Opinion

Want to rebuild the UK economy, Jeremy Hunt? Start with our beautiful public libraries

Libraries can play a key role in long-term inclusive growth, productivity and social support

library

At the end of January 2024, the UK’s gross national debt was estimated by the Treasury at £2.6 trillion. This means that we owe in debts to banks and lenders roughly 96.5% of our gross domestic product.

To put that in perspective, if the next government set aside £25bn a year in savings, it would still take more than a century to pay down the national debt. At the same time, as our population grows bigger and older, the costs of providing vital social care and local services increase daily.

This is the complex equation that faces the next chancellor when they come into office. How do you reduce borrowing, boost economic activity and still deliver the quality local services that create attractive places to live?

They could do worse thank look to our beautiful national network of local public libraries for some answers.

For many, libraries are those unobtrusive places on the high street offering a mix of books and magazines, fun activities for the family and space for local groups. What people seldom realise is how much of a long-term impact public libraries have on the economic life and wellbeing of their community.

In 2010, the British Library worked with local authorities across England to set up the Business and IP Centre Network – a network of library-based hubs designed to support fledgling businesses.

The results have been spectacular. Over a three-year period (2016-2019), these centres helped no fewer than 12,388 business to launch – nearly half of which were in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Over the same period these ‘library start-ups’ generated £239m in additional sales, creating 7,800 new jobs in the process.

Even more importantly, given how ‘male and pale’ enterprise culture can be, 55% of this new generation of SME’s were launched by women, 31% of these new entrepreneurs were from a Black and Asian minority ethnic background and 17% had a disability. It is hard to imagine a more powerful or cost-effective incubator of inclusive local economic growth than that.

As well as boosting productivity, libraries have a proven positive impact on employability and skills. Almost all library services now run regular ‘job club’ sessions, offering community-based support and independent job search facilities. According to 2023 figures from IT provider Lorensbergs, 80% of libraries are seeing increased demand for employment-related support across the UK.

The next chancellor would do well to look to the remarkable return on investment offered by local libraries – one economic study in the East of England estimated that libraries return six times their running costs to the UK economy.

At the same time, public libraries are addressing the challenges of delivering social care to an ageing population. In much the same way as pharmacists are now providing frontline healthcare, librarians and library workers find themselves increasingly at the frontline in meeting complex social needs.

Writing for the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland, my CILIP in Scotland colleagues Sean McNamara and Kirsten MacQuarrie state, “Libraries play an especially essential role in supporting health and wellbeing, with the health and wellbeing offer from public libraries complementing medical provision to form part of a vital whole system approach.”

Research commissioned by the Arts Council England suggest that this ‘whole system approach’ working with libraries can deliver real-terms financial savings for hard-pressed health and care services as well as impacting positively on wider issues like health literacy and mental health.

Libraries can do all of this because they are safe, welcoming, trusted and inclusive spaces at the heart of their communities. Building on a strong offer of books, reading and access to information, dedicated professional staff are able to adapt their services to the changing needs of the people they support.

And yet instead of investing in their remarkable social and economic impact, the government is allowing public libraries to be systematically hollowed-out, sold-off and handed over to well-intentioned volunteers.

CILIP recently had to sound the alarm over the government’s ‘Enhanced Financial Support’ (EFS) measures. Rather than providing much-needed additional funding to councils, these measures instead encourage 19 of the hardest-hit to sell off assets (including libraries) to address their short-term funding shortfalls. We described this at the time as forcing councils to ‘use the credit card to pay the mortgage’.

The current chancellor’s budget statement was this government’s last chance to signal a move away from short-termism and to kick-start a long-term plan for inclusive growth, productivity and social support through libraries. Sadly, they missed this chance.

But our message to the next chancellor is the same – if you want to rebuild the British economy, to kick-start the industries and skills of the future, to create opportunities in every town, city and village and to build a brighter future, start by rebuilding our local public libraries.

Jo Cornish is interim CEO at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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