The 'Con' in Consultation
On 20th January Dorset county council's Community Overview Committee will meet to approve the terms on which 20 libraries, from a total of 34, will be offered. Affected residents doubt they will be consulted on the terms of this 'standard offer', as it is being described, before it is set in stone. Yet upon its terms will depend whether these libraries, from which funding is being withdrawn, can be kept open. As the process gathers momentum, the 'offer' is scheduled to be pushed through a quarterly meeting of the full council two weeks later -- again, it is feared, without any consultation.
In the event that Dorset does intend to "do the right thing" and formally consult affected residents and the wider public, meaningfully, in advance of any final decision, it is a grim fact that the clock is ticking. Does the council intend to talk to people before, or after, the stable door is closed ?
Residents say they are determined to put up a spirited defence of their libraries. While many of Puddletown's Friends are determined to keep theirs open "come hell or high water", they worry that their permanent stock of 4,000 volumes would soon lose its attraction without a steady supply of books. Will they be able to continue to exchange their stock for books from the county's central store -- or will their years of dedicated volunteering to extend their library's opening hours be flung back in their teeth ?
Dorset's 'standard offer' for the 20 condemned libraries must throw a lifeline to these vital services. Failing that, it will deny Puddletown and the 19 others enough nourishment to stay open beyond April 2012, effectively erasing the 'comprehensive' service stipulated in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
If there is no meaningful consultation, a mighty 'Con' is being perpetrated on the public by Dorset council. Elected members, whatever the local budgetary pressure, must recognise that they have obligations, when deciding on the shape of a statutory service, properly to consult the public. Failing that, the Secretary of State has a duty to intervene.