Fate of Lewisham's libraries decided

In a report to the Mayor and Cabinet of Lewisham, Eco Computer Systems has been recommended as Lewisham Council's preferred partner to take over the running of three of its libraries: Grove Park, Sydenham and Crofton Park.

It's likely that ownership will be transferred to the social enterprise on a 25 year lease, enabling it to continue to offer library services while expanding the buildings' remit to include IT recycling and training for local people.

During the tender and consultation process, Eco Computer Systems emerged as by far the most credible candidate, with a strong business plan and a positive track record in Lewisham. The fate of New Cross Library still hangs in the balance, as a suitable partner has not yet been identified.

The report says:

Subject to agreement of the Mayor, officers will now work with Eco Computer Systems to agree final lease terms with them for Grove Park, Sydenham and Crofton Park libraries. Officers will also negotiate interim arrangements with Eco Computer Systems to allow them to begin to implement their plans for community library facilities at the three buildings from 29 May 2011 pending the leases being entered into. Work will also continue to secure a suitable long-term sustainable use for New Cross library working with local organisations.

This bid expressed an interest in all four libraries and sought to combine a community library service with IT recycling and training. The bid proposed using the four library buildings as mixed-use community hubs each including a professionally managed library service fully integrated with the borough’s library service. This activity would be supported through income generated by sales of recycled IT equipment as well as income generated from training, a community cafĂ© and other activities. Each library would be staffed by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers. Library opening hours would be increased under the proposal to 52 hours a week. The one-off transitional funding would be invested in self-issue technology as proposed in the application guidance. Each library would have its own steering committee comprised of local organisations and other active citizens on a voluntary basis.

Eco Computer Systems is a social enterprise that aims to use business solutions to achieve public good. It specialises in rebuilding, repairing and recycling computers and other IT equipment some of which is then sold commercially to support the donation of the remainder to community and charity projects. Eco Computer Systems propose work with a number of partners, including UK Online, Open Doors, Rushey Green Time Bank, EAGA, Volunteer Centre Lewisham, Voluntary Action Lewisham and local schools. The bid proposed establishing a new charity: Eco Libraries to deliver the concept.

For the reasons set out, it is recommended that Eco Computer Systems should be granted a maximum 25 year lease for Grove Park, Crofton Park and Sydenham libraries. There remain concerns about the significant growth that this implies for the company and the resultant danger to their business. Officers will therefore work closely with the company as they take responsibility for these buildings and develop the new community library facilities.

The proposals in this report will deliver the council’s planned savings of £755k in respect of the core libraries service, in line with the profile agreed in the council’s annual budget.

The report recommends that officers should continue to seek alternative users for New Cross library.

This is a good outcome for Lewisham. The Council are not the philistines they have sometimes been presented as during this process and they have succeeded in finding a partner that shares their vision for libraries run by the private sector in the public interest, maximising the community value of their buildings.

The three libraries being transferred should continue to serve the needs of their loyal users, while making much more efficient use of scarce community space. This is not simply a cost-saving exercise, it should also deliver better local libraries.

Meanwhile, Lewisham is building an outstanding library in Deptford - one with the scale and quality of facilities that should help attract new readers and serve a range of needs - creating a new community hub and a new generation of library users.

We've created a poll on the South East London forum, to see whether you agree with our rosy assessment.