The open letter below has been sent to all Cambridgeshire county councillors, and was first published on the UNISON Cambridgeshire website. We encourage readers too to write to their county councillors to protest the proposed deal with Kora, a subsidiary of Regus Group.
An open letter to Cambridgeshire county councillors
On Tuesday 2 June 2015 you will consider the proposed partnership between Cambridgeshire County Council and Kora/Regus to create an Enterprise Centre at Cambridge Central Library. We are writing to request that you vote against this proposal.
We realise that the Council is facing a difficult financial situation and that there are planned budget cuts ahead. However, we believe that the future of the service shouldn't be gambled on a partnership with an uncertain outcome. The report titled Cambridge Library Enterprise Centre, which was made available to you ahead of the Highways and Community Infrastructure Committee on 17 March, acknowledges that 'the profit share is variable and the level of income cannot be guaranteed' (2.9). Additionally, this report outlines alternative proposals, including an in-house Enterprise Centre (3.7) which would 'respond to community demand and may be installed at lower cost'. The report in question recommends that you vote against this option because 'detailed plans have not been drawn up and therefore costs are estimates and will depend on ambitions for the project'. We do not believe it's acceptable to make a final decision that will result in irreversible changes to our library without drawing up detailed plans for all the options first. As members of the community you serve, we are asking that these plans be adequately researched, drawn up and made available before a decision is made. Otherwise how can we all know that Kora is indeed the best option?
We fear you are being led to believe that rejecting this option will result in the closure of branch libraries and in job losses, when in reality the report titled Library Services: Developing our Approach for the Future makes it clear that the planned strategy for the library service involves making this deal and moving towards 'fewer physical buildings and savings from buildings and staffing'. This proposal is at most a quick-fix solution. If there are jobs at stake in the long-term, isn't that one more reason to consider all the options carefully and ensure we're making the best decision?
Additionally, it's troubling to note that 'response to community demand' is not being prioritised here. The Kora Enterprise Centre is being pitched as an 'enhanced service' that will help the community, particularly the out of work, but it seems contradictory to claim it is both this and a big money maker for the Council. Even if there are special rates for those who need them, surely maximizing profits will require that those who can afford to pay the full rate be prioritised? A loss of freely available public space is not an 'enhanced service', it's a loss. Please consider how this compromises the principle of equality of access for all outlined in the IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto (1994) and seriously calls into question the role of the library as a leveller of inequality.
Having access to free public space is not a luxury but something many of us find essential and can't find anywhere else. As library users, we don't want an 'entrepreneur's lounge', an 'executive coffee bar', or an 'innovation space' where 'charges apply'. Such services are not for us. We want a library where we can work or study for free, a place that is welcoming and spacious. Crowding library users into two floors unless they can afford something better is a striking example of inequality at work. Please bear in mind that what seems like a modest fee to someone with a steady income is often far more than what a student or a jobseeker can afford to pay.
The business plan proposals tell us that despite its difficult financial situation, Cambridgeshire County Council has £300k to invest in this project. Why not take that money, as well as potential grants from the Arts Council Enterprising Libraries scheme or the Carnegie Library Lab for Innovation available for an in-house option as detailed in the aforementioned report, and build a library space that is simultaneously sustainable and puts the needs of the community above those of an 'international network of business clients'?
Lastly, we continue to have concerns about the Regus Group's tax exodus and about whether a partnership between this company and the County Council is appropriate. This is not a defamatory allegation but a well-documented fact: in August 2008, Regus chief executive Mark Dixon told the Guardian and the Telegraph that the company was relocating to Luxembourg to avoid paying taxes in the UK. As your constituents, we ask for clarification about your position on partnerships between public organisation and companies that relocate to avoid paying taxes.
Please consider all of the above carefully and vote no on 2 June. We need to think about the other options carefully before we give up a valued public space.
Cambridge Central Library Campaign (currently with 3598 signatories)
Cambridge Trades Council
Cambridge People's Assembly