Last month, a Museums Journal straw poll found that six of 13 local authorities were considering transferring their museum services to an independent trust – or non-profit distributing organisation – and three had confirmed the move.
The evidence from this small sample backs up the fact that there has been a gradual shift towards outsourcing in recent years. In 2010, a report by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) found that, out of then 23 local authorities that had devolved responsibility for their museum services, more than half had done so since 2000.
In the two years since the report, the rate has accelerated. Birmingham and Derby councils recently confirmed that they were putting their museum services out to trust, and as Museums Journal was going to press, a source indicated that Stoke-on-Trent City Council would also be making the move (potentially terminating several managerial posts in the process).
Hampshire County Council is in talks about merging its museum service with that of Southampton and Winchester under a joint trust, while Durham council is debating a proposal that would see it establish one of the largest culture and leisure trusts in the UK, with a budget of more than £30m.
However, Norfolk County Council bucked the trend last month, voting against a transfer because of concerns over a lack of accountability.
In Scotland, the transition to trusts has been even more rapid. In the wake of Glasgow’s establishment of a culture, leisure and sport super-trust in 2007, Dundee and Falkirk councils have confirmed a move to trust. According to reports, North Lanarkshire and Aberdeen are not far behind.
These developments are indicative of a dramatic shift in attitude. It is not long since the sector believed that it was “beyond the pale” that publicly owned museums should be run by anyone other than a public body, says museum consultant Adrian Babbidge, who worked on the MLA report.
The reasons for the change are complex. Although people are still wary that trusts represent a slide towards privatisation, many museums have flourished after joining independent trusts, which has helped make the prospect more attractive to others.
But despite talk about the benefits of trust status, such as freedom from council interference, self-determination and entrepreneurship, it appears that, more recently, the paramount concern of most of those considering the move is money – or lack of it.
Many museum services are facing the double blow of severe cuts to local authority and Renaissance funding.
“Reductions in funding and Renaissance cuts mean we are losing more than £1m from the museum budget,” says a spokeswoman for Hampshire County Council.
In the short term, moving into a charitable trust allows museums to make an immediate saving of about 80% on business rates and gain further exemptions on other taxes, as well as cutting down on bureaucracy.
In theory at least, devolution should offer greater long-term financial stability, enabling trusts to negotiate ringfenced funding arrangements over a set period (normally three to four years), rather than falling prey to annual grant fluctuations and political expediency. Independence also allows museums to extend their fundraising and commercial arms.
Not always the solution
But trust status is not a panacea, warns the Museums Association’s head of policy, Maurice Davies. “Museums get unquantifiable benefits from being in a local authority,” he says.
These come in many different areas, from the provision of legal services, marketing and HR, to the clout that comes with being part of a government body. Staff may also miss out on the favourable employment conditions offered by local authorities.
Indeed, despite initial savings, the MLA report found that switching to trust status proved to be cost-neutral in the longer term.
Even funding agreements don’t always protect against cuts; York Museums Trust is one of several that has had its arrangement revised downwards recently, while others have found that their distance from the local authority means they lose out on advocacy and influence among councillors.
“The less care and attention paid to the transfer, the more likely there are to be problems down the road,” says Babbidge.
Independence works well for some, but concerns remain that, for the sake of short-term savings, local authorities could be rushing services out to trust without taking the potential pitfalls into account.