Oliver Shykles from Save Highams Park’s Library campaign believes the fight has only just begun
Residents and community groups recently successfully fought off, at least for now, a plan by Waltham Forest Council to move Hale End Library in Highams Park to a site which local people considered wholly unsuitable.
Many considered it a plan designed to fail. The proposed new library site was located in an unused corner of a half-let retail development, was considerably smaller, and its continued existence would have been reliant on the council’s willingness to pay commercial rents year in, year out.
Highams Park’s current and well-used library is situated in a purpose-built modernist building which is bright and airy, surrounded by trees. It is located on a busy road that has a considerable amount of footfall from shoppers, commuters, and schoolchildren. The library has its own dedicated car park and community rooms and, thanks to a refurbishment in 2007 which cost the council £1million in today’s money, is fully accessible and modernised. More importantly, it is publicly owned and doesn’t incur any annual rental costs.
The seeds of the recent threat to Hale End Library, and the other libraries affected by the council’s ‘improvement plan’, Wood Street and Higham Hill, were sown in 2011 when the council decided to create a two-tier library system. The four so-called ‘library plus’ libraries received millions of pounds of investment while the remaining libraries received no investment at all. The opening hours at these downgraded libraries were drastically cut. This had the very obvious and predictable effect of reducing the number of people using those libraries on a regular basis.
Fast forward to today and these lower usage figures have and are being used as an excuse to cut library provision at Hale End Library further, as well as Wood Street and Higham Hill libraries. It can be argued that moving to smaller and less suitable sites is not going to increase usage, despite what the council may claim, and will provide an expensive halfway house until the council feels the usage figures warrant closing these libraries altogether.
Behind all this is a land value bubble which has turned libraries into pound signs, assets to be sold off for a quick buck, rather than treated as valuable community assets which should be handed down to younger generations.
Modern libraries have and are becoming more than just repositories for books. They’re for community activities, computers, free wifi for those without, quiet spaces for children and young people who may not get peace at home to revise, adult learning, and job hunting.
Documents that we saw revealed the council had been working on its ‘improvement plan’ for almost a year. Those against the council’s proposals had just over a week to draw up a response and build a counter-campaign; well over 4,000 signatures were gathered, several well-attended protests organised, and a Facebook group with more than 1,000 members quickly built.
The threat to Hale End has been stalled for now, but Wood Street and Higham Hill libraries also need our support. Higham Hill is a lovely, purpose-built library which has served the local community for generations and is close to several schools. It has suffered from underinvestment and faces being relocated to an as-yet unbuilt ‘hub’ in a less-than-ideal location.
Bad ideas can be put to rest if the response is big enough, and swift enough.
To support the Save Highams Park’s Library campaign: