Controversy over Norfolk museum shake-up plans

They are the jewels in Norfolk's crown, attracting thousands of visitors every year.However, a debate has begun into exactly how Norfolk's museums should be managed – as well as by whom – with the final decision likely to impact the way they are run for years to come.

Consultants acting on behalf of Norfolk County Council, which jointly runs the museums along with the relevant district councils, want a charitable trust to take over, something which they say is the best way to safeguard the service and shield them from cuts.

However, concerns have been raised that such a move would place the management of the museums into the hands of a group of unelected and unaccountable individuals.

The decision will directly impact 10 of Norfolk's most loved attractions, namely; Norwich Castle, The Bridewell Museum, in Norwich, Stranger's Hall, in Norwich, Lynn Museum, the Elizabethan House Museum, in Great Yarmouth, Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth, The Tolhouse, in Great Yarmouth, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Cromer Museum and The Ancient House, Thetford.

With the Norfolk Joint Museums and Archaeology Committee, made up of county, city and district councillors set to discuss the recommendation when they meet on Friday, January 13, today the EDP looks at both sides of the important issue.

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It emerged in the summer that Norfolk County Council was considering the future of the museum service, which is currently jointly run by the county and district councils.

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The Joint Museums Agreement was first negotiated in 1974 and is the arrangement whereby the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service runs museums on behalf of the county and district museums.

But, with an eye on changing that set-up, the county council commissioned legal firm Winckworth Sherwood to explore the future of the service. The consultants said the solution was to create a charitable trust to run the museums, saying that was the best way to safeguard the service and shield it from cuts.

That, they said, would enable the museum service to look for new sources of funding not available through the current set-up.

It would also, the consultants said, enable 'a more positive entrepre-neurial approach' which would involve 'maximising commercial opportunities while retaining public-sector values'.

All the money generated by the museum service could be pumped back into the service, said the consultants, while the trust would be able to take advantage of benefits such as Gift Aid – whereby charities can reclaim tax from admission fees and donations.

The consultants' report also says such a move would save �160,000 a year and could pave the way for partnerships with museums in Colchester and Ipswich. The buildings would still belong to the councils, but would be leased at a peppercorn rent.

Members of the Norfolk Joint Museums and Archaeology Committee, made up of county, city and district councillors will discuss the report and its recommendation when it meets on Friday, January 13.

A county council spokesman said, if that committee decides they want to press ahead with a switch to a trust model, then the County Hall cabinet would also have to agree it.

But the proposal has already attracted criticism. George Nobbs, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, is vociferously opposing the move to trust status.

When the possibility first emerged in the summer, he, David Bradford, chairman of the Norwich area museum's committee, and Rory Quinn, an executive member of the Friends of Norwich Museums, wrote a joint letter criticising the plans to hand over 'greatly prized local public museums to an autonomous trust'.

The letter said the museums belong to local citizens through their local councils and were 'never intended to be the preserve of a self-selecting elite body sitting as trustees and answerable to no-one very much – apart from themselves'.

But the report by consultants, who have steered other local authorities through to trust models, stresses that democratic accountability would remain, with the board consisting of elected members appointed by the county council and joint museums committee, along with 'community representatives with a range of business, finance, legal, marketing and heritage skills'.

Mr Nobbs, though, remains unconvinced about how democratically accountable the board will be, or that it will save any money.

He has obtained documents, using the Freedom Of Information Act, which show that the possible switch to a museum trust was being discussed way back in April 2010, although the first time it was presented to councillors was in July 2011.

Mr Nobbs said: 'The councils of Norfolk will still pay all the bills. The council tax will still pay to maintain the buildings, look after and conserve the collections and pay the salaries. But the difference is that the Norfolk ratepayer will not have a say, through their councillors, on how the money is spent, on what museum is open and which is closed, on what is shown in the museums, on when they open, on whether schools get special visits, on how much it costs to get in, or what staff are paid.

'This is a David and Goliath battle, because the great and good want to steal away our museums. The process by which this has happened confirms that, with the people of Norfolk the very last to find out about what they are planning.

'Are the museums going to be the preserve of curators, who guard them from the prying eyes of the public, or are they for the people to enjoy?'

Mr Nobbs said it should not be up to the county cabinet to decide what the future model of museums should be, but a matter for the whole county council and the districts.

The Norwich Area Museums Committee, made up of city and county councillors, will be discussing the issue when it meets on Tuesday, January 10. And the next day Norwich City Council's Labour-controlled cabinet will consider what its stance on the recommendation of a trust model will be.

Brenda Arthur, leader of Norwich City Council, was keeping mum on her views ahead of that meeting. She said: 'It's a consultation at the moment and we wouldn't want to pre-empt what we decide at cabinet.'

The EDP asked Norfolk County Council if somebody from the authority would talk about the possible benefits of the switch to a trust model.

But we were told James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services at Norfolk County Council, did not want to elaborate on the statement he made when the recommendation of the consultants was revealed before Christmas.

He said then: 'In the current financial climate, where there is considerable and unprecedented pressure on all public services, local authorities need to explore new ways of working because there simply isn't enough public money to go round.

'It is absolutely right that we do everything we can to maintain our vibrant and much-loved museums' service, and give it every opportunity to grow and prosper in the future, despite the poor state of the nation's finances.

'All of us in Norfolk value our heritage, the much-loved historic buildings and the collections they house, which is why our visitor figures and schools attendance are amongst the highest for all county museum services in England.

'Now is the time for us to pull together to come up with a solution because it is essential that whatever decision is reached, it is the right decision for the people of Norfolk; right for today, and right for the next generation who deserve a museum service that is not only fit for purpose but truly showcases our county and its wonderful history, captures our hearts and imaginations, as it does today, and provides a proper and fitting legacy for the future.'

Other groups with an interest in the future of the museum service were also keeping quiet ahead of next week's meetings. Ceri Lamb, secretary of the Friends of Norwich Museums, said she could not comment on the proposals, while civic watchdog The Norwich Society was also reluctant to be drawn on the proposal.

But Keith Roberts, chairman of the Norfolk Contemporary Art Society, which has loaned more than 50 works to the Castle Museum, said he shared some of the concerns raised about the trust model.

He attended a presentation by the consultants in the summer and said he was not impressed. Nor, he said, was he surprised that a legal firm, which sets up trusts, should be recommending one be set up in Norfolk.

He said: 'We haven't been invited to make comments, even though we have been heavily involved in a lot of the museum issues and a good working relationship with the museum service. If it went to a trust I would be a bit worried. I know the city would still own the works, but I simply wouldn't feel that comfortable about the lack of local democratic accountability and involvement.

'It's not clear how many elected councillors would be on the board. What is in the castle belongs to the people of Norwich and there needs to be democratically elected control.'

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