Paris is fine, now Kent needs help

If we can find the money to pay our dues for Unesco to educate the world, we can also reopen our local libraries, says Ann Treneman
Click to follow
Paris in springtime seems to have had a heady effect on our new government, and particularly that bit of Paris that is the Unesco headquarters, at the Place de Fontenoy near the Eiffel Tower.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was visiting this splendid building for an unrelated defence meeting when he decided to note that in future Britain would be doing more than dropping by. This mid-May statement is now being called the "informal announcement" that we would rejoin Unesco. (The formal one was made this week by Tony Bazeley, an aide to Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development.) He told the agency's executive council that Britain would be back as of 1 July.

And that, evidently, is that. Britain flounced out of Unesco 12 years ago amid a flurry of accusations that were as public as this week's announcement was low-key. I requested a copy of the official announcement, thinking it would explain why Unesco is worth its pounds 11m yearly fee, but was told that it might not be worth sending over. "It's not frightfully long. It was in the Queen's Speech. In fact, it is one sentence that says we will rejoin Unesco," said a spokesman for the International Development Department. The money that the previous government could not find anywhere has magically appeared in what is described as the contingency fund for the brand new department.

So why is Unesco worth pounds 11m? I tried to find out more from my local library, but was met by a closed door and a sign that said "Cut Libraries and See Wot Happens". The answer to that is not a lot, judging by the opening hours. As of April, the library has been open from 9.30am to 5pm three days a week. On Thursday it is shut, but night owls should pencil in Tuesdays, when it stays open until 7pm. Saturdays end at 1pm.

It was not the first time I had found the library closed in the middle of the day. Last month an extremely nice woman at Kent County Council had explained that it was all about overwhelming budgetary pressures. "The money just isn't there," she said, and gave many good examples. Junkets had been banned, management costs slashed, fat trimmed to the bone. "I'll send you all the information," she said, and rang off, leaving the distinct impression that even tea breaks would be rationed if need be.

Now Unesco has a great library programme but its primary beneficiaries are places such as Africa, not deepest Kent. And yet Kent et al have their needs too. Perhaps this is not the sophisticated thing to note in this honeymoon period, but libraries are in pretty dire straits. The great and the good may cite them as their childhood inspiration; the current generation may not be so fortunate. For what can one say about a closed door? A Kent spokesman says that the amount needed to restore all hours and book buying across the county is pounds 500,000.

"This is not an isolated case," says Ross Shimmon, chief executive of the Library Association. "It's happening around the country. There are many examples of reduced opening hours. In general, the hours are much shorter than they used to be 15 years ago." He estimates that it would take about pounds 20m to reverse the trend around the UK: "We are not talking about a huge amount in terms of government expenditure."

David Wardrop, of the Friends of Unesco, says the same of pounds 11m, and talks like a man who has sighted water after an extremely thirsty decade in the desert.

"I take my cue from Michael Howard before the election, which seems to be 1,000 years ago now, that Britain was sleepwalking towards a disaster if you voted for Labour. I think they were the ones sleepwalking: in terms of Unesco we cut ourselves off politically from communities of educationists, scientists and others."

Britain and America pulled out of Unesco in 1985, amid claims of mismanagement and corruption. After all, Unesco invented political correctness and there was wild talk of a New World Information Order (and even wilder expenses claims). Since then a new director, Federico Mayor, has cut costs, restored credibility and concentrated on high profile projects, such as the preserving some 440 world heritage sites in 99 countries. Last year's budget was $518m.

Unesco News reveals a bit of what the money goes on. Concerns include solar power, Nubia museums, Chernobyl stamp design, biosphere projects, Earth Day and world peace.

While this is far more interesting than your average UN agenda, it is unsurprising that America has not managed to find its own contingency fund to rejoin. The main news an a recent edition is Mayor's intention to convene a meeting of intellectuals, artists, scientists and educationists in the Middle East. It is to be called Granada II: "I have decided to create a space of encounter and dialogue among Palestinians and Israelis working in education, science, culture and communication."

An International Development spokesman says that Britain is following the carrot and stick strategy. The stick worked as a catalyst for reform; now for the carrot. But what's in it for your average voter standing outside a locked library door on a rainy Saturday afternoon? "This is in effect a variation on the perennial argument of why is there an aid budget of pounds 2bn when there is always pounds 2bn you could spend in the UK," said the ID spokesman. "Equally, you could ask: why do we give money to the UN drugs programme when there are drug rehab clinics in the UK that need funding?"

But this is not an argument about aid, because Unesco is not an aid agency. It is a question about libraries, priorities and the magical ways of money and informal announcements. Surely under New Labour we should be able to afford brilliant libraries and Unesco - and possibly in that order. On this subject, Ross Shimmon is an internationalist and a diplomat too. "At the same time as we urged the government to go back into Unesco - there always has been a strong international aspect to libraries - we urged them to relax the pretty rigorous finances they imposed on local governments. Party politics aside, it does seem that a government which has the vision to go back into Unesco is more likely to do something similar to public libraries."

Time will tell whether his faith is well-placed. Bizarrely, Kent County Council's newly elected Tories are now claiming to have found the pounds 500,000 to restore library hours. Perhaps it has access to the same tree that provided Labour with its pounds 11m. See wot can happen if you wish hard enough?