Public Interest Law Centre is representing a member of the Folkestone community battling to save the Grade II listed Folkestone (Grace Hill) library. A letter threatening legal action has been sent to Kent County Council (‘KCC’) who closed the library in December 2022 on account of repair issues – it has remained closed ever since.
This letter questions the decision on 23 March 2023 not to fund repair works and reopen the library, a much needed and valued community asset. It also argues that KCC have failed to follow Key Decision making policy, including non-disclosure of material information in relation to the decision of 23 March. Indeed, the KCC have failed to adequately consult with relevant stakeholders regarding the closure of the library; failed to comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty; and mismanaged this Grade II listed building resulting in disrepair and high refurbishment costs which may have been avoidable.
The letter calls for the library to be reopened and refurbished, and for all related documentation to be disclosed to the public.
In 1879, the Folkestone Free library was established as a result of the Public Libraries Act 1850. This Act gave local authorities the power to establish free public libraries, in a move which is recognised as the first legislative step in the provision for universal free access to information and literature. Grace Hill library was officially opened for the public in its current location in 1888.
When open, the library had disabled access, computers for public use with access to the internet, an online catalogue, a children’s library, a local studies collection and exhibition space. A long-standing community hub, it has recently acted as a lifeline for those experiencing fuel poverty during the cost-of-living crisis, as one of the only warm free spaces available in the local area.
Jon O’Connor, a community activist and Grace Hill Library user says:
“I grew up in poverty, I had only a couple of books to my name, although my father was actually a writer himself. Spending four decades in education, I have met countless families facing enormous challenges, always determined that their children should enjoy better lives – with books, reading, research being crucial. To allow Grace Hill Library – this valuable resource and historic symbol of local opportunity – to decline in such a way as to disadvantage our community and future generations is both heartless and incompetent. That is unacceptable. To renege on the clear public responsibility for provision, failing to offer a single meeting or discussion about how this disaster unfolded and how we might work together to remedy the problems is a tale of pompous obfuscation of truly Dickensian proportions. That in my view is untenable and unforgivable.
“The Save Our Library community group have come together from all political backgrounds and none, from families to historians to social workers, performers, local businesses have pressed patiently for information, for direct explanation and for truthfulness.
“We have won the public debate, with almost 3,000 signatures on a petition to think again; with local councillors increasingly expressing disbelief at the poor communication and poor levels of public service. We have secured the support of local businesses, celebrities, media interest and increasingly attention at national and even international level for our questions to be answered.
“In response, the authority has slowly trickle-fed partial disclosure; we have had the most senior politicians expressing their support but also urging us to be patient, to trust the local authority and to let them do their job of working out a solution. Nothing seems less likely. Look at the track record and evidence of this beautiful library left to rack and ruin.
“This has clear ramifications for the schools estate, care homes, buildings across Kent: in fact, it is potentially a major scandal. In the face of such reticence to get real, to deal with the issues, sadly it seems that this step towards legal action is unavoidable.”
Please keep an eye on the PILC website for updates. Find more information on the Save Folkestone Library campaign here.
Photography: Save Our Library campaign
Public Interest Law Centre 244-254 Cambridge Heath Road