Concern as councils transfer museums to trusts

Wrexham council acts against recommendations of independent report
Jonathan Knott
Local authorities are increasingly looking to transfer museums to charitable trusts, amid concern from museum professionals that decisions are being driven by short-term financial considerations.

Yesterday Wrexham Council’s executive board approved plans to transfer control of the county’s museums to a charitable trust along with libraries and arts, despite this option not being recommended by an external report it commissioned.

Wrexham has the largest heritage service in north Wales. It is responsible for managing Wrexham Museum, Holt Castle, and several industrial history sites, as well as archaeology and archives.

The external report, produced by consultants Hilary McGowan and Associates, assessed different options for running Wrexham’s heritage services. The report warned against a combined local culture trust, saying “heritage and libraries can be uncomfortable bedfellows”.

Instead, the authors advised joining a new regional heritage organisation with external partners, referring to an expert review of local museum provision for Wales last year that recommended setting up three regional heritage bodies.

Councillor Hugh Jones, Wrexham council’s lead member for communities and partnerships, told the meeting that it was clear from discussions with the other north Wales councils that it would be “very difficult to try and bring together a regional solution”.

He added that incorporating heritage services and libraries into a joint trust brought the opportunity for economies of scale and a “very real synergy”. He said that a libraries trust would be established by April 1 this year and other services would be progressively added to it.

However, Hilary McGowan, the lead author of the independent report, believed that it would still be possible to go ahead with a regional solution. She said: “Local authorities want to act quickly because of their financial pressures, and the heritage option across North Wales is going to take more time, because local authorities have got to work together.”

She added: “It’s doubly disappointing that the opportunity to create a critical mass for heritage services across a wider region is being lost.

“If local authorities only worked together before kneecapping heritage services, they could now have a more sustainable service. Saving money shouldn’t be the only driver.”

Angus in east Scotland recently transferred responsibility for its museums and galleries to a trust. The new body, Angus Alive, took over culture and leisure services, including museums, on 1 December. The organisation has responsibility for running six accredited museums and galleries including Montrose Museum and Art Gallery and Kirriemuir Gateway to the Glens Museum.

A council document making the business case for transferring the services to a trust used analysis by EY to project a budget deficit of £5.4m a year from 2016-17 onwards for the new organisation. The report says that a management charge of approximately the same amount will be paid by the council to the trust in order for it to be financially sustainable.

The new setup involves fewer senior museum professionals. Angus’ former museums and galleries manager took voluntary early retirement in October 2015. Norman Atkinson, a fellow of the Museums Association who was previously the head of Angus Council’s cultural services, retired in 2013 and is now chairman of Friends of William Lamb Studio. The group supports one of the museums previously operated by Angus Council.

Atkinson told Museums Journal that his organisation was concerned about upsetting the previous arrangement, but had been provided with little information about the new organisation. “There didn’t really seem to be much consultation about it. I think this was purely a cost-saving exercise,” said Atkinson.

He also had concerns about combining responsibility for museums and sports facilities into one organisation, saying: “I have the highest regard for sport and leisure, but it’s a totally different creature to museums and galleries”.

Fiona Dakers, Angus Alive’s senior manager for communities, customer and culture told Museums Journal that further staffing cuts, reduced opening hours and museum closures could not be ruled out. “There has been no diminution in the ambition of Angus Council and now Angus Alive to provide high quality museum services to the public,” she said.

Asked whether Angus Council had ever discussed selling items in its collections, Dakers said: “This is not a scenario that has been considered at any stage by the current administration”.

Other UK museums also face potential changes in governance. Leicestershire County Council yesterday agreed to consult on a new draft strategy exploring alternative ways of delivering cultural services. The council needs to find £1.8m of savings from the budget for its communities and wellbeing service, which includes museums and heritage sites, by 2018-19.

Leicestershire council currently has responsibility for five museums including Melton Carnegie Museum and Bosworth Battlefield. The council closed Snibston Discovery Museum last year.

At a cabinet meeting yesterday, the council approved proposals to begin a consultation, lasting until June, on the draft strategy. Councillor Ernie White praised the way the council had recently handed responsibility for some libraries to communities. He added: “Right across this county there are people interested in heritage. The commitment is incredible. If we can tap into that right across Leicestershire, we’ll have another success on our hands.”

In Lancashire, Fleetwood Town Council is hoping to take over the running of the town’s museum from the county council, who have announced plans to close it from 1 April.

Terry Rogers, the chairman of Fleetwood Council, told Museums Journal that the authority would hold an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday 19 January where financial arrangements for taking over the museum would be discussed.

He said: “We are looking at using some of our reserve funds and an increase in the council tax precept for Fleetwood to put us in a financial position to do this. The feedback I’m getting from locally elected members and local people is very positive. At the precept level it would only be a couple more pence a week.”

He hopes to finalise plans for the transfer in March after discussions with Lancashire County Council and Wyre Council, which owns the building.

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