The outrage in reaction to planned library closures has highlighted a great problem with politics today: the tendency to polarise debate into two opposed camps with no middle ground in between.
When many councils responded to cuts by proposing to close some libraries, critics adopted wildly exaggerated language to the effect that this would harm children and decimate our cultural heritage. Consequently, the libraries question went the same way as other issues raised by the spending cuts: a division into two camps, one for and one against. Strong rhetoric on both sides condemns the two views to remain irreconcilable.
However, Leeds City Council’s proposals for their library network demonstrate that this does not have to be the case. Having identified that about £1 million worth of books is unavailable to users most of the week as it is kept in libraries that have short opening hours because they receive few visitors, the council plans to close twenty underused branches and shift their stock to the remaining libraries of Leeds. These branches would have their opening hours extended, making more books available, more of the time. With these proposals, Leeds City Council are bridging the gulf between the two camps, focusing simultaneously on improving service and saving money.
More crucial than this demonstration that spending less does not have to lead to a decline in the quality of services is the consequent proof, if it were needed, that the public sector will spend whatever it has without regard to efficiency. That a council can improve a service by spending less speaks volumes for their disregard for taxpayers.
In other areas, Leeds City Council are planning to cut services – day centres for the elderly, for example – and are blaming this on reduced funding. In this way, they are placing themselves in the anti-cuts camp and attempting to present themselves as victims of the spending cuts. When you remember that the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council earns £245,000 a year, it is difficult to think of council grandees as victims.
Rather than perpetuate the two-camps approach to political debate, councils should cooperate with Whitehall and be willing to reorganise services in the manner of Leeds’ library network in order to save money. Cooperation, not conflict, is the best way of ensuring the spending cuts are effective as possible. More importantly, it is an opportunity for councils to recognise the limitations of the state. Rather than relying on councillors thinking they know what is best for us, widespread public consultations would allow us to express what we actually want from local government and how we want it delivered. Such decentralisation of power towards individuals would in the short term increase confidence in governmental institutions and in the long term develop a better public sector, more likely to meet its users’ expectations. Such a reconciliation of the two camps will allow politicians of all sides to put aside their personal interest in favour of the good of those they govern: everyone.