Libraries to cash in on Whitehall hot desking

Renting desk space to central government agencies provides a useful income stream, conference hears

The arrival of flexible working in the civil service creates a business opportunity for local authority public libraries, the head of the Libraries Taskforce has said.

Kathy SettleKathy Settle (pictured) told the Connected Local Government Live conference last week that the Ministry of Justice is among the bodies renting “hot design” space in libraries, but also warned that those seeking to use space in this way should prepare for both “pushback” from the local community and a reluctance from Whitehall to integrate.

The Libraries Taskforce was set up to turn the recommendations of the 2014 Independent Library Report for England in to reality. The report called for a national digital resource for libraries - and for a task force to help local authorities “improve, revitalise and if necessary, change their local library service”.

Settle told the event that libraries have long been exploring new uses for their space, both to build local engagement and to generate income streams. Examples include co-locations with JobCentres and private businesses such as gyms.

At least one library is receiving payments from a local authority to help fulfil its public toilet provision obligation, she said, and acknowledged that such initiatives “can sound unpalatable”, stressing that strong leadership is required.

Front office role

Libraries can benefit from cutbacks in other public services by acting as public-facing front offices, she said. Police services are already paying £30,000-40,000 a year for library front desks to handle basic services such as lost-and-found reports and document checking.

Settle urged library executives to be proactive in identifying possible partners: “If you are aware of changes in other organisations, like estates contracts coming to an end, go out and talk to them. Maybe there is something we can do together.”

She said the real savings come when partners agree to integrate with the library, rather than trying to “ring fence” their space, which had been a feature of early JobCentre tie-ups.

The Ministry of Justice is among those looking for more hot desking space, and the Libraries Taskforce is looking to do more with Whitehall, she said.

The overall message was that libraries are flourishing - with 211 million physical visits and 86 million digital visits a year - and sustainable.  “While people focus on libraries that have closed, there aren’t that many of those - and there are hundreds that have been opened or renovated. That message doesn’t always get out,” Settle said

The taskforce itself has funding to 2020, she said, adding that the new minister, John Glen MP, appeared to be "a strong supporter of libraries".

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0