Recruitment freeze forces frequent library closures

LIBRARIES in Bristol are regularly having to close temporarily because of staff shortages.

All 26 local branches have shut their doors to residents at least once since the city council banned the use of casual employees in November.

In just a few weeks following the recruitment freeze, Henleaze Library had to shut on eight of the days it should have been open and was partly closed on eight more while Westbury also had to close on eight days and saw four partial closures.

The figures for other north Bristol libraries were Southmead 10 (4), Horfield 8 (4), Lockleaze 0 (17), Redland 12 (1), Bishopston 7 (0), Avonmouth 3 (8), Sea Mills 4 (6), Shirehampton 1 (8) and Clifton 1 (6).

Councillors have called for the ban on casual staff to be lifted, but Labour said this would cost £300,000 and mean cuts elsewhere to council services.

A report to the full council meeting on January 9 said there had been 287 full or part-day closures in total.

Liberal Democrats put forward a motion to recruit staff to vacant posts, restore the use of casual staff and allow staff to do overtime. The motion was unanimously approved, although that doesn’t bind the council to take any action.

Lib Dem Councillor Tim Kent said: “Every day we see several libraries closed. Today there are six libraries. These closures have hit hardest where communities desperately need these facilities. The network is being undermined and the savings provided are minuscule. We cannot just slash services without thought to its consequence. The small savings do not match the unbelievable impact this has. Since November, nearly 300 library closures have occurred here in Bristol.”

Green Party Councillor Martin Fodor, who recently chaired a scrutiny commission debate on libraries, said “We all know people love our libraries. They are vital community resources in so many ways: for literacy, private study, research, community meetings, warm spaces, seeking advice, events and voluntary ways of involving local residents. The frequent, multiple branch closures announced on days most weeks need to end.”

Conservative Councillor Steve Smith added: “There’s always staff absences, that’s just a normal part of running a service. Normally the library service covers that absence, either with overtime or a selection of bank staff. But they’re no longer allowed to do that, as that’s been frozen. They can’t use overtime, they can’t use bank staff.”
Libraries should have been open for a total of 2,945 hours in December but were forced to close for 599 of these hours — just over a fifth of the planned opening time. This rose from 6.3 per cent of hours closed in November, and only 3.2 per cent in October.

Council leaders said the closures were due to austerity and the government reducing its funding since 2010. Extra funding could be found this spring, when the council passes a new budget for the next financial year, beginning this April.

Labour Councillor Ellie King, cabinet member for public health and communities, said: “Bristol City Council, along with the majority of local authorities in the country, has lost £6 out of every £10 of our funding. This means our teams in every part of the council have had to adjust and adapt.

“We of course want our libraries to be fully staffed, and this is not an ideal situation. But it’s a temporary measure until the end of the financial year. Closures are often down to staff illness, and staff are moved around from library to library where possible, to minimise closures. The reality is employing more library staff means cuts elsewhere.”

Details of planned library closures each day are posted on X (formerly Twitter).

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service