Save Our Libraries

Making the Case for Libraries

Think of all the knowledge, stored in all the libraries, in all the world. Breathtaking, no? Is that really something we deem expendable?

Today is National Libraries Day. There, I bet you didn’t know that?

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin- a day for raising awareness of libraries, and of celebrating all that they contribute to our lives and communities. It’s also of special significance to me, both as a writer and as a campaigner to save Wokingham’s libraries from privatisation.

To me, the library is the mark of civilisation. It shows that we value knowledge so highly, and believe so strongly that it should be available to all (and for the betterment of all) that we are willing to provide access to it to everyone. A bold idea, but a good one, and fundamentally a right one.

A library, to me, is like a magic cave in a children’s story. Filled with untold wonders, just waiting to be uncovered. I have been lucky throughout my life to live in very close proximity to excellent libraries. As a child, learning to read at primary school, I savoured the hour or so after the day finished, when I could go and lose myself amongst opening pages and chapters as I tried to narrow down my decision to just one book.

More than ever, our libraries seem to be under threat now. In these hard times, they present an easy target for the pruning shears of local government. So many are being cut back, closed down, or (in true Wokingham Tories’ style) sold off. On today, of all days, we need to understand and appreciate how short-sighted and foolish that is.

Libraries offer so many things to us. To the our children, they give endless worlds of fun and imagination right at our fingertips, never to be cut off by the parental cry of “We can’t afford it”. They offer a lifeline of internet access to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, so essential in our increasingly digital and virtual world. They offer every one of us the answers to so many questions we wonder both casually and urgently.

Every pound spent on library services is an investment, never a waste. The influence libraries had on me was a lifelong passion for reading, and an avenue of escape which I now look to make a career. And if they did that for me, imagine what they could do for others.

Can we live without libraries? Of course we can. But ask yourselves, what sort of life would that be?

An Article in the Advertiser

It’s now two weeks (nearly) since the disastrous libraries debate at Wokingham Borough Council, but the local press is still mopping up the Conservatives’ ineptitude. This week is the turn of the Twyford Advertiser, whose article is simply titled “‘Shambolic’ meeting“. Three guesses as to who the shambolic part is a quote from!

The Twyford Advertiser's article on Wokingham Borough Council's library privatisation debate

The Twyford Advertiser‘s shiny new website features a briefer version of the story, but I shall, as usual, quote a portion of the printed text for you:

Matthew S Dent, a Labour activist from Wargrave, called the debate shambolic.

‘A private company will want to make money, which will need them to cut down somewhere,’ he said. ‘If the council won’t let them close libraries they’ll have to reduce opening hours, cut employees or their wages, and increase fees and fines.’

He added that if WBC makes the terms too restrictive, no private partner will want to sign the contract.

You may even notice that the photo with the article features a familiar face. It was taken on a freezing Monday morning outside a closed Wargrave Library, so all things considered I think it came out well. The look I was going for was serious, and the Advertiser‘s description of “CONCERNED” feels a bit generous. I might have lumped for “GORMLESS”, but it gets the point across I guess.

At any rate, it’s good to see the local press responding in so versatile manner to the horrific debate. The Wokingham Times did so with a frightfully responsive letters page, the Reading Chronicle with a very frank article. There is a risk of political stagnation in staunchly safe areas like this, and that can have disastrous consequences for democracy- a single party with absolute power isn’t often a good thing, regardless of which party it is. A local press unafraid to challenge and inform is a very effective foil to that. It will be very interesting to see how the Henley Standard cover the matter tomorrow.

The only disappointment in the matter is that, being in the Twyford Advertiser, the people of Maidenhead (who, arguably, suffer a worse state of single-party local dictatorship, with the Conservatives holding fifty of fifty-seven seats) are unlikely to read it.

The Chronicle Joins the Chorus

An article about the libraries debate in the Reading Chronicle, quoting me extensively, and heavily critical of the council.




















Another day, another local newspaper. Today the Reading Chronicle was published, and like yesterday’s Wokingham Times the libraries debate at last Thursday night’s full council meeting features amongst the local news. And the Chronicle seems to have taken about as critical a line on this as a local paper can be expected to.

Without wanting to sound boastful, I do seem to have the staring role in the article:

A WARGRAVE villager has slammed a debate on the future of libraries- the first in the history of Wokingham Borough Council to be triggered by a petition- as ‘a shambles’.

Matthew S. Dent was joined by more than 40 other worried residents at the council offices in Shute End last Thursday when a petition with more than 1,500 signatures- enough to force councillors to debate it- was handed in

He said ‘I think this would be a very short-sighted move by the council. At the debate, they seemed to miss the point that it is both services and buildings that people are concerned about.’

