'War of words' at Tower Hamlets cabinet meeting stops library closures

Author Kate Thompson "going underground" to save Bethnal Green public library

Author Kate Thompson "going underground" to save Bethnal Green public library - Credit: K Thompson

A last-ditch battle has been waged to save two libraries in east London caught up in £1.6 million public spending cuts which has led to a U-turn tonight (March 3) at Tower Hamlets Council’s cabinet meeting.

Youngsters campaigning to save Bethnal Green library

Youngsters campaigning to save Bethnal Green library - Credit: Glyn Robbins

The 11th-hour move to save the libraries comes on the eve of author Kate Thompson's new book published March 4 on Bethnal Green library being bombed out during the Blitz.   

The future of both Bethnal Green and Cubitt Town libraries was at stake, but the cabinet has had second thoughts after a petition with 2,200 names and a letter to the mayor from academics including a former Children’s Laureate and three authors. 

Opposition Cllr Peter Golds from the Isle of Dogs told the cabinet: "Cubitt Town library is the absolute central point of the community. We fought off moves to close it  and now its opening hours should be restored to pre-pandemic levels. It defied the Blitz and post-war planners."

But the cabinet U-turn is only a temporary breather. Cllr Golds added: "We know in 18 months’ time these (closure) proposals will come back. The council has the money to keep it open and we will make the case again loud and clear."


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Plans were made in October to concentrate services at the East End’s four main Ideas Stores in Whitechapel, Bow, Poplar and Canary Wharf, putting the smaller branches at risk. Even the Watney Market Idea Store in Shadwell wasn’t safe from the cuts. 

Cubitt Town Library in its historic listed building

Cubitt Town Library in its historic listed building - Credit: Google

The rethink follows the academics’ letter stressing that closing libraries “at this time when schools are shut and many families don’t have access to the Internet is not reasonable or fair". 

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The letter is signed by former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, authors Kate Thompson, Dr Louise Raw and Sarah Wise and academics Prof Amanda Vickery from Queen Mary’s University and Emeritus Prof Jerry White from Birkbeck University. 

The cabinet discussed a new option “given ongoing concerns about the impact of reduced capacity on young people”, retaining five days opening. 

But it also warns of creating a £365,000 "budget pressure" which has been developed “out of heightened concerns for young people given the impact of the pandemic on education”. 

Opposition councillor Rabina Khan said: “We need to keep all our libraries open and accessible for everyone. To say that Cubitt Town ‘is not closed at this time’ means that there is a risk of its closure next time. Children, families and older people so often digitally excluded would be further excluded.”  

Wrecked Bethnal Green library when it was bombed during the Blitz in Kate Thompson's book on its history 

Wrecked Bethnal Green library when it was bombed during the Blitz in Kate Thompson's book on its history - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archives

Author Kate Thompson 's book about Bethnal Green library, celebrating its centenary next year, looks at how it coped after being bombed during the Blitz and had to relocate underground in the air-raid shelter that later became the Central Line extension.

A people's campaign on the Isle of Dogs was led by author Jackie Lees  who used Cubitt Town library for research into her new book Dylan In London, about folk-singer Bob Dylan's time at London in the 1960s, which was published on February 4. 

Author Jackie Lees used her local Cubitt Town library to research her latest book on Bob Dylan

Author Jackie Lees used her local Cubitt Town library to research her latest book on Bob Dylan - Credit: Zoe Lees Walsh

She had 1,500 leaflets printed and posted them through letter boxes in a personal fight to stop the closure, which she said would would leave the Isle of Dogs without any library in an area with Britain’s fastest-expanding population. 

The cabinet has agreed to keep the libraries open for the present and to look again at how the service is funded in 18 months time.

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