More than £1m in council reserves will be ploughed into Lancashire’s museums service over the next two years.
The cash injection was agreed at a meeting of Lancashire County Council’s cabinet after they heard that the budget for several visitor attractions – and the conservation staff which maintain the collections they contain – was under “pressure”.
£866,000 of the £1.05m reserve funding will be allocated to Queen Street Mill in Burnley and Helmshore Textile Mill in Rossendale. The authority has been in negotiations with the National Trust about the possibility of handing the sites over to the conservation charity, but these have not progressed “as quickly as hoped”, members heard.
The previous Labour administration shut five out of the eleven council-run museums as part of budget savings back in 2016. In addition to the two mills, Fleetwood Museum, Judges Lodgings in Lancaster and the Museum of Lancashire in Preston all closed.
The Conservative group re-opened the mills last year, twelve months after taking control of the authority – and took £714,000 out of reserves to fund the sites, pending discussions with the National Trust. Meanwhile, Fleetwood Museum was handed over to a local trust and Judges Lodging also reopened, to be funded on an on-going basis by the county council.
Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali said he welcomed the latest funding, but described it as “a sticking plaster”.
“The magic money tree does exist and comes up with these recommendations [to spend reserves] – and I do welcome the money going in,” County Coun Ali said.
“However, there are other priorities this council has, like the [recently axed] Lancashire Wellbeing Service and cuts you have made around mental health and social care that equally deserve the resources from reserves to support them – and it’s a shame that didn’t happen.”
Speaking after the meeting, council leader Geoff Driver defended the decision to dip into reserves to support the museums service and said it had been given “a lot of thought”.
“Once these museums are gone, they’re gone – they wouldn’t be reopened again and what a loss [that would be] to the heritage of the county.
“Queen Street Mill and Helmshore Mill are unique in the world and Judges Lodgings is such a vital part of Lancaster’s heritage and history – you can’t close these places and the [number of] visitors who are now coming illustrate the point.”
County Coun Driver said he hoped negotiations with the National Trust over the mills would not take the two years for which reserve funding has been allocated to them.
The delay in finding a long-term plan for the sites has increased the expense incurred by the council’s conservations and collections team. It had been expected that they would be able to offer their expertise to other museums across the UK once their responsibilities in Lancashire had been reduced.
MONEY WELL SPENT?
The deputy leaders of the ruling and opposition groups had different takes on the money being spent on the museums.
Keith Iddon, deputy Conservative and Lancashire County Council leader, told the cabinet meeting: "Being a proud Lancastrian, I'm please to see [this investment]. The museums are a very big part of who we are, it’s our heritage."
But deputy Labour leader John Fillis later said: "This is is the council which has just cut school bus services - so it looks like they're prepared to invest in the past, but not the future.
‘A VITAL PART OF LANCASHIRE’S HISTORY’
The “ultimate ambition” for the Museum of Lancashire in Preston is for it to reopen, the leader of Lancashire County Council has said.
It is the only one of five museums which closed across the county in 2016 which is yet to welcome visitors again.
County Coun Geoff Driver described the facility, located on the A59 just outside the city centre, as “another vital part of Lancashire’s history”.
“We’re looking very much to try and get somebody to come in and help us,” he explained.
“We’ve been in deep discussions with the army to open it and we will keep trying and do our very best to ensure that it can reopen – but these are difficult times.
“There is a big cost of just keeping collections [in situ] and keeping things going. We decided we might as well open [the previously closed mill museums in East Lancashire] and make sure people can use them – and I’d love to be doing the same with the Museum of Lancashire,” County Coun Driver added.
The authority’s cabinet has now approved an ongoing annual budget of £155,000 to maintain the facility.
Back in January, almost 2,000 pieces from the King’s Royal Hussars and Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry were moved out of the Museum of Lancashire after talks over the possibility of a regimental consortium taking on the site fell through.