No light on the library reservation fee

The basis for the library reservation fee for adult users, introduced as an austerity measure by Cambridgeshire County Council in June, remains unclear after the council's response to a set of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We'll discuss its response below (that response is also attached in full) but present our main findings immediately.

  • The council has been unable to produce documentation of the decision to introduce the fee.
  • The council has been unable to produce evidence that the fee's impact on communities has been considered.
  • An internal council report projected that the fee could discourage two thirds of adult reservations.
  • The fee was to be announced 14 days after the council passed a budget for 2016/17 which didn't include it.

What did we ask? What has the council told us?

Question 1

Which meeting of which committee decided on the introduction of the new reservation fee?

The council answers that the reservation fee 'formed part of the Library Services Transformation–Income Generation Update report which went to Highways and Infrastructure Committee in March 2016'. We asked the question because we'd read that report, but let's look again. The report (see also the table of all documents for the meeting) says that 'nearly 50 ideas were generated and prioritised by ... the [Member Review] Group', and names '3 key ideas selected for further work' (page 2):

  1. Sponsorship of Cambridgeshire libraries by local companies and organizations.
  2. Refurbishment and reorganization of the cafe at Cambridge Central Library.
  3. Redesign of the third floor at Cambridge Central Library.

So the reservation fee wasn't one of the key ideas selected for further work. In fact, it isn't mentioned once in the report. It is mentioned (as we knew) among the 44 ideas in the fourth appendix to the report, but that list is nothing like a programme for action: some of the other ideas are noted in the appendix to be redundant or impractical. That's why the report picked out a smaller number – three – for further work.

What did the meeting make of the report? If we turn to its minutes, it resolved 'to note the report and agree the way forward for further work on income generation in libraries' (page 2). Presumably it didn't agree the way forward was to implement all 44 ideas in the appendix, down to the most impractical, but the three 'key ideas' which were named again in the meeting (minutes, pages 1–2: the reservation fee isn't mentioned here or elsewhere). It's evident that some body, at some point, decided the reservation fee was a fourth key idea. Was it this meeting? Was it another meeting? Was it the Highways and Infrastructure Committee at all? This was a decision for a new council charge, yet it seems no one thought to write it down.

The council adds in its response that the report 'which went to Highways and Infrastructure Committee in March 2016 ... was subsequently confirmed at Full Council in February 2016'. If local government powers extend to time travel, then there are easier ways to raise income: why weren't the early winners at Newmarket simply noted before the fact at the February meeting? But we think the council is mistaken. We were at that meeting (see the Cambridge News, 17 February) and the report wasn't tabled – the published minutes confirming the known laws of physics on this occasion. The main purpose of the 16 February meeting was to approve the council's 2016/17 business plan and budget proposals, which didn't include the reservation fee. As the council acknowledges in its response, the reservation fee appeared in the associated schedule of council charges published two months later, in April.

Question 2

Where can the Community Impact Assessment for the new reservation fee be found?

It's Cambridgeshire County Council's standard practice to publish Community Impact Assessments alongside the policies in its business plans. These assessments aren't obligatory in themselves, but they're a convenient way for the council to demonstrate that it's meeting its obligations under the Equality Act 2010. Because the reservation fee wasn't part of the 2016/17 business plan, no Community Impact Assessment had to our knowledge been published for the new policy.

In answer to our question, the council says that 'reservations are referred to in the Community Impact Assessment ... for B/R.6.120' (that is, in section 4 of the 2016/17 business plan). We've read that document too, but let's look again.

The stock fund provides all the resources available in libraries ... The stock operates as one resource for the county, being moved to where it is most needed, either by customer reservations or intelligent stock management reports ... The proposal is to reduce the stock fund by £200k, which represents 22.5% reduction to this fund.

This doesn't seem to be about the reservation fee, or even about reservations. It seems distinctly more like what it actually is: an assessment of the impact of a specific reduction in the library stock fund. (Item B/R.6.120 assesses in turn the impact of proposed cuts to spending on stock, information technology, and professional staff.) At this point we begin to wonder if the council is reading the documents it cites.

Apparently so, because it next acknowledges that the reservation fee is not mentioned in this assessment – 'although', it adds sternly, 'the need to generate income is'. This happens to be false: the assessment for B/R.6.120 discusses cuts and only cuts, although it does mention 'generating income from author talks' as one of the responsibilities of professional staff (who are to be cut). But it could easily have been true, in which case it would have been irrelevant, because a Community Impact Assessment is only worthwhile or indeed possible if it's going to discuss the impact of specified means to a given end.

We therefore take the council's answer to confirm that no new Community Impact Assessment for the reservation fee exists. We say 'new', because one already exists: that published in the council's 2015/16 business plan (section 6, item B/R.7.119), when a reservation fee was rejected.

The introduction of a new charge for reservations was considered, but it is intended [instead] to run a debt recovery campaign ... This is expected to raise funds and avoid reservation fees that could disadvantage customers in more rural and deprived areas of the county, as they would have to pay to receive the wider choice of stock that can be found in the larger hub libraries.

In the absence of another, we suppose that assessment stands.

Question 3

What is the business case for the introduction of the new reservation fee? For example, how much money is it expected to raise?

The council answers our last two questions perfectly sensibly: it's not surprising that when the required documents actually exist, there's no need for make-believe. We learn that a background report by the Libraries Management Team (unpublished but excerpted in the council's response) projected additional annual income of £30,000 from a £1 reservation fee for adult users. This feels to us too high, but we'll wait and see. It should be noted however that the report allowed that a £1 fee could discourage two thirds (60,000) of the adult reservations that would be made otherwise; in other words, the fee was projected to withdraw a basic library service from the large majority of its adult users.

