‘Very silly indeed’: Campaigners blast council plans to cut library jobs amid cost-of-living crisis

Hackney Central Library. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Library campaigners say they are dismayed that jobs at libraries across Hackney could be culled as the council looks to trim its staff costs.

The Town Hall is consulting with unions about cuts at seven libraries run by council staff, who are set to receive letters notifying them of the plans in the first week of next year.

The council is exploring ways to save £300,000 in 2023/24. It spends £5.6m a year on its library services, with £3m in staffing costs.

Laura Swaffield, who chairs the national Library Campaign, said libraries are planning to play a part in supporting vulnerable people during the cost-of-living crisis.

“Cutting staff when a lot of people are going to be falling back on libraries seems to be very silly indeed,” she said.

“Without professional staff, they are really going to have one hand tied behind their back.”

Swaffield said libraries are a “lifeline” for many, but fears for them “if they are stripped of money and staff”.

If agreed at next month’s cabinet meeting, Hackney will scrap 76 full-time equivalent jobs, including eight duty manager roles, 31.5 library assistants, and 18.5 library supervisors. Among other jobs on the chopping board are 5.5 weekend assistant roles.

Overall, 99 jobs including some part-time and vacant posts are affected.

The council said it plans create 57 new jobs, with an overall change from 79.6 to 60.5 posts.

A Town Hall report said 44 employees are at risk of redundancy.

The plans include scrapping duty managers for each library, using three area managers instead.

Staff will be asked if they would like to take voluntary redundancy, early retirement or “bumped redundancy”. The latter is when an employee at risk of redundancy is moved into a role filled by someone else, who is made redundant.

The report points out that “this restructure proposes making a greater saving from the service than is required to meet the savings target”, with £425,000 slashed from the budget.

It said the £145,000 in extra savings will be used to develop libraries and staff next year.

Formal consultation with the unions began this week and will continue until November.

Since 2011, the council has saved £1.5m through voluntary redundancies, cutting stock, community outreach activity and development.

During the pandemic, library staff phoned vulnerable people to check on their welfare and delivered books to them.

The Town Hall report said there are “limited” options as politicians “made a commitment to maintain the number of libraries in Hackney, therefore closing an existing facility is currently not an option”.

The council is also committed to maintaining the current opening hours for libraries, meaning these cannot be changed to save money.

The Labour party, which has control of the council, said in its May election manifesto: “We are committed to our libraries and we will invest in their future.”

The party pledged to “develop a Libraries Plan that will create a great network of library hubs, places of public and open access, places where arts, learning, culture, work and play can come together”.

Cllr Simche Steinberger, the Conservative opposition spokesman, said: “I am very concerned about it. Libraries are an important place where people go to use books and use the computers. It is important that there are the right people there.”

Cllr Alastair Binnie-Lubbock, the Greens spokesman for the economy, said libraries need skilled staff: “Libraries provide a vital service so much more comprehensive than stocking books: skilled librarians deliver social help, IT literacy, they help people fill in job applications, and they too often come too close to being social workers by default.

“With the cost-of-living crisis and energy bills getting out of control, it’s an all too real scenario that people will rely on the library not just for the sustenance that books offer but also for the comfort of a warm place to go this winter. Surely we should be protecting the amazing range of things a library does for the community? And it needs to be staffed by competent professionals.”

He added: “I can’t imagine what anxiety this plan will cause the workers affected, especially during a cost-of-living crisis.”

Hackney’s cabinet is likely to approve the libraries strategy in October.

The council was invited to comment and told the Citizen that it would do so after a staff briefing had been carried out.

Update: this article was amended at 6.30pm on 16 September following an update from Hackney Council.