But Mr Dent said: ‘The whole debate was a shambles. I’d expect the council to review everything after the tender process anyway, regardless of the petition, not to go for it without a second thought. I don’t think this should be touted as a victory.’

So well done Reading Chronicle. I said yesterday on Twitter that I’d love to be a fly on the wall of council leader David Lee’s office. I think that the mood of Wokingham’s Tories will be even more sullen today. Perhaps they should start listening to their electorate? Just a thought…

A Borough in Uproar

My letter in the 23rd November 2011 Wokingham Times

Regular readers of this blog may recall that last week I related the utter chaos of the Wokingham Borough Council debate on the library privatisation plans. More than just the foolishness of the plans to privatise (or, in Tory parlance “outsource”) the services, I was outraged at the disorganisation and incompetence which the council executive displayed.

Wednesday is, of course, the day when the Wokingham Times is published, and true to form they have included my letter-

sent on Friday morning, the day after the debate. For those who can’t read the photograph, I’ll relate the text here:

As a book-lover, and indeed an author, I have been very concerned about the implications of the planned privatisation of the library service (indeed, it was the cornerstone of my campaign in the recent Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe by-election).

It was because of this that I decided to attend the council meeting on Thursday night, where it was to be debated.

But sadly, I found it an intense disappointment.

The Conservatives had clearly already made their decision, and were uninterested in what the public thought.

Their arguments centred around an artificial distinction between “outsourcing” and “privatisation”, and that somehow since they were only selling off the service and not the buildings, it was alright.

But more so than the content of the debate, its organisation was the greatest embarrassment. When it fell to Cllr UllaKarin Clark to put forward a proposal for the council to vote on, she did not have one which met the requirements.

There was then a farcical scramble as the executive attempted to write one, there on the floor of the chamber!

Eventually a Liberal Democrat proposal to review the decision was voted down, and a meaningless proposal to review once the tendering process is complete was taken up.

But my abiding memory will be the utter disorganisation of the Conservatives.

To come to the debate without having prepared shows not only a sickening disinterest in the views of the public, but a worrying level of incompetence.

Matthew S. Dent

Twyford & District Branch Labour Party

However, this was not all. My letter was joined by another three: one by Woodley Labour’s Greg Bello, also criticising the utter shambles of the debate; one by a Ms Ann Smith, expressing shock at the way the Tories conducted themselves at the meeting; and one by a Mr Alan Wylie, criticising the privatisation plan itself.

This was contrasted with a petty, partisan letter from Cllr Keith Baker on the other side of the page, sniping at Labour’s comparative lack of resources in the local area. It comes across as very immature, especially placed against such a damning verdict on the same page by local residents.

It’s clear that not only are the people of Wokingham dissatisfied with the way their library service is being handled, but also with the way their council conducts itself. If every resident could have seen the shambolic scenes on Thursday night, then the Conservatives would find their safe majorities severely shaken, I believe. Let’s hope that the people of Wokingham will soon come to realise just how incompetent the Conservative group on the council are.

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!

A War of Words

Joining in a cross-party campaign against the privatisation of Wargrave library

So now that I’m the Labour candidate for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, I’d better get campaigning, right?

Well, becoming the candidate hasn’t really changed a great deal from my point of view. I’m still fighting the same battles I was before, over the same issues as before. Particularly, the library.

Today saw me down at the library, joining in with the Save Our Libraries campaign. What really gets me about the library is just how little input by anyone other than the Council executive there has been. The privatisation issue wasn’t mentioned at all during the campaigning for the recent elections (which, I feel I must say, saw the Tories gain two seats). And it’s been rolled out so quickly, that it has to have been planned beforehand. The “competitive tendering” process has already closed, less than two months after the votes were counted. So why no mention in your campaign literature, Wokingham Conservative Association?

And beyond that, there hasn’t even been a consultation. The Tory party like to shout about democracy and the will of the people, but why not here? Could it be because the local residents wouldn’t stand for such shocking treatment of their library services? Government by the Tories, for the Tories, it seems. And as a result, a truly fantastic library is being put at risk. The place goes beyond the lending of books. Ros Fernley and her team run a great community service, providing an endless cavalcade of fascinating events.

So what can I do in all of this? Well, for residents of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, I’m offering you an alternative. A genuine alternative, not just the non-choice between blue and yellow. I live locally, I’m active locally and I’m always happy to listen to residents. This, it seems, is a heck of a lot more than the Tories have been willing to do. I would urge every local resident who wants to protect the library to sign the petition (if you haven’t already). But beyond that, when you go down to the polling station on 21st July, cast your vote for a candidate who will represent you and your interests in local government. Vote for me, and I will always stand up for local residents, and not give in to ideological experiments to the detriment of public services.