Another passage from the background report repays a second glance, though regrettably it sends us back to our first question.

Re-instate a charge for Adults reservations, at £1. No charge for under 18. Concessions will be offered to those where permitted e.g. Library@Home Service (all TBC before 1 March announcement date).

So once again, who decided on the policy? A planned announcement on 1 March would fit with its being a decision of the Highways and Infrastructure Committee – the meeting discussed above was held that morning – but as we've shown, this is contradicted by the documents. And is it really possible that a new council charge could be ready to announce on Tuesday 1 March, but entirely unforeseen in the council's annual budget on Tuesday 16 February, two weeks earlier? Just what was going on here?

(To avoid adding to the confusion we'll note that the reservation fee, published unnoticed in April's schedule of council charges, was announced to library users around 20 May. It may be that what was planned for 1 March was an internal announcement at some level.)

Question 4

How many reservations were made in a) July 2015 at Cambridge Central Library, b) July 2015 at Burwell Library, c) July 2016 at Cambridge Central Library, d) July 2016 at Burwell Library?

The council provides figures based on pick-up locations, most reservations being placed online rather than in libraries.

  Reservations July 2015 Reservations July 2016
Burwell 282 113
Cambridge Central 2995 1141

We meant by the comparison to get a working notion of the effect of the reservation fee, and it would be unwise to speculate too far from the narrow information requested. It's interesting however that this table shows reservations falling by 60 per cent at Burwell Library and by 62 per cent at Cambridge Central Library, which figures approach the alarming projection of the Libraries Management Team's report for a fall of about 66 per cent in adult reservations alone. It has to be noted that the data above include reservations by child users, who are exempt from the fee. We should of course have asked how many of the 2016 reservations generated any income.

Conclusion

The reservation fee makes access to a basic public library service dependent on our ability to pay. It's an unfair burden on the poorest among us; on those of us who are exempt from other library charges because of disabilities which don't confine us to our homes (the sole adult exemption); and on those of us who live out of easy reach of larger, urban libraries and rely on reservations to get the books we need.

We don't oppose the reservation fee because the policy decision isn't properly documented, but because access to basic library services should be equal for all. However we believe the 'mean, unfair, and corrosive' character of the policy (see the letter that launched our campaign) goes together with the secrecy and confusion of its origin, as confirmed here. Our object is to have Cambridgeshire County Council drop completely the reservation fee. But along the way, perhaps we can uncover how it came about.

Cambridge People's Assembly

25 October 2016


Response to a request for information

Reference: FOI 6960

Date: 30 September 2016

Type of request: FOI

Details regarding the new reservation fee in libraries

1. Which meeting of which committee decided on the introduction of the new reservation fee?

The re-introduction of the reservation fee formed part of the Library Services Transformation–Income Generation Update which went to Highways and Infrastructure Committee in March 2016. Both the update report (item 4) and relevant appendix (4) can be found at this link:

https://cmis.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/ccc_live/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/5/Committee/7/Default.aspx

It was subsequently confirmed at Full Council in February 2016 and then published on the Council's website in April (ETE Schedule of Fees and Charges: April 2016), which is available from the following link:

http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/info/20043/finance_and_budget/90/business_plan_2016_to_2017/5

[Since the Information Governance Team issued this response, the schedule dated for April has been replaced by another dated for October. We agree that the fee was in the April schedule. CPA.]

2. Where can the Community Impact Assessment for the new reservation fee be found?

Reservations are referred to in the Community Impact Assessment (CIA) for B/R.6.120. The fee is not specifically mentioned in this CIA, although the need to generate income is. CIAs can be viewed here:

http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/info/20043/finance_and_budget/90/business_plan_2016_t o_2017

3. What is the business case for the introduction of the new reservation fee? For example, how much money is it expected to raise?

The business case was considered by the Libraries Management Team, and the following is the extract on Library book reservation charges from the background report:

Reservation fee

Customer type Current price Proposed price Projected additional annual income
Adults 0p £1 £30,000

Re-instate a charge for Adults reservations, at £1. No charge for under 18. Concessions will be offered to those where permitted e.g. Library@Home Service (all TBC before 1 March announcement date).

Risks:

  • Re-instating a charge would result in a significant fall in reservations and therefore issues e.g. approx. 60,000 reduction
  • Those living/working near smaller libraries/LAPs would be affected more due to less stock
  • SPINE prices will have to be reviewed, with a likely price increase to offset demand
  • The library stock fund could be reduced significantly next year resulting in a reduced service
    • Less stock to choose from
    • Customers might have to wait longer for items to become available

The proposal was benchmarked with national data that confirmed that 55% of public libraries in England currently charge for reservations, and fees range from 30p to £2.00.

4. How many reservations were made in a) July 2015 at Cambridge Central Library, b) July 2015 at Burwell Library, c) July 2016 at Cambridge Central Library, d) July 2016 at Burwell Library?

As most reservations are placed by library users via the online catalogue, the figures below are for reservation pick up locations. For example using reservations placed at Burwell in 2015, the figure is 75, but using reservations with a pick up location of Burwell, the figure is 282.

  Reservations July 2015 Reservations July 2016
Burwell 282 113
Cambridge Central 2995 1141

Information Governance Team

SH1001 Cambridgeshire County Council

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