When a library would do better as a monument

Diane Spencer

Public library supporters were delighted when Labour pledged last week to change the National Lottery rules to make libraries eligible for funds, writes Diane Spencer. But they are worried about a party U-turn on saving school library services.

Chris Smith, then Labour heritage spokesman (he has since moved to social security) told a Library Association conference that if the lottery could fund new theatres, it should also fund new libraries. But he said he would not wish to see lottery money used for basic core services.

The LA made the lottery a focus of the conference and also held a rally and lobby of MPs last week to raise the profile of public libraries. Chief executive Ross Shimmon estimates that more than Pounds 600 million is needed to build, repair and refurbish libraries. "It's crazy that libraries don't have access to the lottery," he said. "They are the prime source of access to the best known art form - literature."

Most libraries are not eligible because local authorities have a statutory duty to fund them. Lottery funds cannot be used to duplicate public money.

Libraries can bid for heritage lottery funding if they are housed in an historic building or if they need to support a collection of national historic value. Arts Council lottery money might be available if the library has a gallery or performance area.

Alistair Niven, the Arts Council's director of literature, supported Mr Shimmon. "We are utterly behind his sentiments." He said it was absurd that it was possible to get lottery money for premises where an actor could dress up as Charles Dickens and recite his works, but impossible to provide a home for Dickens' books themselves. The criteria for bidding for lottery funds were being reviewed by the council he assured his audience.

Mary Hoffman, co-ordinator of Central, a pressure group supporting the schools library service, claimed that Labour has backed away from its 1992 manifesto commitment to make the service statutory.

Ms Hoffman told the conference that if Labour was successful at the next general election, it would inherit a patchy and confused service. Barnsley was forced to axe its service last April and East Sussex is proposing to follow suit next year. But she believed it would not be too late to repair the damage if Labour stuck to its earlier commitment. She was concerned about a policy shift hinted at by Labour earlier this year when heritage spokesman Mark Fisher told a LA meeting that a statutory service would not be feasible under local management of schools.

At least a dozen authorities have cut their SLS since 1990 as there have been no national safeguards. Barnsley saved Pounds 111,000 and East Sussex is looking to save Pounds 500,000 by closing its SLS, which serves 89 per cent of schools in the county.

The Liberal Democrat-controlled council has set up a strategic forum of more than 150 people in the education service to find ways of reducing the budget by 10 per cent - Pounds 24 million - over the next three years. Its report will be considered at a special meeting of the education committee on November 22.

Expenditure on school books fell by Pounds 8.5 million last year, according to the Publishers' Association.

The association is alarmed at the reduction, in the light of this year's International Publishers' Association survey on the textbook market which showed that Britain's total spending on school books per child was well below that of many other European countries. The UK spends Pounds 23, Finland Pounds 71, Austria and Sweden Pounds 61, Holland Pounds 56, Italy Pounds 38, Denmark Pounds 33 and Ireland Pounds 30.

John Davies, director of the Educational Publishing Council, said schools did not have the books to meet the Government's aspirations, including the introduction of the revised national curriculum which required new books. "Radical action is needed if Britain is to meet its educational objectives, " he said.

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