Councils keen to merge services - Museums Association

Councils keen to merge services

Merging museum services or moving to trust status as a result of funding cuts creates a stronger strategic approach and reduces bureaucracy
Patrick Steel
As the cuts bite, local authorities are looking for ways to share services and, in some cases, merge.

Nine councils in South Yorkshire are to form a combined authority responsible for transport, economic development and regeneration from 1 April 2014, while councils in Merseyside, West Yorkshire and the north-east are considering similar arrangements.

Birmingham leads way

Councils are also looking to corresponding structures for their museum services. Hampshire and Winchester are considering an independent trust to manage their museums.

This follows the creation last year of the Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), which pulled together Birmingham’s museum and heritage service and the Thinktank science museum.

Simon Cane, the BMT’s deputy director, says he has been approached by several councils, museum services and consultants in the past year for advice on moving to trust and merging services.

“It is a response to the economic situation, and the tough place that local authorities find themselves in,” he says “This is a pragmatic response.”

Merging in this way, Cane adds, gives museums a stronger strategic approach, as they are able to look across collections, and it reduces bureaucracy for local authorities to deal with when it comes to funding.

The only negative, he warns, is that the culture change can be challenging for staff who may have a strong sense of belonging to legacy organisations.

Steve Miller, director of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, which runs museums for eight councils, points to the greater economies of scale and ability to share expertise across the partnership. But, he adds, it can mean more complexity in terms of governance because you want people to have a say in each local area.

Governance issues

This is something which Iain Watson, director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, a joint service for Newcastle, south and north Tyneside, and Gateshead, is all too aware of, following Sunderland City Council’s withdrawal from the partnership earlier this year, forcing it to renegotiate its Major Partner Museum funding agreement with the arts council.

But Watson maintains that one of the partnership’s strengths is the cross-fertilisation between venues, and the peer support and healthy competition that goes on across the organisation.

Merging services is not a panacea, warns Maurice Davies, the Museums Association’s head of policy and communications, but “it must be sensible to reduce the number of senior managers in favour of retaining and sharing specialist staff, either specialists in collections or those working with particular audience groups”.

When considering a merger…

Be sure that you really want to do it and that all partners are equally motivated.
Ensure the agreement and associated funding are for a decent length of time (at least five years).

Ensure efficient and clear mechanisms are in place for communication.

Ensure there is transparency over inputs and outputs.

For pros and cons of considering a merger, click here

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