Chingford News

Council decision to stop paying rent for South Chingford Community Library a ‘betrayal’

The community-run library is at risk of closure after the council stopped paying rent on its behalf in September last year, reports Sebastian Mann, Local Democracy Reporter & Marco Marcelline

SCCL trustees Richard Ashen and Steve Marson standing in front of the library, Credit: LDRS

Volunteers at a community-run library in Chingford have branded Waltham Forest Council’s decision to stop paying their rent a “betrayal”.

South Chingford Community Library is expected to shutter after the council stopped paying the rent on the board’s behalf.

A spokesperson for the local authority said it had provided “immense support” to the library over the past eleven years – including £500,000 in direct support over the past five years – but could not continue. 

The council stopped paying rent in September 2023, around 14 months after its 15-year lease on the building had ended. 

The library opened at the premises back in 2011, after the building had been used by the council as a support hub since 2007. 

The council spokesperson said the authority could not enter into a financial agreement with the landlord, Keith Hibberd, while a review of its library services and provision is underway.

However, the volunteers who have given up their time to keep it afloat now feel they are being callously “driven out”. 

Steve Marson, a trustee who handles much of the day-to-day management of the library, said: “It is like a betrayal. The landlord can’t wait forever, so we’ll be driven out.”

These feelings were compounded when Labour councillors appeared to cheer as they voted to close the library at a council meeting on Thursday, 29th February. 

Steve added: “It was not very nice to see them cheer as they said they would close us down. That was quite a thing to do.” He added it was “fate” that the voting software malfunctioned and councillors had to verbally cast their vote.

Richard Ashen, who chairs the library’s board of trustees, said it was an “unpleasant” and “disappointing” sight.

A petition to “save our local library” gathered thousands of signatures in a handful of weeks, which Steve said was proof people wanted it to stay.

However, the council says it offered the library an £18,000 grant, covering operating costs and rent until June, but the board declined. 

The authority spokesperson said the group cited concerns about their capacity and expertise in handling paperwork and managing accounts, and opted to not take it on. 

However, Steve said it would have been an unnecessary change to the arrangement.  He said: “We’re just a bunch of volunteers and they’ve spent 15 years paying the landlord directly, so why change? We’re not experienced enough to have that sort of money in our accounts and they have their own finance department. They just wanted to pass the issue onto us and make us the middle-man.”

Many volunteers at the library now worry about the future of both attendees and staff. Kath Roberts, who has worked at the library for 18 months and runs the popular infant session Baby and Toddler Rhyme Time, said its services were vital for the community. 

She said: “It’s so important for young children, who may not be able to access these books otherwise. Lots of people come in and I don’t know if they have anybody else. Some don’t even take any books – they just come here for the social side.”

She added “It’s a lifeline for many of the volunteers, as well as the attendees.”

Posters on the SCCL window, Credit: LDRS

Around 20 people attend Isabella de Plessis’ crafts workshop every Monday and she caters for people of all skill levels and abilities.

She said she was concerned about relocating, as she keeps most of her supplies in a room upstairs and has come to rely on the space to run the workshop.  She was equally concerned that there would be nowhere else that could provide the classes, adding: “Where will all these people go?”

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Others have suggested the library changes its outlook.  Naila Mir, one of the newer trustees, said more needed to be done to entice new crowds.  She said: “We need to think about running a business and being smarter about the facilities that we have.” She added that much of the library’s income came from renting out its spaces, which are otherwise free to use. 

The trustee suggested asking for donations, with “fabulous” events like the Baby and Toddler Rhyme Time being “completely free”.  

The Labour-run council has been roundly attacked by Conservative councillors, who are all represent wards north of the North-Circular.

Jemma Hemsted, a councillor for the Valley ward said that the council did not see South Chingford residents and library volunteers as a “priority”.

In a speech at full council meeting on Thursday 29th February, Cllr Hemsted said that the library and its volunteers “hold a very special place in my heart and I feel so proud of all that it has achieved.”

She continued: “SCCL is more than just a library, as well as lending books they have helped an enormous amount of people, both young and old, with reading skills, CV writing, language & computer skills. As well as offering and giving assistance with accessing Council services. They offer lots of activity groups like knitting, poetry, Christmas parties and quiz events which not only help with their fundraising but brings the community together and brings people out of social isolation. All of which we know helps bring down the council bills.”

Calling on councillors to back a failed Conservative motion to allocate £80,000 to the library from the Priority Fund, she accused the council of not seeing the “contribution and value” of SCCL, adding that its closure would be evidence of Waltham Forest “completely abandoning” South Chingford.

Chingford and Woodfrod Green MP Iain Duncan Smith has spearheaded a campaign to save the library from closure. In a letter to council leader Grace Williams dated 28th February, he said he was “deeply concerned” that Waltham Forest was “refusing to pay the rent owed to the landlord”. As well as saying the council was pushing a £19,000 debt onto the SCCL and its trustees, the MP also accused the council of having treated the private landlord “appallingly”.

In a letter addressed to the local MP dated 26th February, Cllr Williams pointed to Conservative cuts to local government. She said: “Nationally spending on libraries has fallen by almost half (47.9%) since the Conservatives came to power fourteen years ago – six of which you served in as a cabinet minister”, and slammed him for asking “for investment in local facilities” while “[opposing] our every effort to develop sites to do so!”

Defending the council’s record on the South Chingford library, she said: “Since 2012, the council has fully funded South Chingford Community Library, spending half a million pounds. The council has been communicating with volunteers who do amazing work at the SCCL to offer direct grant support to cover the rent of this private unit until the summer, to allow us to consult on our library services across the whole borough. In the meantime, the landlord has let us know that they intend to dispose of this site for sale, which of course they [are] entitled to do. We will continue engaging volunteers and residents on the way forward as these changes happen.”

The Echo asked if the council had any plans to invest in new library infrastructure in Chingford Mount if SSCL if forced to shut but we did not receive a response.

However, the council said it remains steadfast in its provision of libraries and pointed to examples of library funding in other parts of the borough.

A council spokesperson said: “We have been able to create new, modern libraries that offer a range of important services in Wood Street and Lea Bridge because of the money we receive thanks to developments in these areas – a total of £3.6 million. 

“This shows why we work so hard to attract outside investment to our borough, which allows us to create the improvements that residents value.”

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