Jesmond provides example to communities facing council cuts

Trustee member Chris Clarke overseeing the work of his volunteers.

Trustee member Chris Clarke overseeing the work of his volunteers.

Facing the knock on effects of Newcastle City Council’s recent £30 milion budget cuts, Newcastle’s libraries are now dealing with a 14% drop in visitors, and many are faced with the threat of closure.

With this most recent round of austerity measures the council was forced to cut back on its essential services, such as social and disability care. Campaigners have warned community centres including libraries, pools and youth centres across the city may have to shut their doors. Libraries are especially struggling, with a combined reduction of 228,000 visitors across the city.

With diminishing help available from local government it has fallen upon  communities to save, run and manage non-essential services. This new Newcastle-wide normal is something that Jesmond has experience in – and other areas of the city are looking to Jesmond for examples of how to have community-run services.

Jesmond Pool (Jesmond Community Leisure) and Jesmond Library are both operated by groups of trustees and volunteers – the former since 1992, and the latter since 2013.

JesmondLocal spoke to members of both institutions to find out some of the secrets to their success, and why other similar schemes, in areas such as Blakelaw and Elswick, have struggled to get off the ground.

Chris Clarke from Friends of Jesmond Library explained how a spirit of volunteerism had been key in the beginnings of re-opening the library. “Almost immediately there was a massive public meeting,” he said. “It was agreed from the start that the community should do all it could to help.”

Clarke added that this volunteerism is not restricted to Jesmond and the models working here are feasible anywhere. Glenn Armstrong from Jesmond Pool, who has been working with volunteers in Elswick, told JesmondLocal that “the enthusiasm shown by residents to save the pool is just as strong. Elswick unfortunately is faced with more difficult circumstances, such as money and free time.”

Jesmond’s affulence a small, but not vital, factor

Both Clarke and Sarah Mercer – also of Jesmond Library – acknowledged that the relative affluence of Jesmond has aided their cause. But both add that it is not financial aid which has been of most benefit. Rather the skills provided by former professionals who have volunteered are what keeps the projects running, as well as the larger number of retirees who can afford to give up their time.

“We have former laywers, council workers and even architects volunteering for us,”  explains Mercer.

Clarke adds that as other communities do not have such a rich resource they will struggle to get off the ground without outside help.

Yet despite the success of the library since it reopened in 2013 both recognize that there are several issues that arise from operating without the council.

Clarke laments the libraries inability to offer inter-library loans, a system that is run on the council computer network, which Jesmond Library has been – as he describes it – “completely cut off from”.

When asked why the council is so reluctant to involve the community-led library Clarke replied: “the council can be helpful, but there are sticking points on which they will not budge.”

Clarke, along with library user Simon, a local rag and bone man, also bemoans the huge cost of the use of private contractors. What was once a free service under the council is now a huge expense. Clarke remembers a charge the library incurred – £130 in all – to identify a troublesome switch. Simon adds that the electronic doors cost around £40,000. He noted the library could hire a door man on an annual salary for less.

Cutting the council cord

Yet there are benefits. The council provides the building rent free. Being an independent body the Friends of Jesmond Library have much greater freedom in the choosing of books. Such decisions are undertaken by a ‘book committee’ and not a mandated council list.

Having over 100 volunteers also provides greater freedom for events and talks to be staged, which range from circle dancing to talks on the poet R.S Thomas. Sarah Mercer believes that this broad range in events, put on by so many people, has been key to the library’s continued popularity. She stresses that it is vital that the library offers more than just books; that it offers community engagement.

This is a sentiment expressed by everyone JesmondLocal spoke to. Mercer points out the library is Jesmond’s only secular community space.

Simon noted that “it’s much friendlier and livelier than it used to be and that has encouraged me to use it more.”

This is echoed by volunteer Valerie, a Jesmond resident for over 70 years who gives up six hours a week to work on the reception desk. “We try and cater to any requests, even on how to gut and cook a pheasant,” she explains. “Everything is community based: the toilet is public so we get workmen passing through. Some have even come back in.”

Necessity and a ‘needs must’ attitude

Yet throughout all the success it is clear that this is a product of necessity. Clarke and Mercer, along with local resident (and Jesmond Residents Association member) Tony Waterston, are highly grateful for the effect the initiative has had on the local community, but regret that it has come at the cost of local services.

Waterston notes that community involvement has “renewed a spirit of democracy amongst residents, in a way empowering the community.” He added that the council should be trying to do this and that it should not be left to residents themselves at the cost of local services.

When asked about the future of Jesmond Library and the pool, Clarke believed both will still be community run in 10 years time. He agrees with Waterston about the benefits to the community and calls for the council to find a “hybrid solution to engage and involve residents without the need for them to take over public services.”

When asked about the future for such initiatives outside of Jesmond Clarke was not overly optimistic, but offered the help and experience he has gained from operating Jesmond’s library. He suggests much greater “sideways co-operation” between communities is required, and the need to have experienced and knowledgeable help when starting up.

Whatever the future holds for Newcastle’s public services, Jesmond has set an example for others to follow. All those JesmondLocal spoke to said they would be willing to offer their knowledge and experience to other such schemes to prevent Newcastle from losing its much needed community centres.