Eventually we’ll be arriving here for a very difficult conversation about the future of public libraries in Liverpool.
In fact this was going to be a walk around several of our beautiful public libraries to get me in the mood for the conversation. But in the event, knowing that the conversation might be about some of them having to be closed down, I don’t have the heart for it.
Instead I set off for the river. To think, about money and ‘austerity’ and what we might do. But also because I know there’s something special there to see.
Then round the corner at the Pier Head I see it.
When I was little I’d be brought down here to see the great passenger liners that would still do weekly sailings to New York. These stopped nearly 50 years ago. But I knew that liners were back now, cruise ships. So I’ve come here to see one.
It’s carrying 2,000 passengers on a round Britain cruise.
A good few years ago I remember talking with the City’s then political leaders. And them envisioning ‘the return of ocean liners to the Mersey’ as a sign that the city would then have become prosperous again.
And bringing prosperity with them? For someone maybe. But I’m on my way to talk about not having enough money to run our libraries. So something’s gone badly wrong.
Which is fantastic in itself. I’d heard about these and am very pleased to see one up close. Then the weird thing happens. I see he’s filming a man who appears to be flying.
It never thought it would live so long to see such strange goings on.
What he’s doing is apparently called ‘flyboarding’. It was only invented in 2011 and the flyboard rider stands on a board connected by a long hose to a watercraft. Water is forced under pressure to a pair of boots with jet nozzles underneath which provide the thrust for the rider to fly up to 15 metres in the air or to dive headlong through the water.
But I’m still even more amazed by the flying camera, so go for a closer look at it when it comes in to land.
The company doing the filming are IronBird, a Liverpool company by the looks of their showreel:
I am fantastically impressed. And reminded of what an innovative and entrepreneurial lot we are. So surely we can work out how we can continue running our libraries?
And as I sit and think before going into the library, I reflect on how much of this magnificence came through philanthropy. Rich Victorians, perhaps attempting to atone for where their riches came from, slavery and exploitation.
And I think of the wealthy of today. Much, much richer than their Victorian ancestors. And using their greedy and rapacious system of global capitalism to force their tame governments to impose ‘austerity’ on their populations, so they can re-stock their almost ruined banks by stealing the wealth of nations.
Time then, to go and talk about our libraries.
And up on the fourth floor, I sit down in a room with around 20 other people. And we talk about the libraries.
It feels like an ancient and sacred discussion. Like the village elders holding our wisdom carefully, knowing that what we are talking about today will reverberate down the generations who follow us. There is anger and confusion in the room. And there are tears, mine. Not one of us wants to be in here talking about this.
But it is well done, greatly to the credit of the people who describe the political and financial position and then listen and respond to all that we say:
- Louise Gray, Assistant Director of Community Services
- Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism
- Ron Odunaiya, Director of Community Services
- John Keane, Divisional Manager Libraries & Information Service
Liverpool gets 76% of its funding from Central Government. And they’re going to cut this by half by 2016/17.
Therefore the City Council has been forced to decide to cut its mandatory services, including libraries, by 25%. And its discretionary services, like sports and culture, by 50%. In the case of libraries this will mean an annual budget of £10m being reduced by £2.5m.
The Council has been running a survey (which I’ve written about before and which ends today) to gather facts and opinions about what might be done. And have run five open meetings around the libraries, of which this is the last. They tell us they’ve had 3,500 surveys completed and have also been gathering thoughts and ideas from these meetings.
In July the council will decide what to do.
And I found the meeting almost unbearably sad. We talked all the way around the kind of things that could happen. About not automatically closing the less well used libraries in less well off areas. I even brought up the possibility of a bit of philanthropic help to see us through until we can elect a better government. But it was pointed out that though philanthropic money can still sometimes be found to build things, it never pays the costs of running them.
I talked particularly about the children as I did on my post about the survey, as did others. And the fact that no one in the room wanted to see a ‘Big Society’ approach where volunteers take over the jobs of paid staff. We didn’t come up with any easy answers, nor did I feel this was all empty talk about decisions already taken. I felt I was in a discussion with people who are as passionate about libraries as I am.
So I’ve now written and said my bit, as a citizen of this city. I’ll think and say more if anyone asks me to. Otherwise I’ll await their findings, ideas and decisions. With trepidation, but confident in the knowledge that the best that can be done will be done. This is a fantastic place that does very good libraries and we still will, within the constraints of an economic system that appears to despise us.
And hours later, typing this at home, I realise that I have spent this afternoon on the front line of the class war. Not something you expect to happen in a meeting room in a library. But we were all only there because the Government of our country has decided to use austerity as a political weapon. Training it unfairly on the cities where, as it happens, its opponents live.
All photographs by me except for the one borrowed from the Echo and the lovely one just above here of the camera and the ship, from the website of IronBird, the camera’s proud owners.