Relocation of Lichfield Library

Mr Ben Adams
Cabinet Member for Learning and Skills
Staffordshire County Council

Your ref: BA/RW16

Dear Councillor Adams,

Potential relocation of Lichfield Library from The Friary to St. Mary's Heritage Centre

Thank you for your letter of 25th February 2016 regarding the consideration being given to the use of The Friary and the possible relocation of the library into St. Mary's Heritage Centre.

Before commenting on the specific proposals for the Library it is appropriate to express our concern about the process that has led to a policy commitment to sell the site. The disposal strategy for The Friary property has been cloaked in unnecessary confidentiality and there has been no opportunity at all for any public consultation. We sought information about whether the review of The Friary buildings involved disposal of the buildings in December 2009 and again in February 2014. We were refused information on the basis it was a matter dealt with by the Strategic Property Board and that such decisions are not public. In February 2015 a written request was made for details of the documentation inviting interest in acquiring the property and when the decision to dispose was made. That information still has not been supplied.

There has been no opportunity for community involvement or input about ways the changing usage of services in the building could allow other uses to enhance the range of services for local residents and visitors. Thus we are presented with a situation where the Lichfield Record Office, established in 1959, is to be lost and the Library is to move to a much smaller building which does not have sufficient room to accommodate all the local studies/local history library stock. Nor is there room for the replacement history centre 'in the library' as proposed in the bid submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Archives service. The process leading to the current situation is inconsistent with the approach and principles in the County's "Our Vision for Staffordshire."

Dealing now with your letter and the move to St. Mary's. There have been helpful discussions with Wayne Mortiboys and a similarly constructive meeting with Catherine Mann and Helen Matthews. These together with your letter give a clear understanding of the reasons for wishing to vacate The Friary buildings and move to St. Mary's. We recognise that the financial savings to the County Council are significant and that there would be a benefit and welcome life line to St. Mary's from securing rental income and improvements to the building and its services. We appreciate the agreement of the County Council that it should use monies from the disposal of property on The Friary estate that was gifted for the benefit and improvement of the City.

The proposal has been considered by the Society's Executive Committee and there are a number of matters which we wish to bring to your attention.

1. Maintenance of the St. Mary's building

There is a concern about the ongoing and long term maintenance of this important listed building. The County's move out of The Friary building is in part justified by reducing the costs associated with ownership of a listed building. It is claimed the move will ensure that two historic buildings will in future be maintained at little cost to the taxpayer. Concerning St. Mary's there is no clear indication that in the long term it will be capable of being maintained.

Having some knowledge of previous structural works and the costs involved at St. Mary's a reassurance as to exactly how the County's occupation as a sub-tenant will deal with this issue is very important. An annual contribution to a fund reserved for capital works, over and above the rent, is essential to safeguard the situation. A related concern is whether the County will have the right to end the sub-lease early and just walk away rather than an obligation to pay the rent due until they are able to assign the lease to a third party.

2. The Church

Concerning the integration of the Dyott Chapel and the Church into the space occupied by the library we consider that there should be consultations with the Dyott family, the Ecclesiological Society as well as the United Benefice of St Michaels, Greenhill St. Mary's and St. John's, Wall. If the wooden flooring in this area is to be replaced, we would ask, if not already done, that an investigation takes place to ascertain the condition of the church floor beneath and whether it is suitable for use.

3. Integration of the local history/local studies library collection, archives local history centre access point and St. Mary's Heritage Centre collection

The current proposal is that the County's occupation will be confined to the ground floor and whilst there will be a financial contribution towards information technology equipment on the first floor the County will have no ongoing financial involvement upstairs. In the recently submitted HLF bid it is expressly indicated that the establishment of a local history centre access point to replace the Lichfield Record Office would be "in the library" and that this would have the benefit of access to and support by library staff. That is not part of the current proposals although your letter mentions that the archives access point 'could' be located in the community space on the first floor. During the stakeholder consultation processes on the archives project there was a clear consensus that it would be beneficial for the access point to be in the library in Lichfield as it is in Burton. In addition, the possibility of co-locating the access point with the existing St. Mary's Heritage Centre collection and the local history/local studies collection was identified as an important opportunity.

We are very concerned to have been informed that the extensive local studies library collection which is part of the library service stock cannot be accommodated in the reduced space available at St. Mary's. Much of this stock is currently located in the Record Office search room where it occupies at least 11 shelving cabinets comprising over 55 metres of stock. A wooden cabinet houses a large card index that is an invaluable resource to find information in the reference books. In the library the Lichfield local studies are another 14 metres of books and we are told that there is some 40 metres in store. Altogether there is over 70 metres of local studies material on readily accessible shelves as well as Ordnance Survey maps, Lichfield Mercury newspapers and four filing cabinets of local history material. This extensive and important collection started to be accumulated when the City Council operated the library and Record Office as evidenced by many reference books still having the Lichfield City Library book plates. It should be noted that the original Lichfield Library was built in 1859 following the 1850 Act that first permitted boroughs to build free public libraries.

