Shortly before the last local elections, the Save Preston Library campaign held a public meeting. At this, they were apparently made an offer, which illustrates some of the problems of community managed libraries.
Of course, Preston Library doesn't actually exist. The former Library is now part of a school which uses the site for a "bulge" class. Unless there is an intervention, the class will be gone in 2015, and the building may then become available. The first question is: will the Council need this building any more for primary school places? The answer, at the moment, is no one knows. If there is such a need in 2015, I suspect the Council would be well advised to continue using that building, as it it is already fitted out, has planning permission and people are used to it. In which case, it may simply not be available.
However, let us suppose that there is no such need. What happens then?
The Council's standard policy on property is to review whether it is needed for any Council purpose. If it is not, it should be sold. The campaign group would of course argue it is needed for their local library, but the Council, thanks to the previous legal challenge, has conducted an exhaustive examination into library needs. This concluded that they were adequately supplied by the Council's six libraries. Indeed raw numbers and user satisfaction ratings indicate that Brent libraries are now better than they were in 2011. It is hard to see how the Council could defend the rationality of throwing money at a set of needs that it is already catering for perfectly adequately.
A second interesting question comes from the phrase "without competitive tender". A lot of voluntary groups seem to think of the Council as just a big pot of money that they can access, but in fact Councillors are subject to various rules before they can give people taxpayers' money or resources. Councillors are trustees of public money rather than just people spending their own. There are a number of overlapping concerns.
The first is the notion of a "peppercorn rent" for the group concerned. About twenty years ago, you could come across examples of peppercorn rents, but the London property market was much slacker in the wake of the Lawson boom. It is now notoriously overheated, and whereas a peppercorn rent might have been a viable market option in the early 1990s, it would not be in today's climate. This matters because Councillors have a fidicuary duty to secure value for money for the taxpayer. I last looked at this in the context of Dollis Hill House some years ago, so the details will have changed but the principle is the same. Back then, the 1972 Local Government Act decreed that a Council could not give a concession of more than 10% of the market rate without the Secretary of State's express permission, which he would be unlikely to grant. Rules like this also occasioned the delay in handing over the former Kensal Rise Library to All Souls College in 2012. You can see why Parliament wants such rules in force. Imagine a situation where a group could use political pressure or a close relationship with a Council Leader to just obtain taxpayers's assets when it wanted? Think of how open to abuse that would be.
The second arises from the principles of procurement. The EU requires public procurements to be competitive. Again this is to stop local authorities having a "magic circle" that they just hand public assets to, or who are subject to special favours. At the time we rejected the Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL) bid in 2011, we were specifically advised of this difficulty. I think it is overwhelmingly likely that similar rules would apply to the former Preston Library building.
Thirdly, there is the principle of dealing with voluntary groups fairly. Brent has done a lot of work on treating different groups equally, ensuring their aims align with the Council's strategy and ensuring that they deliver on what they say they will do. Treating groups equally is especially important in such a diverse Borough where different groups are so often convinced that some one else gets better treatment. Having public money spent on public objectives becomes more and more important as government cuts cause the amount of public money to dwindle. Finally, there is no point in giving people public money if they just walk off with it, so having a monitored service level agreement (effectively a contract), or in the case of the kind of smaller sums spent by ward working follow up reporting is vitally important.
In a climate where Eric Pickles and the Tory press are constantly trying to denigrate local government and the Labour Party as wasteful, demonstrating value for money is more important than ever.
Thanks for the anonymous comment below. It is wrong to state that the Council could have sold the former Kensal Rise Library building. As even the Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL) have effectively now accepted, the Council did not own the building. It automatically transferred to All Souls College in February 2012, along with the former Cricklewood Library. The legal advice was unequivocal on that point.
I would also make two points about trying to give public assets away.
1) There are long established rules about disposing of public assets at less than full value. It is not impossible, or necessarily undesirable, but Local Authorities are not utterly free agents to give money to people who simply ask for it. If you think about how open to corruption it would be if councillors could simply give away properties to people and groups who ask for them, you can see why Parliament put these rules in place.
2) Of course, I accept that public bodies operate charges, issue grants and arrange contracts with non-commercial considerations in mind, but it is not a free for all. When (say) a Council does this, there should be a clear, defined purpose which is of public benefit in some way. There should be a mechanism to ensure that that purpose is delivered, and there should be a clawback mechanism if that purpose is no longer being achieved.
Since this post was published, an attempt has been made to list the old building as an "asset of Community Value" which further complicates the situation.