Thursday 27 June 2019 5:25 am

On-the-shelf idea: Time to get our libraries booked for business

There has been much debate around the demise of the high street. Big brands are going under, and there is an increasing number of empty shops littering the retail landscape. 

As a passionate retailer and entrepreneur, I find this a depressing sight.

But in all the debate around business rates, the threat of online, and the need to offer a more layered high street experience to the public, it seems that we have overlooked one very obvious solution.

In England alone we have 3,000 local libraries, many of which are neglected but sitting on or near a high street. 

Libraries provide a vital resource for children and adults for whom buying books is not an option. They are somewhere for students to study, and a social place for those who are lonely. 

When children’s author and comedian David Walliams tweeted last month that when libraries go, they go forever, he spoke for the many for whom libraries have been an educational and community lifeline.

So what’s the solution? 

The reason that only one in five businesses is owned or run by a woman is partly because women often feel isolated and unable to access the practical and moral support they need to get started. 

There are also five million people in the UK who are running businesses from home, and who lack a free local resource to tap into.

So why don’t we draw these threads together and transform a part of our local libraries into business hubs, which in turn could secure their future in the community?

The British Library in Euston Road already has a fantastic business centre, which is free to the public. It also offers mentoring services and information worth thousands of pounds, but free to anyone starting or scaling up their business. There are 13 regional hubs around the country in major cities, doing much the same thing.

We could repurpose a corner of all our local libraries into business “spokes”, radiating out from these main library hubs. The basic building infrastructure and good location already exists.

 These hubs could deliver networking and event spaces, digital services, access to business information and regulated advice, as opposed to people using independent business coaches, which is an unregulated industry. 

Libraries would then become more of a hub for the local community, a meeting place, solving the other very real issue of loneliness, both for members of the public and for those trying to start a business. 

The cost? From the information I have accessed, the cost of repurposing all 3,000 libraries and sustaining those business hubs for five years would be £34.5m. It seems a drop in the ocean compared to the £350m we do or don’t give the EU each week. An absolute no-brainer to be honest. 

Just think how this small act could revitalise a local community and breathe new life into a high street, especially in the more rural parts of the UK that don’t have access to resources.

 With Brexit, we have spent an awful lot of time and energy talking about the EU, when instead we should be focusing on what we can do here at home to create a thriving, entrepreneurial economy, populated by confident members of the public. At that point, Brexit can look after itself.