19 Jul 2011

People of Brent versus Brent Council: Save our Six Libraries

Sketch of Court 2, Royal Courts of Justice - The people of Brent versus Brent Council. (S Ali)

As significant as the goings on in Westminster on 19 July 2011 (hackgate hearings), at least for the good people of Brent, is the High Court challenge to the Council's plan to axe six local libraries in Brent - and the potential repercussions if the case is won. On the opening day of the legal challenge, the BBC reports.

In the words of the Save our Six campaign, the basis of the challenge is that: "Brent Council has closed its mind to alternatives to closure, did not assess community needs or the impact of closure properly, made significant mistakes about the facts, misunderstood its legal duty to provide a library service and acted unfairly."

After presenting a physical and vocal presence outside the entrance to the Court (some pictured below), the people of Brent packed the lower and upper public gallery of Court 2. The judge first entertained an application he had lately received to have the case adjourned, on behalf of a third party. This struck me as a desperate attempt at sabotage, which could only have helped the Council, and the judge rightly dismissed as "too late".

Counsel for the claimaint (the campaign to save the libraries) then summarised, in the first hour, the main legal arguments that she would go on to put in more detail. The contention was that "Brent had not acted lawfully, or with due regard, to its statutory duties." The main pieces of law referenced were the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (in particular section 7): "It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof ..". Also referenced were the Equalities Act 2010 and the Childrens Acts of 1989 and 2004.

We were introduced to a compelling case that the Council, in deciding how to fulfil its duty under the 1964 Act, "had fixed on the means of fulfilling that end, without proper, open-minded consideration of the alternative options." These failures were itemised under the headings of failures of Approach - such as closing its mind to third sector collaboration - and failures of Analysis. The latter included the contentions that Brent Council had sought to reach a decision before facilitating the formation of rational and informed views; had failed to rigorously assess the needs of children; and had turned its Equalities Impact Analysis in to a piece of advocacy "rather than a genuine tool to inform the decision-making process."

The final piece of the legal challenge concerned Brent's inadequate consultation .. because "Brent closed its mind"; did not offer consultees financial alternatives; made up criteria without disclosing them to consultees; and offered no questions about what would mitigate the library closures. These charges will ring true to anybody who is familiar with Brent's attitude to consultation generally, and the libraries problem in particular. (Report of original Council decision on 11 April 2011 to decimate libraries.)

I shuffled a written note to a neighbour in the gallery concerned that Council representatives (for the defendant) appeared to her to be visibly making light, or in denial, of some of these grave criticisms. "We will prevail!" I replied.

Another resident, Andria Greaves, said to me of her local library in Tokyngton: "It's one of the very far out libraries which they think they can ignore."

Over the coming hours and days, let Brent Council's mind be focussed to its rank disdain of the people of Brent and its riding roughshod over the educational needs of some of its most vulnerable communities.

The people of Brent will not be ignored!

Brent library campaigners outside the High Court.

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