As local authorities look to community groups to take over libraries, Paul Emery warns the transfer must be managed carefully.
According to the latest estimates from Cilip 600 libraries are under serious threat of closure or transfer to community groups as councils continue to feel the pressure to reduce spending. It is something which has not gone unnoticed by the public, as the recent re-opening of Derwent Valley Bridge Library in North Yorkshire, now community-run, and the considerable profile received by the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign show. The level of public sentiment and engagement around possible library closures is just one example of how emotive public services can be and reinforces the importance for local authorities to manage changes to frontline services carefully.
But councils have to make some tough and complex decisions on spending. Community transfer is one option that can enable services to continue, whilst also empowering local people to get involved in their services. But this process can only happen successfully after a full assessment of the council’s, and its community’s, ability to handle the risks associated with this new role and responsibility.
Local authorities must engage with communities to understand both how keen and how able they are to take on the risks attached to running services – as we call it risk appetite and risk tolerance – before they devolve any of the responsibility. Doing so means councils can be certain that the community is ready and aware of their role as well as the benefits of success and consequences of failure. Similarly, it means that council management teams are clear on the problems that could occur as well as the ways of preventing them. Such awareness can avoid a serious reputational risk to both the council and the managing community group if the service, in this case libraries, fails.
Of course, asset transfer isn’t simply a question of switching off a service and handing it over, as collaborative working and communication between local authority and community groups will be a key factor in its success. Local authorities have an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. It is important this doesn’t get lost, particularly in the early stages of community run projects. Local authorities will be well-versed in issues like HR, equality and training and community needs, for example, around resources for children or older people. Enabling volunteers to assimilate this knowledge from the outset could help the service flourish. This knowledge sharing needn’t be one-way though. Both parties must be open to learning from each other in order to best serve the needs of the wider community.
Handing the reigns of certain services to the community can be a good solution for some local authorities and libraries are potentially an example of things to come. This process will involve management on the part of local authorities but by working together with communities to assess all the options, and their associated risks, councils and volunteers will be more likely to ensure the service transfer process is a success.
Paul Emery is head of communities and social organisations, Zurich Municipal