Anger over plan for charity to run Norfolk museums

Taking Norfolk's museums out of direct public control and handing them to a specially created charitable trust could be the only way to save them from cuts, consultants have concluded.

But the recommendation to Norfolk County Council by legal firm Winckworth Sherwood has been branded as 'shameful' by critics.

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

The council had commissioned consultants to come up with suggestions for the future of the museum service. Options considered were to set up a charitable trust to run the museums, to maintain the current system, to create an arms length company owned by the county council or to appoint a private contractor to run the museums.

Their report, which concluded the creation of a charitable trust to run the museums, is the best way to safeguard the service, was issued to councillors yesterday.

The consultants say the move could help protect the service at a time of public spending cuts by allowing it to look for new sources of funding not currently available under the existing set-up.

The report says such a move would save �160,000 a year and could pave the way for partnerships with museums in Colchester and Ipswich.

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The consultants' report said the charity would consist 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.'

The buildings would still belong to the councils, but would be leased at a peppercorn rent.

The report stated: 'Norfolk Museums and Archaeological Service has an outstanding record of achievement working closely with the city council and district councils to create a thriving museum and heritage service.

'However, maintaining this service at the same high level in the short to medium term will be difficult. These are discretionary services and during the period of significant pressure on local authorities, could potentially suffer disproportionately from budget cuts. The long term viability of the service is, therefore, threatened.'

But critics fear the service is being taken away from the public, with accountability reduced.

In the summer, County Hall Labour leader George Nobbs, David Bradford, chairman of the Norwich area museum's committee and Rory Quinn, an executive member of the Friends of Norfolk 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.'

Mr Nobbs said last night that his concerns remained, with the consultants' report not making clear what proportion of the proposed charity board would be elected councillors.

He said: 'It's shameful. The lack of detail speaks volumes as to what our role on this board would be. I, and others, have been concerned from the outset that the only freedom the supporters of this scheme are seeking is freedom from the democratic process.

'I doubt this is what people like Russell Colman had in mind when they donated thousands of pictures to the museum service.

'The control of the museums should not be the preserve of a number of do-gooders. These collections are the birth right of every man, woman and child in Norfolk. Once it's a trust it will be a trust forever. People in the future will ask how this was allowed to happen.'

James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services at Norfolk County Council, stressed a decision had yet to be made.

But he said: '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.'

The issue will be discussed with other councils later this week and will come before the joint museums committee on Friday, January 13.

Mr Carswell said: 'By circulating the report now we hope everybody will have plenty of time to let us know their views. Any decisions will be made in full public view by elected members.

'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.'

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