My statement to the Mayor’s Cabinet meeting on Bristol Central Library

“Once you’ve lost a public space you’ve lost it for good.”

The Library

Of course, some have tried to argue that the 270,000 reference works are not currently kept in a “public space”…but when it’s in the basement of Bristol’s Central Library and is utilised daily by library users, how can it not be seen as a public resource?

Others have argued that you will still be able to access these materials, they will just be elsewhere. This is true.

However, this is a decidedly inconvenient way of organising our public affairs. As a council, we should be fighting to protect library services in a convenient base in the centre of Bristol – not disperse them and render them less useable by the public.

Clearly, we need to update our library services and push the digital inclusion agenda forward. The Citizens Online initiative being run as a council service helps many older citizens into accessing online services every year, and more needs to be done to join this up with library services in-house.

Cllr Cook has argued that those who use the reference materials are “specialist users”. I disagree. They are just users. Knowledge, by its very nature, is specialist. To discover, find or research something requires you to move from being someone who comes into a contact with a service merely for functional reasons (e.g. no home internet access, a relative who needs some books during a period of ill health, etc.)

Libraries are a vital resource for those on lower incomes (and those who aren’t) to gain knowledge and information about the world for free. Many will be presently unable to access services online, and this raises key questions about our service provision. Do we see access to knowledge as a right in society, or a luxury?

Added to this, Grade 1 Listed Buildings are normally best used for their original intention – and Bristol’s Central Library is no exception.

The School

I have met with the Principal of Cathedral Choir School, Neil Blundell, about their potential annexing of a public building.

We exchanged robust dialogue and talked of the potential for increased use of the library by children and the challenges of digital inclusion.

However, our conversation did not convince me that the Cathedral School has a good case for expanding their provision.

There are heavily oversubscribed schools in the south and north of Bristol and primary schools should have a local focus – local schools for local children is a key principle of a 21st century education system. Catchment/priority areas are not an old-fashioned idea – they will increasingly help us to define the terms of the debate about education provision and inclusion.

There are also key concerns that have yet to be answered about how the school would ensure a good environment – both indoor and outdoor – for children.

The proposals seem to suggest there will be lots of walking from one point to another (e.g. walking to a dining hall in a separate building, daily, in all weathers). This will have a significant impact on their quality of life.

The Scrutiny Commission report also suggests that primary aged children will be sharing a dining hall with secondary aged children. I actually like the idea of mixing age groups in school (it is a bit unnatural to segment children by age) but what plans have been made to sensitively manage this?

The report also references a ‘slight lack of natural light’. As pointed out by the Scrutiny Commission,‘slight’ is not a scientific term. There are serious concerns about the long-term effects of lack of natural light on children and their ability to learn.

There is no evidence on this in the report that suggests they have considered this.

Additionally, there is not the space for children to be able to access both indoor and outdoor play areas. Physical recreation is crucial for the development of children’s understanding of health & wellbeing and for developing social and team skills.

Finally, there is perhaps the biggest concern – that low-income families will not be able to access this provision. There are concerns with admission arrangements, with it being compared to a ‘lottery system’. We need a clear statement from the Mayor that this should not apply to a primary school. There is a definite pattern emerging with free schools. Many are proposals for middle class parents who do not want their kids to go to a traditional state school.

We must look carefully at this in Bristol. There are clear benefits for children from different socio-economic backgrounds mixing together, and there is no evidence that this school appeals to the wide range of people that I know it hopes to.

The Mayor

The campaign to save the Central Library’s basement reference collection has been a truly cross-party campaign. Conservative councillor Richard Eddy started the e-petition, Green councillors Daniella Radice and Rob Telford have campaigned, Labour councillors Peter Hammond and Fabian Breckles have spoken out, and Lib Dem councillors have expressed reservations too.

The Mayor has made clear prior to today’s meeting that “no decision has been taken”.

With that in mind, he will be willing to listen to the Love Bristol Libraries campaign’s view that the Cathedral School proposals damage the good reputation of Bristol as a knowledge economy and do not give adequate provision for children in Bristol.

Children should be treated as children not as ‘numbers’ or ‘places’. There are lots of use of the words ‘places’ in this report which assumes that children are numbers. We need to give, first and foremost, consideration to the needs of real, live children.

The Central Library is a lifelong, democratic educational institution that is not limited to a specific age-range or socio-economic status. It is a great example of archictecture and sits at the heart of our city’s civic centre.

It would be bizarre for an architect of George Ferguson’s standing to fail to see that the huge benefits that keeping reference materials in the basement of the library brings to our civic life and our city’s cultural offer.

“Once you’ve lost a public space you’ve lost it for good.”

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