Proposed relocation of Lichfield Library to St Mary's in the Market Square

In April 2016 the committee considered further the implications of the move of the public library to St Mary's in the Market Square.

We have responded to the letter from Councillor Ben Adams, Cabinet Member for Learning and Skills, on our concerns about the impact of moving the library from a well-used spacious building to one which may not have sufficient room for a satisfactory, effective, flexible and dynamic library.

Is St Mary's large enough to accommodate a library fit for the City?

In the 2014 Staffordshire Library Service consultation Lichfield's Library was one of four that were designated as a 'Library Extra' which would have the widest range of services and greatest capacity for sharing space with partners. Although the description 'Library Extra' has since been dropped the Lichfield Library was effectively being recognised as one of the best used albeit the general underlying trend is a reduction in issues and visitors.

Obviously the benefits of the library relocating to St Mary's could be very significantly beneficial for the Guild at a time when the charity is in great need of financial support. As a hirer of St Mary's for our monthly public meeting for the last 15 years we recognise and support the importance of it continuing as a viable community facility.

There is however concern whether moving from a building of over 900 sq. metres to a location with an open library space of 460 sq. metres is too small. If it is too small there could problems for the long term future of the City's library. More immediately it is extremely unlikely that all existing services and uses be accommodated. Whilst the County are saying they will transfer the most used book stock it is doubtful that this includes all the extensive reference (i.e. not for loan) library the core of which was assembled by the former City Council between 1859 and 1974.

The local studies/local history collection is particularly important and logically it should remain accessible in the City library. In addition, there are sizeable cabinets of Ordnance Survey and other maps, indexes and local studies material together with Lichfield Mercury newspapers. There is also a question whether there is sufficient space to accommodate the replacement for the loss of the Lichfield Record Office in the form of the promised 'local history centre'. In the County's Archives Heritage Lottery Bid it specifically states this new history centre would be located "in the library" which would ensure support for users from library staff. It is possible that the first floor space at St Mary's may be used to accommodate the new heritage centre and some provision to avoid loss of existing library activities. Existing activities at The Friary include well supported mother and children events as well as use of the art gallery exhibition space and a meeting room. This however is entirely dependent upon how St Mary's Guild decide to utilise the space on the first floor.

Sale of "The Friary" buildings for private residential use.

Vacating the existing library building is another step towards completing full disposal of the site by the County Council part of which has already been sold and an option agreed with the developer for the rest of the site. The other remaining use is the Lichfield Record Office which is proposed to be relocated as part of a centralisation project at the Stafford Record Office site. A grant application has been submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for 4.3m towards the total projected cost of 5.8m.

There has been some press and radio coverage of the closure and relocation of the Library following a petition initiated by the Lichfield Green Party. Much debate has focused on whether the wishes of Sir Richard Cooper have been superseded by release of covenants originally imposed in the sale of part of the Friary Estate to the County Council.

To understand the situation, it is helpful to see the offer letter made to the City Council which reads as follows:

              Extract from an article on page 4 of The Mercury
             dated Friday 6th August 1920 with the headlines: -

                       THE FRIARY AND ADJOINING LANDS.

                             6, Carlton Gardens,
                                 London, S.W. 1.
                                 27th July, 1920.

His Worship the Mayor of Lichfield.

My dear Mr. Mayor, - I have entered into a contract to purchase "The Friary", with its surrounding land of about 11 acres, and I have done this with the sole object of presenting it to the City of Lichfield. I have, for several years past, shared the opinion held by my father and many others who have the welfare of Lichfield at heart, that the possession of this property by the Corporation would be an important asset in the development and improvement of the City. It would afford the room so badly needed in the centre of the City at the point where the main roads from North, South, East and West converge, and would, therefore, relieve the inconvenience and danger of the congestion of traffic, which is at present the normal and unavoidable condition at this spot.

If thought desirable to make a new road from the Clock Tower to connect with the Walsall Road, a large portion of the site of such a road could be taken from this land.

It would also give an open space, available for the erection of municipal or other public buildings, in the future. In this relation I would express the hope that this will not endanger the preservation of "The Friary'' itself, which is a building of historic interest, and should, if possible, be devoted to some public purpose. I think there are also grounds for hope that part of the land could, by judicious development, and the sale of some building sites, be made a source of income to the City authorities, and so be of some financial assistance in covering the cost of improvements.

The only condition that I desire to make is that the property shall be used for the benefit and improvement of the City, and that, to ensure this, a scheme be drawn up to form part of, or to accompany the deed of gift, to indicate the general lines of the policy upon which development will be carried out -subject, of course, to variation and amendment in detail by the City authorities as circumstances of the future may demand.

I shall be glad if you will kindly arrange for early consideration to be given to my offer to present this property to the City, and for a decision to be arrived at with as little delay as possible, as I am sailing for South Africa at the beginning of September. I shall be away some months, and I should like to carry this matter through before leaving.

I am,
Yours very truly,

The above letter is also reproduced in the Lichfield City Council Minute book of 12th January 1921, page 92 (Staffordshire Record Office ref. LD 127/2/1/15)

The covenanted rights of the former City passed to the District Council in 1974. The covenants imposed by the City Council were relaxed in 1995 related to:

1. the use of the site being restricted to a "High School for girls or other educational purposes only" and
2. an obligation to offer the site to the City Council in the event of sale.

The change from a school to a library and record office in 1990 necessitated the relaxation of the first covenant. Neither of these two covenants related to the donors wishes about future use for the benefit and improvement of the City.

It is incorrect to claim that the District Council's release has freed the County Council from Sir Richard Cooper's wishes. The District Council has no power or right to relax his wishes or empower the County Council to do so. The relaxation of the covenants does not in any way extinguish the condition and wishes Sir Richard specified. He expressly decided not to impose his condition and wishes as legal obligations in the form of a covenant. This indicates that his wishes relating to the gift continue as a moral issue to be respected and honoured as opposed to a legal requirement. The proper course of action is to carefully consider and seek to fully respect them. He did refer to the site being used for public or municipal buildings and that he wished to see preservation of The Friary itself as a building of historic interest devoted for some public purpose both of which the County are not respecting. The County has agreed to our suggestion that the income from the sale should be invested for the benefit and improvement of the City. That income will cover part of the costs of relocating the library.

Condition of a listed building owned by a public body.

It is concerning that the County Council as owner since 1926 of a site with an important historic building and a school building they built and later modified has not been properly maintained to the point where it said that unless urgent works are undertaken it at risk of serious deterioration within two years. The income received from sale or lease of land for the College/University Campus could have been used, as envisaged in Sir Richard's letter, as some assistance towards covering the cost of improvements to "The Friary" buildings.

John Thompson
April 2017