Councillors vote against charitable trust for Norfolk museums

Museums across Norfolk are expected to remain in direct public control after councillors voted unanimously against creating a charitable trust.

Consultants had recommended that Norfolk County Council pursue the idea as the only way to prevent cuts to the service.

The plan would have involved transferring the day-to-day management of 10 sites to a trust to help the service save �161,000 by 2013/14.

But following opposition to the proposal from museum volunteers, staff and the public, councillors yesterday urged that the attractions be left alone.

They insisted the service's current set-up needed to be tweaked to find ways of making money rather than overhauled and given to an unaccountable and unelected trust.

Affected museums, currently jointly owned by the county council and the relevant district councils, included Norwich Castle, The Bridewell Museum and Strangers' Hall, in Norwich; Lynn Museum; the Elizabethan House Museum, Time and Tide and The Tolhouse, in Great Yarmouth; Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse; Cromer Museum; and The Ancient House, Thetford.

George Nobbs, Labour group leader at the county council, said: 'It's a triumph when you get a unanimous result from all those people – the district councils and all four political parties.

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'Every single person savaged the report. I guarantee the trust idea is dead now.'

James Carswell, Conservative cabinet member for cultural services, said he will not be recommending the creation of a trust to his cabinet colleagues. He added alternative plans to raise extra cash and cut costs will be investigated.

One possibility includes hiring a commercial manager to help museums make more money and meet the council's savings target.

Mr Carswell said: 'Clearly we have very talented staff and one of the best collections in the county and that's important. I think this debate has been a good one and it's been important people have told us of their feelings. It would have been very sad if people didn't have the strength of feeling.

'It shows what we have, what we feel and now it's my role keeping the service running to the best of the staff's ability.'

Council officials have warned something has to be done otherwise it could mean the quality of museums and opening hours will be reduced.

Vanessa Trevelyan, head of Norfolk museums and archaeology service, told yesterday's Norfolk Joint Museums and Archaeology Committee meeting that there would be an 'inevitable decline in services' if no action was taken.

She added: 'The trust has turned out to be a very controversial issue, perhaps more than expected and people may wonder why we are bothering to consider this.'

Mrs Trevelyan said she was in charge of a 'high-performing service' but funding from local authorities and grants was reducing, while spending in museums had also declined.

She said staff had been creative with less money but added: 'We've gone on a calorie-reduced diet, we've had liposuction and we are at the end of weight loss activities without considering amputation.'

But rather than accept recommendations of creating a trust, made in a report by legal firm Winckworth Sherwood, councillor after councillor criticised the proposal.

Concerns included a lack of information about alternative ideas, no clear examples of the trust system being a success and councillors losing control of the service.

Charitable trust rules only allow 20pc of trustees to be councillors. This was expected to leave elected members just three of the 16 positions.

Michael Carttiss, Conservative county councillor for West Flegg, said no more time should be wasted discussing the trust concept.

He said: 'I wonder what made the people who compiled this report imagine that charities are exempt from economic conditions.'

Jennifer Toms, Green councillor for Norwich Sewell, said the report had been a 'big waste of time and a big waste of money'.

Council officials have estimated it cost �12,500.

Further work will take place on choosing how to develop the museum service.

Councillors expressed their confidence in the service's current set-up and believe it will continue to offer value for money.

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