[Editor’s note: This post was written by Andrew Burns, Director of Finance and Resources at Staffordshire County Council, and President of CIPFA]
I had the pleasure of speaking at the Society of Chief Librarians seminar on 8 June (a general election day where the outcome then seemed predictable!) on the state of the public finances and the implications for public services in general and libraries in particular.
So where are we two months later, post-election, pre-Brexit and, significantly, in the build-up to the Chancellor's first Autumn Budget expected in November?
Whilst much rhetoric is suggesting that austerity is over (or rather the public are tired of that narrative), the Chancellor will no doubt emphasise that we will still need to live within our means and a growing economy is needed to generate the tax revenues to fund public services.
Clamour for resources
The clamour for more resources to invest in the NHS, social care, infrastructure, schools, public service pay, housing and fire safety is building and it seems likely that there will need to be some further investment to improve public services, public confidence in them and to get a budget passed in the House of Commons with a slim majority.
Recent economic forecasts from the International Monetary Fund, the Bank of England and the Office of Budget Responsibility all point to sluggish economic growth with the public finances remaining tough for next five to ten years as we move through Brexit. So disappointing as this sounds, local government, libraries and culture will not be at the front of the queue if there is to be any further public investment.
However it is not all doom and gloom. Devolution, localism and the (albeit slow) moves towards Council’s becoming self-financing provide some opportunities to make better use of local resources, with full control over council tax, business rates, better use of public assets and greater civic commercialism. But this, combined with societal changes, will require different conversations between local partners and the public about the role, size and shape of the state. Improved digital access and literacy could be both a catalyst for, and transformer of, this.
Opportunities for libraries?
In the absence of any more money, there are real opportunities for libraries if they can position themselves to contribute to the agenda for health and wellbeing, inclusive growth, new housing, lifelong learning and skills, and in shaping places to make them attractive to skilled workforces (who pay council tax) and businesses (who pay business rates).
For me, the Industrial Strategy will be a key driver. Stronger regional and local economies are needed to generate the tax revenues to both pay for public services – especially the NHS and welfare state - and reduce the need for them through better jobs, skills, productivity and improved health and wellbeing of citizens.
The Taskforce’s Ambition document clearly shows that libraries can improve wellbeing, strengthen communities and increase prosperity. Literacy and reading is crucial to the skills agenda; culture and creative activity make great places and build strong communities, and who is better placed than libraries to improve digital inclusion?
Your messages are strong. The challenge will be getting them heard by the politicians and policy makers who control the public purse strings. More trusted messengers and more library users (real and virtual) will be needed to enable libraries to deliver!
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce