Jan Roberts in her fine blog PastToPresentGenealogy writes about cuts to libraries in Kirklees, and Batley in particular. She quotes an article from Public Libraries News, which points out that while library usage in Canada and USA is growing, but in Kirklees and Walsall budgets are being cut by 72% (over 3 years) and Walsall 75% (1).
For family and local history researchers public archives are indispensable. I am not sure how much genealogical resource is available directly in most of Walsall’s local libraries, so I cannot judge whether the loss of, say, South Walsall or New Invention will hamper researchers. The key resource in the Walsall Council area is the Local History Centre at Essex Street, which is set, at long last, to be relocated to Walsall town centre, where it will be much more accessible to the general public.
For other reasons, for example community, and redress to educational and communications shortcomings, the loss of 9 libraries is lamentable – the irony being that the single proposal for a new library in Streetly is where there is least need in those terms. It is Political, of course!
The six surviving libraries at Walsall, Aldridge, Bloxwich, Brownhills, Darlaston and Willenhall are, at least, in the most accessible centres, but it still means a bus or car journey where currently many visits could be made on foot. Currently, a bus ride from many parts of the borough costs £4.30 round trip, unless one has a pass. Travelling by car will involve fuel costs and parking fees, and, who knows, one day a diesel tax. This may not seem much to many, but for people who don’t own a car and who are on benefits or state pensions it is a choice that is unlikely to be available.
Modernisers argue that the digital age will increasingly negate the need for physical copy, but this is to deny the spiritual benefit of touching, or at least seeing, something that an ancestor or famous person saw or leafed through. It also ignores the propensity for transcribers to make mistakes that render some records misleading if not downright useless. Simply searching indexes minimises the possibility of happening upon an interesting story on the same page – I often find interesting things while searching for something else.
That said, if we want to retain or regain such local facilities, and here I include shops, such as coffee shops, cafes, and pubs, that act as meeting points, we need to provide the necessary infrastructure and that includes footfall. Many smaller town centres, especially where they have been engulfed by conurbations, have too many down-at-heel shops, often among dreary, rundown industrial zones, and too few people living close by. Our planning policies in England are increasingly favouring dispersed house building and do nothing to address the decline in local shops and services – many towns no longer have even a single bank branch (Brownhills among them). In theory, local planning authorities have the powers to purchase land and have it reused for the residential development that could help to support local facilities (for example Ravensourt). In practice they are resourceless, and therefore powerless, to effect any radical change that is not driven by the private sector, which, anyway, is averse to such change. Local authorities have officers that are capable of finding and encouraging innovative and radical solutions, but without resources they cannot innovate, they merely regulate (and even that role is increasingly eroded).
On top of that, many small businesses are now faced with swingeing rate rises that threaten to send some to the wall. Something needs to be done to rebalance the way businesses pay for public services. Online businesses should pay their fair share and big companies like Marks and Spencer (though I appreciate their role in anchoring shopping centres) should not be given rebates at the expense of independent butchers, greengrocers and cafes.
The housing white paper will do nothing to address these issues. It is probably true that new settlements are part of the solution to the housing crisis, but if the balance is skewed too far towards the cherries that the housebuilders want to pluck the decline of public and private sector services will continue and accelerate.