Libraries across Birmingham are at risk of being shut down amid severe funding cuts, the city council has admitted for the first time.
Birmingham City Council’s Labour leadership has ordered a review of all community services, including parks, 39 community libraries, youth centres and housing services in a bid to reduce the £50 million ‘controllable’ budget.
The Tory-Lib Dem Coalition, which ran the council until 2012 and dealt with the first two rounds of austerity cuts, had pledged to keep every library and leisure centre open – even though staffing levels and opening hours at many were severely cut.
Now council leader Sir Albert Bore has admitted that library closures are ‘a possibility’ as he prepares for council-wide cuts of around £100 million a year until 2018.
He has ordered each of the city’s ten local districts to rank services they provide – including play centres, community support and car parks.
One desperate plan being investigated is to use ‘slow growing’ strains of grass in the city’s parks and open areas which doesn’t need to be cut so often.
Libraries could in future be run by volunteers or forced to share buildings with schools, universities, youth clubs, health centres or community centres – or cut altogether if private or third sector organisations provide similar services.
Some with protected funding like housing services and public health could be adapted to cover cuts in other areas.
A key driver will be the ability to share facilities – such as co-locating a library, youth club, community hall in the same building.
When it was pointed out that the previous Tory-Lib Dem administration’s attempt to cut youth clubs had been met with one of the largest petitions ever received by the city council, backed by Labour councillors, Sir Albert said that the financial situation had worsened.
He also said that, with libraries and youth centres, protests may be misguided. “Many are ‘save the building’ campaigns and not ‘save the service’ campaigns.
“It may be more effective for us to provide an outreach service or co-locate the service in another building.”
Excluding council housing and roads, the city council owns some 3,900 properties worth an estimated £4.8 billion – including offices, cemeteries, shopping parades, schools, parks, industrial estates.
These are being assessed to see how much can be sold off – although previously the City Council has tried to avoid talk of a ‘fire sale’ of assets.
Other measures include using ‘slow growing’ grass and wild flowers in the city’s 591 parks to reduce the grounds maintenance bill. It would cut the frequency of mowing from every two to three weeks to four to six weeks.
Further proposals include encouraging more commercial activity in parks – from sponsorship of flower beds to opening shops and cafes – while more parks could soon be charging for car parking.
It is understood that the review was redrafted following protests from a delegation of district committee chairmen and women at a private meeting earlier in the week.
They demanded greater control over the process and a greater say in the implimentation of any cuts or changes to services for which they are responsible.
And Labour cabinet member for children’s services Brigid Jones, who led the review, admitted that these could be among the most contentious of its reviews.
She said: “It involves some of the most visible and most loved services the council provides. This is where the jaws of doom are beginning to bite.”
Lib Dem group leader Paul Tilsley said that the council had got its priorities wrong and could do more to defend libraries and community services if they were not spending £62 million, including £9 million from corporate funds, introducing wheelie bins over the next two years.
But he added that if services could be provided in a more efficient way he would welcome that. “We haven’t got a closed mind.”