A tale of two libraries

Waltham Forest Council has estimated that the cost to restore Higham Hill Library is almost 30 times higher per m2 than the refurbishment of New York Public Library. This figure is being used to justify a proposal to bulldoze the historic building.

Media reports this week show the grand reopening of the New York Public Library. After two years and $12 million, a glorious makeover of the fourth biggest library in the world has been revealed.

The restoration work included securing 900 ornamental plaster elements with steel cables, and fitting modern LED lighting in the chandeliers. An amazing high tech “book train” has been built to supply borrowers at an amazing 75 feet per minute.

In E17, a battle is on to save our own little piece of library history. Higham Hill Library has served local residents for 85 years. It was purpose built, in the style of the surrounding Warner estate housing. It was the first public building in Walthamstow to have electric heating. Despite the opening hours being reduced in 2011, it’s still a hugely popular service – especially with school children, as comments on the petition show.

Higham Hill Library (photograph: ‘We Love Higham Hill Library’ Facebook group)
New York Public Library (courtesy Max Touhey Photopgraphy)

As can been seen in the photos, Higham Hill Library even has the same large high-set windows and lofty ceiling as the newly restored library in Manhattan.

Library users know that Higham Hill Library needs a bit of freshening up. Yet officials from the London Borough of Waltham Forest have told residents that it would cost £1.4 million to refurbish the site. This means that the estimated cost of works to restore Higham Hill Library are almost 30 times more per m2 than the world famous New York Public Library. Council leaders are refusing to provide any breakdown of these costs.

Instead, the council propose to bulldoze the site and sell the land to a developer for flats. To replace it, they intend to build a new “multi-service hub” nearby. The proposed site is outside of Higham Hill, and will destroy the last bit of green space on Priory Court Estate.

Hundreds of residents have already signed a petition calling for the council to save Higham Hill Library for current and future generations.

  New York Public Library Higham Hill Library
Floor space 60,000 m2 310 m2
Books 53,000,000 14,000
Cost of refurbishment £9.5 million ($12 million) £1.4 million (estimated)
Cost of refurbishment per m2 £160 £4,500

(Sources: NYPL   HHL)

Facts & Figures

  • New York Public Library reopened on Wednesday 5th October 2016.
  • Higham Hill Library opened on Saturday 5th December 1931. This winter, it will celebrate its 85th
  • LBWF have produced over 100 pages of documents supporting their proposal – yet they give no detail of the amount of green space lost, how the cost of repairs at the current library were calculated, or what the plans are for the proposed new building.
  • LBWF claim that the level of service will not change, so have decided not to permit the legally required 12 week consultation period.
  • LBWF say that the new site will be “mixed use”, including “possibilities for hot-desking, to provide remote working opportunities for wider Council staff”.
  • Waltham Forest Resident Insight surveys show that the majority of people who use the library service prefer to do so locally.
  • The recent Taking Part survey found that the leading cause of dissatisfaction with library services nationally is the choice and condition of stock. It also showed that growing numbers are using libraries for academic study, paid work, voluntary work, and job seeking.
  • Higham Hill Ward has the fastest growing population in Waltham Forest – the population is expected to grow by 20% by 2025.
  • Higham Hill Ward has the highest proportion of school age children in the borough. Higham Hill Library has the highest proportion of child service users of any library in Waltham Forest.
  • Higham Hill is among the most socioeconomically deprived Wards in the borough.
  • Recent research shows that all else being equal, regular library users visit their GP less often, and live longer. Nationally, libraries are estimated to save the NHS £24.7 million per year.
  • LBWF also propose to sell Wood Street Library to develop flats. The closure of Hale End Library has been delayed following public outcry.
  • Figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that in 2013/14 LBWF spent £12.40 per resident on the library service – among the lowest in London.