Boyd Tonkin: Vandalism on a worse scale than the riots

Reform is needed, of course. But there are options to refresh dowdy branches

Boyd Tonkin
Monday 17 October 2011 00:00

Which events in London during 2011 will bring most lasting disgrace to the capital, and to the nation? The teenage rioters who plundered fashion outlets presented a dismal spectacle. But many will grow up and look back on those moments of madness with embarrassment. The members and overpaid senior officers of Labour-run Brent Council have no excuses of youth, despair or deprivation. These boorish jobsworths have committed vandalism of a graver sort.

Not content with winning the High Court case last week that sought to halt the closure of six branch libraries, Brent council – with indecent haste – dispatched wrecking crews. On Thursday they were sent around the borough to board up buildings that for more than a century have brought enlightenment and inspiration to residents. With half-term a week away, schoolchildren found themselves unable to return books, let alone read more. At Kensal Rise library, a protesters' camp has tried to halt the shutdown; at Preston branch, distraught users turned up on Saturday to find a pillar of the community wantonly smashed. Brent has written itself a starring role in the long saga of British philistine stupidity.

A second judicial review pursued by library campaigners in Somerset and Gloucestershire awaits a High Court verdict. Overall, more than 400 branches in Britain – around 10 per cent – are under threat. A hand-to-mouth, volunteer-run future is the best that many can expect. Brent, like many authorities of all political shades, justifies the ruin of much-loved services on the grounds that a central super-library will open at some point. The riots have a lesson to teach us here. They showed that the most vulnerable people in urban communities lead narrowly local lives. If the Big Society means anything, it implies a short walk to a safe space of learning and pleasure, not an expensive trek across a city.

Of course, the library service requires reform. Many options exist to refresh dowdy branches. And they need not swallow wads of extra cash. The library consultant Tim Coates travels the country advising the more far-sighted authorities on how they might do better with the same resources – or with less. Good practice cuts across party boundaries.

Not far away from Brent, in Hillingdon, a six-year programme of renovation has seen visitor numbers and borrowing soar. Spending smarter does not inevitably entail spending more. Protesters ought to heed this message, at the same time as they rightly indict the meanness and myopia of Town Hall and Whitehall. For now, though, the Brent campaigners must be allowed to challenge this official crime against an entire community. And their appeal must prevail.

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