On Friday 14th January Margaret Bailey and David Butcher met with Sue Mckenzie and Cllr James Powney: here’s an update on how it went.
For those who don’t know, Mckenzie is Brent’s Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage. Powney is a Labour councillor for Kensal Green ward and the council’s Lead Member for Environment, Planning and Culture, so between them, they’re the architects of the “Libraries Transformation Project” AKA the closure plans. This is the first time we’ve met them formally, face to face.
Our hope for the meeting was to get their agreement on two areas:
a) that if we (ie. the Friends of Kensal Rise Library with the help of the wider community) put together a plan for developing and improving the library as, say, a children’s and arts space, with the possible refurbishment of the upper floors, then Brent needs to be prepared to carry on running the core library service, with the costs of that subsidised by the other activities.
b) that they need to give us more time to put that plan together. We need a stay of execution for the library while a complicated fundraising and planning process goes forward and while we find the right partners.
Put simply, on both counts they said no.
We ended up in a chicken-and-egg discussion. Powney said he couldn’t argue for a stay of execution without a fuller proposal; we said we couldn’t do all the work necessary for the proposal without more time – and it would any case be pointless without their commitment to keep running the core library service around which the rest of the project would have to be built. If they were unable to make a concession on either front, there was little point in talking to them.
Eventually we reached a compromise position where there may be scope for progress. Cllr Powney may be prepared to argue the case for saving our library to his colleagues on the council. The trouble is, because it’s in his ward, if he tries to make an exception of Kensal Rise, it looks like special pleading. To make the case credibly, he needs a detailed proposal of our plans and the partners involved, arguing for the library to remain open for the time being, while we fundraise, apply for grants and put the full deal together.
The way the discussion went suggests that our best hope may be to focus on the library’s strength as a resource for children. It has a good collection of children’s books and a good record of children’s activities. Also, Powney conceded, it’s not reasonable to expect a mother with a four-year-old to walk to Kilburn library or Willesden Green. A proposal that played on these factors might stand a better chance with Brent.
Cllr Powney was keen to focus on All Souls College, Oxford, who gifted the land to the council originally. He believes they may be a source of funding. (In any case, they would need to give their approval for any expanded use of the building beyond purely being a library – if for instance we wanted to have a café there or rent out the attic to an educational body.) We explained that All Souls had a meeting on Friday at which they were discussing our library (we have been in touch with the college and they’ve been helpful), so in the next few days, we’re hoping the college will clarify where they stand. Clearly, if their position is “It has to remain a library and nothing but a library”, that’s a problem. We persuaded Cllr Powney that it was about time Brent contacted All Souls too.
Along the way, we put some forceful arguments against closure and tried to convey the strength of feeling in the community. Powney and Mckenzie’s response was the same as it has been in all the public forums: they hate to close libraries but they don’t have enough money in their budget. We raised the issue of the £100m civic centre and the LibDem proposals (to scale down the library that will be part of the civic centre and use the savings to keep smaller libraries open.) They continued to defend the civic centre and dismissed the LibDem stance as impractical. The only alternative they see to closing some libraries is to keep all of the borough’s libraries open with drastically reduced funding and opening hours – what they characterised as ‘genteel decline’.
Sue Mckenzie offered to provide any further financial or usage figures we need and also agreed that we could have access for architectural/surverying purposes. We concluded the meeting on reasonably good terms.