A cynic, wrote Oscar Wilde knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It wasn’t that long ago – a little under twelve months to be precise – that Liverpool City Council were proposing to close down 11 of the city’s public libraries. Unsurprisingly, there was uproar.
While the great and good of our city council remained impervious to the enormous value of public libraries, the people who actually use these services - deriving a whole host of benefits from them - were beside themselves with worry.
At the eleventh hour and under increasing pressure, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson and friends did a spectacular U-turn. Our libraries were saved. Hurrah! At least for the present. Many feel however that Anderson and Co. are just biding their time, for libraries it seems, are way down the list of priorities of this city council.
The people in neighbouring Sefton however have not been so lucky. Orrell Park, Litherland, Crosby (Manor Road), Ainsdale, Churchtown and Birkdale are just a few of the libraries that have been lost for ever in this borough. If you are a Sefton resident you may be forgiven for thinking the Dark Ages are but a small step away. But I digress. Back to Liverpool.
While Anderson and friends were literally about to cut the lifeline of those 11 libraries - places that not only provide access to books and a world of information, but places that can truly call themselves community centres, at the same time LCC were (and still are) pouring endless cash into a certain something called the Reader Organisation.
And just what do you think the Reader Organisation concerns itself with? Right first time! It concerns itself with books and the reading of them…
Thus, while the 11 libraries waited for their fates to be sealed, the good folk of the Reader Organisation were making themselves comfortable in the splendid surroundings of Calderstones Park Mansion House and even better LCC were picking up the very considerable tab!
For those of you who don’t know Calderstones Park, allow me to mark your cards. The Mansion House is a huge, sumptuous building built by a Victorian zillionaire set in acres of beautiful gardens in the leafy suburbs of South Liverpool. Splendid is not the word. It’s the type of place you see in BBC costume dramas. Nice.
The city council had, in their wisdom, decided that The Reader folk could take over this city resource from where they could tell people about the beauty of books - sort of similar to what those other things called libraries used to do - the very things Liverpool City Council were hell bent on getting rid of! Oh such irony.
So enamoured were the council with this organisation – one that claims to help people read books - they decided to give them one of the city's greatest assets - 'preferred' bidders they became. The mansion got ever closer.
Meanwhile all over the city, 11 libraries, their staff and the communities which they served, waited in trepidation. Would the axe fall? Would these cash-starved communities lose one of their last remaining resources?
Down at the sumptuous surroundings of Calderstones Park, a few people – those who could afford the time and money to trek all the way down to south Liverpool - were being coached how to ‘read books aloud’ and ‘share’ their thoughts with the group…
If you are thinking that this sounds rather like a reading group – the type of group that flourishes at…local libraries – the very same places LCC were intent on axing – you’d be right. I mean you couldn’t make this up: Axe public libraries with impunity while throwing money and resources at an organisation that encourages people to read books, aloud...
A year down the line and the eleven libraries in question have gained a stay of execution – until, that is, Anderson and friends manage to find a justification to bring the axe down. Watch this space.
And the Reader Organisation? Going from strength to strength. The money is pouring in, not only from their good friends at Liverpool City Council, but from numerous other public funding bodies.
There’s also a café now, where you can purchase cakes and coffee while you read your books. It’s a ‘social’ business which means LCC pick up the tab for its numerous expenses, while the profits go elsewhere. Nice work, boys and girls.
Yep, so instead of resourcing and supporting local libraries, that money – our money - is being diverted to enable a few people to spend a rather idyllic time down at the Mansion House and Gardens.
You can't really blame organisations like these for trying to wring the public purse dry, but LCC ought to ask themselves some pretty searching questions.
Here's one for starters: How many libraries and librarians could be funded by the money paid to support a whole host of administrators, funding managers and of course the ubiquitous chief executive down at Calderstones Park?
I mean if you truly wanted to help people read aloud to one another, you could always go down to your local library - assuming of course it hasn't already been transformed into a Wetherspoons pub - and volunteer to form a reading group.
Volunteering - for no pay - just for the love of helping people - what a quaint thought! No million pound mansions required here. No coffee shops either.
If this organisation truly want 'to promote reading' and 'well-being' they could always give up their splendid mansion, cafe and generous salaries thereby diverting much needed cash back to our public libraries.
The folk of Kirkdale, Anfield and other districts would then be able to do all sorts of things, not least read books, grapple with ideas, form opinions and broaden their minds: There you go, 'reading promoted' and 'well-being' attained in one foul swoop.
Life is certainly sweet, at least for the folk in the Mansion House, less so for residents of the city's cash-starved boroughs, whose services and resources are being cut to the bone, month by month, year by year.
Isn’t it good to know that your hard-earned cash is being spent so judiciously by the honourable folk of Liverpool City Council?
Liverpool City Council originally shortlisted 4 organisations to bid for the Mansion House - all charitable institutions. An offer to purchase the property by one of those institutions - Friends of Calderstones Park - was rejected because the bidders would be unable to meet the interest rate set by the council.
Rather than accepting a substantial capital sum from this organisation, Liverpool City Council decided to give the Mansion House away for free to their 'preferred' bidders, The Reader Group, who it ought to be noted, were not offering to purchase the property or indeed pay a single penny of interest. Good deal? You decide.