Logically, if there is insufficient room on the ground floor of St Mary's then this important local library collection should be kept with the local history centre access point and not be dispersed or relocated outside the City. We would not wish to see the situation occur as happened in Stafford where much of the local studies collection is no longer in the public library following the recent move. Five boxes of books were offered to the William Salt Library which has taken them. There is no similar alternative location available in Lichfield for our local collection which should remain in the City.

If it is not possible to accommodate the local history access point and/or all the library local history/studies collection within the ground floor library the County should seek to agree with St. Mary's co-location of these services with the St. Mary's Heritage collection. A wider combination of history resources will encourage greater use and involvement consistent with proactive promotion and participation envisaged in the HLF bid. In consequence of the space limitations necessitating utilising some of the first floor for County services there should be, if not already agreed, rental paid and sharing of the costs of replacement, servicing and maintenance of the lift that is essential for access of disabled, less ambulant and other users.

4. Management, support and promotion of the local history centre.

The HLF bid includes a funding bid for a part time Volunteer Co-ordinator to be based in Lichfield. The role is to encourage greater participation in use and access of the archives service new and improved facilities. Once the configuration of options for the provision of the local history centre access point, Heritage Centre and local history/ studies library stock is resolved a decision is required on how any County services and facilities on the first floor are to be managed and supported. We favour a full time post to give professional support from the County Council whilst continuing and developing the volunteer involvement at St. Mary's. We are particularly concerned that without this there is a risk of repetition of what has happened in Burton Library. The Burton Family and Local History Centre provided after the removal of their local archives has been run down much to the concern of the Burton & District Family History Society. The HLF bid acknowledges this by a commitment to rejuvenate the Burton Centre. A simple service level agreement on staffing and support between the archives and library services could ensure that standards and facilities are maintained in Lichfield and Burton.

5. Lichfield Campus library

The South Staffordshire College and Staffordshire University campus library is in the Lichfield Library. The arrangement was agreed following the merger of the County Council's Lichfield Art College with the then Tamworth and Lichfield College. It encourages students to use the public library and enables the public to borrow those books although the lending period is shorter. In the interest of retaining viable education opportunities in the City, we wish to see this beneficial partnership arrangement continue. Students also use the library for quiet study as well as internet access so the design and layout in St. Mary's would need to facilitate this.

6. Meeting and exhibition space

The current library has an art gallery and a meeting room on the top floor which are available for use by the public. Users include Business Enterprise, Lichfield Family History Society and Lichfield Society of Artists for exhibitions. This provision for the artists is a poor substitute for the purpose built art gallery lost when relocation to current site took place. The former library is occupied by the Registrar's office but we understand the art gallery is unused. Our President, Roger Hockney, accompanied Margaret Harrison, the Society of Artists Chair to a meeting with the County Arts Officer several months ago about trying to secure better facilities for their art exhibitions and sales. On the information available the existing meeting room and exhibition space will be lost without direct replacement although some display opportunities may be available in the library. If this is the case, then consideration should be given to restoring use of the art gallery in Bird Street and installing a lift.

The proposed library relocation to the ground floor of St Mary's will also result in the loss of a large community meeting space with a capacity for 80 or more. The Society's monthly public meetings held there for the last 15 years have just been forced to relocate because of the County interest.

7. Tourism and loss of the current Library and Record Office

The District Council has recently published a draft Lichfield City Centre Development Strategy 2016-2020 prepared by the Tourism Company. In 2012 tourism was already generating 135m in the local economy and supporting over 1,700 full time jobs equivalent. Growth in Lichfield has been exceeding national growth in tourism spend. The Visit England target is 5% growth per annum and the strategy envisages a range of actions that even if the increase is only 5% will generate another 46m and 850 jobs by 2021. Although the cathedral is less well known than those of other cities it is the major driver of visitors to the City. The need to develop and extend other lesser attractions was identified as a key issue. The existing contribution of the Record Office and its potential and the capacity for underused space elsewhere in the building to make a greater contribution did not feature in the consultant's report because they were advised there was a policy commitment to sell off the building for residential use. The loss of the Record Office will have an adverse economic impact. Most cathedral cities do provide vibrant visitor centres where tourists can learn a little about the area. Whilst agreeing that the existing Heritage Centre in St. Mary's is ready for a "makeover" and needs financial support, the loss of an integrated one-stop tourism facility which could also be used for educational/teaching purposes is a matter of regret.

It is clear from our comments that relocating the library to St. Mary's is unlikely to provide a satisfactory, effective, flexible and dynamic library facility and library service. Our comments above are, without prejudice, aimed at trying to ensure that there is a better project content than is currently proposed should the move of the library into St. Mary's proceed.

At the Archives Depositor's Forum on 27th July last you said "We really do listen" and that you had "Made some decisions that were not expected by my colleagues." I do hope you will see the need for changes to this proposal to ensure we do have continued availability in our City of an excellent library and all of Lichfield's extensive local studies collection.

If you or officers wish to meet and discuss any of these matters, we are very happy to do so.

John Thompson
Lichfield Civic Society,
15th March, 2016