On the 13th October 2016 Lord Bird led a debate in the House of Lords: “That this House takes note of the cultural, civic and educational significance of libraries, bookshops and booksellers in the United Kingdom.” The Bishop of St Albans the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke about the impact closure could have on rural communities and the importance of imaginative partnerships which are developing between libraries and churches.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate. I want to speak today about the future of libraries and other shared community spaces in rural areas, as a vital contributor to rural sustainability. I should declare an interest as the president of the Rural Coalition, which brings together a range of rural interest groups, and as a bishop responsible for a large number of rural parishes across Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
As noble Lords will know, rural areas face particular challenges when it comes to connecting with the wider world. Many rural towns and villages can be hard to reach by public transport, while telecommunications access can be very poor indeed. Around 1.5 million rural households struggle with an inadequate or non-existent broadband connection. This lack of connectivity means that many of those who live within rural communities, particularly the most isolated rural communities, can be heavily reliant on local services when it comes to connecting to the wider world. Isolation is one of the greatest threats to rural life, and shared community services and spaces such as libraries provide the best way in which to combat that threat.
The problem, of course, is that rural services have much lower footfall than their urban counterparts, which in turn limits the amount of investment and support that local authorities and companies are willing to provide. Rural libraries can be difficult to justify at a time of severe budget constraints. A 2013 Defra report concluded that the future of rural library provision lay in increased economies of scope—that is, reducing cost through diversification of service provision—rather than trying to increase economies of scale. Rural areas need libraries that are co-designed with other services and local spaces, whether that be the post office, a local cafe or shop, a village hall or, indeed—and this suggestion was sadly lacking from the final Defra report—even the local church.
In this internet age, there is less need for libraries that provide an enormous reference section, and far more need for many of the alternative services that libraries can provide, such as Sure Start and other children’s services; internet access for those who do not have their own connection; IT advice and support for those who lack digital literacy; and, indeed, a simple space for members of the community to meet. In some particularly rural and remote communities, the books themselves do not even need to be present the entire week round. A number of noble Lords have talked about mobile libraries, which can ensure access to books for a number of different communities. They have been operating for decades. I remember as a child in the tiny hamlet where I was brought up that once a week the mobile library would arrive and we would all queue up and go in and get our books.
What is required is that shared community space, a platform from which these vital services can be provided. This is not simply about protecting the spaces and libraries that we already have—many rural villages have been operating without an adequate library service for years. We need to empower local communities to reimagine existing community spaces, helping them to refurbish these areas, staff them, very often with volunteers, bring in new equipment and, vitally, connect them to the internet, so that they can provide a connectivity hub for the local community.
At this point, my interests as a bishop in the Church of England should become clear, because the Church of England is the guardian of 10,199 rural community spaces, which we call parish churches. These churches are important to those who use them as a place of worship on a regular basis and to those who mark significant moments in life through baptisms, weddings and funerals. That remains our core business, but it must be remembered that the use of these buildings is not restricted to Christian worship. Our churches are buildings for the whole community, not just the faithful. In some cases, they are the last public building remaining open in a small rural community, and form a tangible link with the past as a source of local identity.
In recent years, the Church of England has rediscovered a medieval concept of the nave belonging to the local community and being a place that can be used more widely and made more accessible to the wider public. Noble Lords will be aware of the role that the Church has taken in providing foodbanks and debt advice. Sometimes they meet in the church itself; there is a rising wave of imaginative adaptation of church buildings for wider community use, which has breathed new life into them. An increasing number now house a village shop, a post office or a digital hub, and there is real scope for adapting local churches to provide some of the vital services that libraries can bring. St Peter’s in Peterchurch, Hereford, is a brilliant example of how a local church can be adapted to better serve the local community’s needs, with a children’s centre, a coffee shop and a fully functioning library, beautifully adapted to a place of worship which reaches the whole community through a volunteer-run transport scheme.
As I said previously, a vital aspect of any rural community hub is internet provision, something which many rural libraries already provide, and here church towers or church spires can provide new possibilities in those hard-to-reach areas. I know that conversations have already been held between the Church of England, DCMS and Defra about using church spires to wirelessly connect rural spaces to good-quality broadband. This is something that I hope we will be able to explore further in the future.
Reimagining how communities use their local churches is easier said than done. Communities themselves can be reluctant to allow changes to be made to their public spaces and, even when they are willing, the process of redesign does not come cheaply. St Peter’s secured funding for its redesign through a range of initiatives, including LEADER and the Rural Development Programme—both funded through the EU. Future post-Brexit funding streams will need to become available if further schemes are to become viable.
I hope, however, that the Minister recognises that there is some potential here for the Church and the Government, along with many other rural community organisations, to work, both locally and nationally, more closely together when it comes to the future of rural services—libraries being just one very good example of that—so that we can ensure the future sustainability of rural communities across our nation.