Lewisham Council bosses are hoping  to transform libraries across the borough into community hubs. 

It’s hoped a new model could provide several non-traditional services in libraries, such as legal advice, advice on benefits and taxes, and help with IT skills.  

Following a review, the council is planning to cut between £300,000 and £500,000 from its library service budget.  

The proposal forms part of £40 million worth of budget cuts the council plans to make over the next three years.    

See related: Budget cuts Lewisham: Services will be affected

Director of community services Tom Brown presented the relevant cuts to the safer stronger communities select committee on Thursday (January 14). 

He said: “While the council has continued to do everything it can to support residents and businesses through the pandemic, and despite prudent financial management, we’re being forced to confront a huge budget gap.  

“It builds on a decade of Government cuts and underfunding which has seen the council’s budget cut by half.” 

The review is expected to go before mayor and cabinet in March or April 2021 and, depending on the outcome, a cut of £100,000 to £230,000 to the library service could be made this year.   

Part of the cuts includes a hiring freeze as the service’s salary budget makes up 80 per cent of its total budget.   

Freezing recruitment could save £150,000 in 2021/22.  

After this it is likely some people currently hired could lose their jobs following a full restructure of the service.   

Cllr Jonathan Slater, cabinet member for community sector, told the committee that libraries are expected to open as they operated before the pandemic as soon as possible. 

But after the review they could work differently.  

I would hope the libraries would support digital inclusion, teaching people to use computers as they need them practically

Cllr Jim Mallory said Covid-19 has “changed everything”. 

“What I’m suggesting is a new and greater service in terms of outreach and inclusivity.  

“I hope to see an overhaul […] that means that libraries will accommodate a range of staff who have not traditionally worked in libraries and who may come from elsewhere in the council. 

“There are opportunities for advice, advocacy, and other services to be provided in the libraries.  

“[For the] many people who need support, whether it’s to do with their benefits or taxes or they are on the wrong side of the digital divide. 

“I would hope the libraries would support digital inclusion, teaching people to use computers as they need them practically.  

“I don’t mean that we should no longer regard libraries as being purveyors of books and literature, it’s just that I think there needs to be a much more holistic service provided which benefits the community, particularly those on the wrong side of the digital divide,” he said.  

Mr Brown said Cllr Mallory summed up where he hopes the review will end up.  

“I wouldn’t want to preempt the review nor impose my thoughts and my model. But that’s very much the conversations [we’re having],” he said.  

Committee members also asked where the council was with engaging the public on the plans and whether it had reviewed library buildings. 

Cllr James Rathbone said some facilities were “not fit for purpose”.  

But Mr Brown said the council would first have to review the service and produce a model before consulting with the public and reviewing buildings.  

“There are opportunities and the need for investment but until we have developed the model we don’t want to jump into an estate solution,” he said.  

The committee recommended that the council agrees the proposed cuts in principle.  

Its referral to the public accounts committee states: “Safer and stronger communities select committee recommends that Lewisham Council agrees in principle the proposed budget cuts to close the budget gap created by the Government, subject to the completion of equalities impact assessments and feasibility studies as necessary.  

“Where possible, we would urge the council to provide additional income generation support, to partner organisations, and in particular charitable, voluntary, and community organisations.”