A government that promised a Big Society is taking steps that will destroy a small one
Until I was eighteen, I lived in a village in North Wales called Llanfairfechan. My parents still do: my brother plays for the local football team, and has done since he was a kid.
Llanfairfechan’s remoteness is both its blessing and its curse. Its incredible natural beauty is captivating; its community is tightly-knit and welcoming. But facilities are sparse, and getting to Bangor – the nearest large town – can be a bind.
Like most rural places, Llanfairfechan relies on public services to act as the glue that holds the community together. Good services are not just a convenience for the village: they are its beating heart. The school, town hall, library, parks and clinics define Llanfairfechan as a community with its own identity, its own way of living, and its own local democracy. Public services enable residents to knit their socialisation into the fabric of the village: to be educated there, to have fun there, and in return, to shape the village by taking part in its politics.
Last month, Llanfairfechan became one of the 375 towns and villages in Britain to lose its local library. Residents were denied the chance to have a voice, thanks to the Council’s decision not to engage in any public consultation. Principal scrutiny committee chairman Janet Finch-Saunders told the North Wales Weekly News, ‘People are coming up with ideas of how their libraries could be saved, but they’re not going to have the chance to discuss them with officers at public meetings.’
The public’s desire for discussion is evidence of the fact that closing the library is a serious decision. It is the only place many villagers can use the internet, and it is opposite the school, meaning that extra-curricular reading is normal for children from an early age. Mostly, however, the library – like all libraries – gives Llanfairfechan’s residents a sense of purpose: a chance to explore their passions free of charge. A friend of the family is a keen and talented amateur photographer, who will lose computer access if the library closes. This is a punishing fact, not least because the library costs less than £9,000 a year to run – a tiny fraction of the Conway Council’s £200m annual budget.
Like so many towns and villages across the country, the question that hangs in the air in Llanfairfechan is ‘why?’ Why is the council taking away such a precious facility without explanation? Why have we been denied a say in our own public services? And like elsewhere in the UK, those questions are slowly morphing into action: the Save Llanfairfechan Library group is coming together, and getting stronger and more determined.
When I speak to my parents, I’m not surprised at the sense of frustration and the need for action. A government that promised a Big Society is taking steps that will destroy a small one. Llanfairfechan was already a great example of the helpful and unified communities David Cameron envisioned. Instead of celebrating that, the government is dismantling the very things that help it function.
If the government and local council were expecting to discreetly shut down Llanfairfechan Library, they were sorely mistaken. Not long ago, Nick Clegg instructed those who disagreed with him to get real; to grow up. Maybe Clegg will now learn some lessons of his own: that you can’t build a Big Society if you destroy the tools with which to do it, and you can’t take away the things that matter to people without a fight.
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