Thursday, 8 October 2015

Co-op libraries for Southampton?

An opportunity has arisen in Southampton for community organisations to express an interest in running 5 local libraries - the City Council are encouraging community, voluntary, social enterprise, not-for-profit and faith organisations to come forward to run one of the Cobbett Road, Burgess Road, Thornhill, Weston and Millbrook libraries.  There is also a pot of £25,000 up for grabs for organisations wanting to run 3 of them in particular. The deadline for expressions of interest is 19 October.

Is this an opportunity for co-operation?

First off, why co-operative and not just social enterprise?  I have yet to find a credible argument as to why anyone should be excluded from democratic involvement in community services.  I'm not talking about interfering in day to day operational matters, which would be the preserve of staff/volunteers and managers.  I am talking about the big issues like usage policies, opening hours, extra services and most importantly who gets to be on the Board that make these decisions.  Without accountability to the community, can it truly be run by and for the community?

A co-op of libraries or a library co-op?

Library co-op

Speaking to a local activist from Co-operatives Southampton, they suggested forming a new co-operative of people who support the need for a library and would be willing to subscribe £10 a year donations to bridge any financial gap.  I would take a different approach and suggest a co-operative of library users, volunteers and staff members (however many the business plan shows they can afford!) would be a better model to take over the running of all 5.  The Board could be formed of representatives of each of these interest groups or constituencies of membership. This approach (known as a multi-stakeholder organisation) provides a balance between the different interests at stake.   Below Board level there are a range of options for management structure, from a traditional style with managers to a more team based workforce.

Provided that "friends of" groups were established for each library with some influence over the specifics of how that library was run this would be perfectly feasible.

One risk of taking such an approach is that if 1 fails, it is possible it would take the other 4 down with it.  On the other hand, taking on all 5 may bring economies of scale.  One employer, one set of overheads.


 Co-op of libraries

An alternative approach would be to create a co-operative of libraries rather than people.  Of course each library could organise itself as a co-op of users, or volunteers or staff or all 3 if it chose to.

The co-op of libraries would be controlled by the 5 libraries - each with 1 vote and each with a seat on the Board of the co-op.  It could take the form of a Community Benefit Society and apply for "exempt charitable" status.

Each of the 5 libraries would be run by its own users, staff, volunteers or trustees - taking whatever organisational or legal form it likes.  So for instance Cobbett Road might choose to be a co-operative with the Board made up of users, volunteers and staff, registering as a Community Benefit Society. Thornhill might choose a traditional charity structure with a Board of Trustees etc.  Each library could focus on what the community it serves needs in terms of services and also what the market is for building based services which will ultimately need to generate income to pay for the building upkeep.

If one or more of the libraries needed a service, they could source it from the co-op.  E.g. if each library only really needed 1 day a week of a professional library manager, they could share this employee.  Accountancy, training, health and safety costs, policy development, event promotion, some back office services - all manner of issues could be shared across the libraries and bought through this collaborative approach - and importantly offered on a menu basis rather than all libraries being obliged to use all services on offer. 

In reality, until some feasibility work is carried out and the different interest groups get together it would be difficult to draw a conclusion as to which would be the most preferable model.

Will it work?

In Suffolk, the County Council divested itself of responsibility for running a library service (a loophole only requires local authorities to have the books, not to provide the access to them!). A new mutual was established called Suffolk Libraries - a Community Benefit Society with Charitable status. In their case the members of the Society who elect the Board are the local community groups who support each library.  The most recent annual review makes interesting reading.  They are cited as having achieved the "gold standard" of library services according to the independent reviewer of library services for the government.   Their mutual approach is what gives them this advantage.

Health warning

Managing libraries using a co-operative approach will not work if they are not sustainable - co-operative management is not a magic wand, it is a means to ensure democratic stakeholder control - although ownership & control has been shown to encourage greater investment of time and money from members. If the council needs to jettison building liabilities and costs of running a service that has no income basis, can a community organisation take this on without the means to meet those costs.  Alternatively, the community being firmly in control can unlock untapped resources - cash donations, volunteer labour, cheap/free repairs and also identify means of generating income that meet local needs.  This of course means that things may change, but with the community in control that change should be for the better.  Clearly any proposal requires feasibility and then full business planning to identify the potential and any critical factors that need addressing for it to be successful.

If you want help carrying out feasibility assessment or choosing the right legal structure?  It's my trade, how I earn a living, and I live in Southampton. If you have already formed a group aiming to take on this opportunity get in touch to discuss what you need - I wouldn't charge for an initial conversation.

A few issues to consider...just to get you started

  • What other activities can take place in the building that will bring income or improve community benefit?
  • What other services could you offer alongside the free library service that there is paying demand for from people in the local area?
  • How is the building used now, and why isn't it used more?
  • How much is the library service used, and why isn't it used more?
  • What will your opening times be?
  • What are the running costs for the building?
  • What major works are due soon?
  • How much will cyclical maintenance cost?
  • Who will manage the space?  Staff or volunteers or a mix?  What will this cost?
  • Who will the keyholders be?
  • Will you transfer over existing staff?
  • Have you costed pensions, cover for sickness, maternity etc?
  • Who are your pioneer members?  How committed are they?  What skills do they have?
  • Who is willing to be on the management committee for the first few years?  You probably need a core who are committed to seeing it through from start-up until it is bedded in.
  • What skills have you access to?  Think particularly about finance, organisational skills, admin and local community links/networking skills.
  • Who is in your group?  Just as importantly, who is not in your group?  Are identifiable sections of the local population not represented?  You need to get them on board and be inclusive.