Published: 23rd June, 2011
by JOSIE HINTON
ALAN Bennett has made a passionate plea for Camden’s libraries to remain under council control.
Giving a talk in Primrose Hill, the 77-year-old playwright attacked attempts by the Town Hall to give up managing three branches at Chalk Farm, Belsize and Heath Library in Hampstead.
“I think with the Tories the financial crisis is an opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, but there’s no such excuse for the Labour Party,” he said.
“I’m not a campaigner and I’m no tubthumper, but it’s something I’m very passionate about. Everybody should do something to support the campaign to save our library, and other libraries in other less fortunate places.”
Speaking as part of the Primrose Hill Lecture Series at St Mary’s Church last Wednesday, Mr Bennett said Chalk Farm library – his local branch – is “always full of small children”.
“It counters the arguments people put forward that no one needs public libraries,” he said.
“The children are often from the flats who don’t have computers and the only way they can keep up with their classmates is by looking at the computers in the library. I see these children as myself when I was six years old and was in the same position.”
Yorkshire-born Mr Bennett, who lives in Camden Town, recalled spending time at Armley library in Leeds, where he grew up. He said: “I feel as much of a debt to that library as I do my school.”
And he shared his teenage memories of the Leeds Reference Library, describing the building as being full of “the usual eccentrics you find in any reading room that’s warm and has somewhere to sit down”.
Of the boys working at the library, Mr Bennett said, a “surprising number” had turned out to be judges.
“A state school would consider that something to boast about, but a library is a facility, it takes no credit for what its readers go on to do,” he said.
Mr Bennett went on to claim the “big society” would never be achieved unless private schools were banned – and called for the amalgamation of state and private education.
“All this talk about everybody pulling their weight, but no mention has been made of public schools pulling their weight,” he added.
“I passionately believe that private education is wrong, it’s just not fair. And I don’t believe this country will ever tap its proper resources until that is recognised.
“I don’t see why there can’t be some kind if amalgamation between private education and state education. I’m not a radical person but this remains one of the things I’m radical about.”
Last month Labour councillors voted through proposals to cut £2million from the library service’s £8m annual budget. It means the Heath, Belsize and Chalk Farm branches will no longer be run by the Town Hall. They also agreed funding cuts to the Highgate branch, meaning that unless extra cash can be found, its future is in jeopardy. And councillors rubber-stamped plans to close Regent’s Park Library – it will re-open at an unspecified date as a learning and computer centre.
Tory councillors have activated a “call-in” clause which means the decision will have to be looked at again by the Town Hall’s scrutiny committee at the beginning of July.