when a library closes down often aren’t the loudest in society,” Burton says. “Isolation is becoming a huge issue. The social type clubs have all gone, they were the first to go, they were an easy cut. We’ve literally got disabled people, older people, stuck in on their own.” Libraries, she says, are a crucial community space which have come to help alleviate many of the everyday problems people who are isolated face.
“We want to re-open it as it was before,” Burton, who runs a community interest company in nearby Eastbourne, adds. “As a project, we want to level the playing field for everyone around here. Libraries are one of the few places you can spend a day without a charge.”
And libraries do not just house books, increasingly they also provide hands-on support and digital literacy for people who aren’t confident using technology or the internet. Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that East Sussex ranked above the national average when it came to so-called “digital exclusion”. The proportion of people in the county who hadn’t used a computer for at least three months was 13.1% in 2018, above an average of 10% nationally. “But this is all hidden,” Burton says. “When you use the internet you open up the world,” she adds.
Andrew Sillence has helped people with computers at East Sussex libraries as a volunteer for over a decade. “People tend to know a bit about computers these days but now they are moving onto iPhones. People are now coming in and saying ‘I’ve got this iPad my grandchildren have given me... I haven’t got a clue how to use it’. [Digital skills are] critical here because people are more and more isolated. The Post Office has gone, the library has gone. I’m being inundated from people who want to get back into work.”
“Libraries are one of the few places you can spend a day without a charge.””
Fears of further cuts have been stoked in East Sussex following the conclusion late last year of a public consultation on the future of so-called “core offer” – or legally-required – local services.
A copy of the consultation, obtained by HuffPost UK, suggests that East Sussex County Council is quietly gauging public opinion over a range of measures, including new charges to access library services.
The consultation asks whether, if laws were changed, people would support charges for library membership – currently forbidden by the 1964 Libraries Act.
Other questions in the consultation asked about support for charges to access public waste disposal sites, and to gauge the level of approval for removing free bus passes for the elderly and disabled.
East Sussex County Council said the consultation “is intended as a tool to guide our future financial planning and to demonstrate to the government the funding issues we face, what is important to local people, and to help us make the case for a realistic level of funding.”
“This is not something we’re proposing doing, and to do so would of course require a change in the law – we’re just trying to gauge what residents’ priorities are and what they consider essential services in the future if the current funding squeeze on local government were to continue,” a spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, three miles from Pevensey Bay, the town of Langney also lost its library in the wave of closures last year, but a crack team of volunteers managed to save the service after securing favourable terms on a nearby shopping centre unit.
“We went and begged our own premises and got them,” explains Alan Shuttleworth, the deputy leader of Eastbourne Borough Council and chair of the trustee board of the new community-run library, becoming one of around 400 such efforts in Britain. Shuttleworth said that in terms of demand, Langney should never have been closed down. “The interesting thing about Langney Library is that it was a very popular library. All the data [on its use] would be saying to the council ‘this is not a library to close’.”
Yet the library was shut by council chiefs who cited costs as one of the reasons for the closure last May. Since then, it is alleged by some volunteers that the council obfuscated when they attempted to take over the existing lease, even for a short period, while the community run facility was set up. It’s left the council paying rent on premises that still sit empty. “What was driving the decision was that they were leasing the unit in the shopping centre and they made a decision purely on finances,” Shuttleworth, who also sits in opposition as a Lib Dem on the Tory-run county council, says. “And they are still forking out for the lease.”
East Sussex County Council said it was no longer paying rent on the old Langney library and had surrendered the lease to the landlord.
“As this was always our intention, it would have made no sense to enable the community library to move into the premises, knowing that they’d have to move out again a very short time later – especially as the group already had an offer on the table of another unit, rent-free, elsewhere in the centre,” a spokesperson said. The council added that it allowed the community library access to books and provided shelving free of charge.
The new Langley Library is in a fresh, bright unit further along the busy shopping centre, which includes a small Tesco, Iceland and an independent cafe. A new gym and Home Bargains shop will open later this year.
“Footfall wasn’t the issue here – 46,000 in a year – [and] there were six thousand plus members and something like 1,700 regular users of the library,” Shuttleworth adds. “The way things are at the moment, sadly, the national government has taken over £100m away from East Sussex County Council and sums from [Eastbourne] Borough Council, and you can’t take that much money away from local services without it having an impact [on places like this].”
“Footfall wasn’t the issue here"”
Yet, aside from Langney’s revival and a successful effort in another village nearby, five of the seven libraries shut by East Sussex County Council last year, like Pevensey Bay, have yet to re-open, despite one county council chief boasting last July: “Six of the seven closed libraries have either already reopened or are reopening as community facilities”.
East Sussex County Council said: “While it’s correct that only two of the seven closed libraries have currently reopened as community facilities, there are two more we expect to be up and running in the next few months and another two where we’re still in discussion with community groups regarding their plans.”
A spokesperson added: “The responses to the consultation will form part of our dialogue with the government in the months to come and ahead of the next spending review.”
Meanwhile, a government spokesperson said: “Local authorities are democratically-elected, independent bodies that are responsible for setting their own budgets and managing their resources.
“There are no plans to change the statutory duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 that requires every library authority in England to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.”
But for residents and campaigners, the prospect of further cuts in East Sussex looms large once more. “We don’t know what’s coming next,” Shuttleworth reflects of the future. “The county council has to save another £18 million next year and are still down to core services at the moment and still have to find another £5 million in the year we’re about to go into.”
“Austerity is hurting people,” Helen Burton adds. “That’s not okay.”
In a new series, HuffPost UK is examining how shrinking local budgets are affecting people’s daily lives. These are stories of what it’s like to lose, in a society that is quietly changing. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.