Blackheath – where a boundary became the cuts frontline
Hundreds of book-lovers lost their local library last week – but didn’t have a say in the decisions that led up to it. One side-effect of Lewisham Council’s library cuts is that hundreds of Greenwich borough residents have lost out thanks to the decision to shut the doors on Blackheath Village Library – run by Lewisham, but sat right on the borough border. The map above was in the documents prepared for Lewisham’s cabinet members, showing where the library’s users live. Greenwich council tax payers make up 48% of Blackheath Village Library’s users, but have lost out in a process where they will have had very little input, and didn’t vote for the mayor making the decision.
The sums were always stacked against the library, sadly. It was the second-most expensive in Lewisham borough to run, thanks to a costly lease that it could prove tricky for the council to get out of even though it has now decided to close it from May. Its restricted opening hours means it costs £73/ hour to run – a stonking great sum as it is, but presumably an easy cut when half of that is funding the reading habits of people who aren’t even paying council tax to you.
Many of those borrowers will lose an alternative later this year when Greenwich closes the Ferrier Library. There’s still no word on the future of Greenwich borough’s other lending outlets.
Blackheath Village is leafy and nice, but being on a border means a double dose of cutbacks. Of course, it’d be lovely if Lewisham and Greenwich could work together. You know, they’re both Labour councils, showing the mature alternative to the national administration by, oh, falling out over some fireworks.
In Lewisham, the procedure’s been relatively open… but have been met with big protests, including hundreds banging pots and pans in the rain on Saturday. In Greenwich, the process has been anything but open, keeping the public in the dark. This means public protest largely limited to council staff fearing for their jobs, with 80 or so people protesting in Woolwich the other weekend.
But while Lewisham went for the libraries first, Greenwich decided to slash funding for voluntary groups and other community bodies. Among them is another organisation in a building right on the borough border – Blackheath Halls. Its community programmes depend on £65,000 a year from Lewisham, which lasts until September, and £70,000 from Greenwich, which lasts until April. Greenwich has proposed to cut its grant altogether.
The British Theatre Guide’s Gill Stoker asked community and education officer Rose Ballantyne what effect the loss of Greenwich’s grant would have on its community programmes.
“Either the whole programme will fold, or we will need to take a more commercial view of everything we promote and have to considerably increase our charges both for tickets and subscriptions to community projects. This may mean that local people won’t be able to afford them.”
So Blackheath Halls bosses will be trooping down to Woolwich Town Hall tonight to plead their case. They’ll have 15 minutes to convince councillors of the worth of their work at a behind-closed-doors meeting.
They won’t be alone. Over the next three nights (and again on 1 March) all kinds of organisations – children’s services, domestic violence help groups, legal services, groups for the elderly and arts groups – will be pleading with councillors for a slice of a vastly-reduced budget.
Many of those groups’ concerns seem a long way from swish Blackheath Village. But it’s there where the cuts are being noticed first, with a doomed library and an arts venue getting set to fight for its life. Sooner or later, positions may be reversed, and Lewisham could be looking at voluntary groups and Greenwich may be chopping libraries. But this is where we are now, with a government cutting and boroughs squabbling. If the villagers of Blackheath are crying out now, heaven knows what pain’s about to hit their neighbours.