A shameful tale

Published:

SecEd editor Pete Henshaw on a sorry affair in Brent which epitomises the impact of government cuts.

While it is a minor scene in the grand tragedy of government cuts and their impact on vital community services, the following story somehow seems to sum up the injustice of our current era of austerity.

At the end of last month, council workers – backed up by police officers – entered a local library at 3am in the morning, emptied it of books and shut it down.

The ominously Orwellian incident threatens to bring an end to a long-standing campaign to save the facility – a campaign led and heavily supported by the local community.

This library was opened by Mark Twain 112 years ago, but this did not prevent it being stripped of books, furniture, murals painted more than 80 years ago, and even an historic plaque marking its opening in 1900 by the American author.

The campaign to save the Kensal Rise library in Brent, north London, has been run by the local community for some time with some notable authors lending their impassioned support (www.savekensalriselibrary.org).

The Labour-run administration in Brent had approved its closure alongside that of five other libraries in the borough back in April last year. This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of people who responded to a council survey opposed the closures.

The Kensal Rise campaigners lost a challenge in the High Court and Supreme Court earlier this year. Since then they have maintained a watch on the library in a bid to block any clearance, but the night-time raid caught them unawares.

The library building belongs to All Souls College in Oxford, which had gifted it to the people of Brent in 1900 on the condition it be used as a library. The Guardian reported that in an email sent to one campaigner, an All Souls’ representative described the clearance as “distressing” and said that they had told Brent that they would have been happy for the library to remain open with the help of the local community.

The campaigners still have the hope of engaging with All Souls, but Brent Council must be held to account for the way it has ignored the good will and the wishes of a community under its care. Was this not an ideal moment to prove that the Big Society can work?

So many decisions are being taken at the moment in which elected representatives use the austerity regime as justification for rail-roading local people and ignoring their views. It seems as if once politicians get elected, whether local or national, they seem to forget their ultimate responsibility and deem that they have the power to decide what is best for communities without listening to those same communities.

The books were not quite taken out into the night and burned (they have been redistributed to other libraries and outreach services around the borough), yet the nature of this whole affair fills me with unease as yet another elected body ignores the wishes of local people.

The criticism has been severe: “A gross act of philistinism which will bring lasting shame to all involved,” the biographer Sir Michael Holroyd said. 

“So the library is now an unlibrary,” playwright Michael Frayn added, “in the way that people became unpersons in the darkest days of the Soviet Union.” Maggie Gee, vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature, blasted the “cowardice of Brent’s Labour council”.

This week, Ian Whitwham – one of SecEd’s finest writers – offers his poignant commentary on Kensal Rise and a saga which he rightly calls a cautionary tale for us all (see June 21's At the Chalkface).

Not able to match Ian’s poetry, I will sign off by simply saying that this sad story, for me, is the epitome of thousands of other stories from across the country – vital services axed, government budget cuts blamed, local facilities “disappeared” overnight, residents’ views and wishes ignored and trampled upon. It is a depressingly common tale as ordinary people suffer disproportionately while politicians hide behind the false justification of austerity.


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