Wokingham Borough’s Library Shambles

The shambles I witnessed at Wokingham Borough Council tonight only motivates me to fight harder for a local democracy that works for local people

Well that was certainly illuminating!

I am just now back from Wokingham Borough Council’s full council meeting, at which the petition to save library services from privatisation was presented and debated. Those readers who followed my twitter feed (using the #WokinghamLibraries hashtag) will know something of the debacle, but I’ll relate it in full here for everyone else.

The libraries debate came at the end of the meeting- though it was pointed out to me that it needn’t have, and that maybe the Mayor chose to leave it ’til the end in order to try and empty out the public gallery. Regardless, it didn’t work. Myself and Roy Mantel were there, along with Greg Bello from Woodley Labour, and various Lib Dems and other interested parties.

The Tories’ argument against the petition was chiefly that they were not, in fact, privatising the libraries. Their reasoning varied slightly, but seemed principally semantic. The word that they used throughout was “outsourcing”. This, we were told, was not privatisation as they would not be selling the buildings.

Now, this doesn’t hold water to my mind. I didn’t campaign in the Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe by-election to protect the library buildings, I campaigned to save the services. This is, as I understand, what the petitioners wanted. The argument that it isn’t privatising if you still own the physical assets is nonsense- the train franchises don’t own the trains and rails, but does anyone describe the railways as being “outsourced”?

Beyond that there was some quite spectacular rhetorical-nonsense-on-stilts, particularly from my old friend Keith Baker, who remarkably managed, in the course of a brief speech, to interpret a petition against the Tories’ plans as a ringing endorsement.

But the real fun came at the end of the debate. You see, once the speeches had been made, the council had to vote on a proposal. It fell to Councillor UllaKarin Clark, executive member for internal services, to put one forward. But unfortunately she was almost immediately told that it didn’t meet the requirements.

And then it all went a little bit mad. The Lib Dems, credit to them, had prepared a proposal in advance, and had it written up and ready to distribute throughout the chamber. Whilst Prue Bray, Lib Dem leader, tried to make herself heard, the Mayor pointedly ignored the opposition whilst the executive quickly tried to write a new proposal on the floor of the chamber.

Eventually, sanity prevailed; the Lib Dems’ proposal (that the executive reconsider their decision) was made, and voted down by the Tories (to cries of “Shame! Shame!” from the public gallery). Then, a slightly amended version of the same proposal was moved by a Tory councillor (that the executive reconsider their decision after the tendering process is completed), and passed unanimously.

The end result is that I’m not sure what has happened. Prue Bray is claiming victory on twitter, which is frankly a little optimistic in my opinion. The Tories run such a monopoly in Wokingham that they can do what they like, and something as ideological as the privatisation of the libraries is very definitely something they’d like.

But what I take away from this, the first council meeting I have observed, is the image of the council in chaos after Cllr Clark’s first proposal was found unsuitable. Such rampant disorganisation, from a major organ of local democracy, was a disgrace. The executive should have known what the borough constitution required of them, and their utter lack of preparation and competence is shocking- regardless of what the passed proposal means, I certainly don’t trust the library service in their hands.

I’m not sure who it was who said that are two things that you shouldn’t watch being made, but judging from tonight I’d have to agree. What an utter shambles!


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