Fears over Derwent Valley's Unesco status as museum prepares to close - Museums Association

Fears over Derwent Valley’s Unesco status as museum prepares to close

Strutt’s North Mill Museum will shut in September after loss of council grant
Closure Unesco
A tour of Strutt's North Mill Museum
A tour of Strutt's North Mill Museum Ashley Franklin

There is concern that Derwent Valley Mills site in Derbyshire risks losing its Unesco world heritage status due to uncertainty over the future of some of its historic buildings.

Home to a series of mill complexes and workers’ settlements along the River Derwent, the site played a foundational role in the industrial revolution as the place where 18th-century inventor Richard Arkwright first successfully harnessed water power for textile production.

Longstanding plans to redevelop some of the Unesco site’s mills as commercial offices, residential spaces and tourist attractions have been hit by a series of setbacks.

In April, Strutt’s North Mill Trust in Belper, a market town at the heart of Derwent Valley, gave notice that the museum it runs would close at the end of September this year after Amber Valley Borough Council withdrew its £47,500 annual grant.

The trust, which is a tenant of the historic mill building, says the loss of the grant, combined with the landlord’s decision to let the space at commercial levels, would see the museum incur annual losses of around £70,000 if it remained open.

The trust is discussion with the landlord to retain public access to the basement of the building, which it believes is not viable as a commercial space. However, the area is not suitable for museum displays because it is prone to flooding.

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The landlord has agreed to store the museum’s collections free of charge for a period of time. The trust is working to keep the collections together in the hope that the museum may be able to reopen in future.

There are plans to create a world-class visitor centre in Belper but these are still at an early stage, said John Layton, the chair of Strutt’s North Mill Trust.

“Whatever happens, the redevelopment of the site will take between five and 10 years so the museum coming out of mothballing wouldn’t take place until at least five years’ time,” he said.

Layton said the town was “potentially a great place for tourism” because of its history and close links to the US industrial revolution, which was born from factory designs stolen from Belper by Samuel Slater, who became known as “Slater the Traitor”. But Belper’s mills have struggled to access public funding necessary for redevelopment because they are owned by the private sector.

According to local media reports, the council is in a difficult financial situation and does not have the money to acquire the historic buildings through compulsory purchase.

Stakeholders and local residents have become concerned about Derwent Valley’s Unesco status following the removal of Liverpool from the world heritage site list last year.

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According to Layton, Unesco has requested information as to why certain developments within the Derwent Valley world heritage site have been allowed to proceed.

The closure of the museum could add further pressure, he said: “The removal of access to one of the most important buildings on the site doesn’t help the position.”  

Layton said Derwent Valley Mills was at a disadvantage because, unlike similar Unesco sites such as Ironbridge Gorge, its historic buildings are managed by separate entities and come under the remit of three district councils, making it difficult to form a cohesive vision for the area as a whole.

Planning permission has also stalled on a scheme by a private developer to renovate and transform Belper’s East Mills complex.

A new campaign group, Our Belper Mills, has been set up to represent the voice of the community in discussions about the future of the mills. The group has also expressed concern about the site’s Unesco status.

According to the Derby Telegraph, one of the group's founders, Carol Brewer, said at a public meeting last month: “We are at risk of losing world heritage status as a result of this situation. The [East Mills] building is of vital importance to the Derwent Valley Mills area and our history and heritage.”  

Our Belper Mills chair Roger Moors said local people are “keen to be part of an alternative solution and to put a stop to years of deterioration”.

A council spokesperson told the newspaper that there were no signs that the situation had put the site's Unesco status at risk.

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