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Mar 3, 2014

DBG Objects to the Proposed South West Heritage Trust

Further to our recent report on the proposed South West Heritage Trust, here is the DBG’s submission to Devon County Council’s ‘consultation’ process. You can see it, and some thirty others, on the DCC website  The consultation ends on March 6th. Please submit any comments you might have as soon as possible.

The case for these changes seems to be entirely predicated on an arbitrary threat to reduce funding to the DHC to an unviably low level if it is not moved into the trust. No explanation has been offered as to why much more funding for the DHC is available if it is moved into the trust than if it remains in the DCC’s care, so this aspect of the proposals is quite baffling- one can only suspect that the long-term objective is to reduce DCC’s funding to a minimum, perhaps with the shorter-term objective of numerically reducing the DCC payroll. The lack of any financial modeling makes any clear understanding of this aspect of the proposal impossible.

While it is possible to see how such a trust might work in a single county such as Somerset where the county council already has care of a variety of heritage assets which it can hand over en bloc, randomly adding another asset from outside the county simply makes no rational sense. It is not proposed to include any other heritage organisation from the south west in the trust and it is most unlikely that any would want to be included.  Apart from the promise of a lesser reduction in funding no other obvious benefits are offered apart from an alleged greater freedom of operation for the DHC. What this would mean in practice is wholly unclear. The fact that the two county councils are the present operators of the various museums and record offices has in no way inhibited their development or their ability to access funds from outside, as is witnessed by the  recent complete remaking of the Somerset County Museum and fine new buildings for both record offices.   How would the council tax payers of either Devon or Somerset be sure that their funds were being allocated fairly within the trust?  What happens if it fails?  The minuscule timetable allocated to implement the change is totally inadequate. Pension Services and Trading Standards are offered as comparisons but these operate over whole counties and offer wholly different services. The logic of this proposal is wholly unclear – it looks simply like a device by which DCC can minimise its responsibility for financing the DHC. In the long term this must inevitably be to its detriment.

In the various presentations much was made of the protection of staff pay and conditions under ‘TUPE’ regulations, but we note that (i) the protection of pay and conditions applies only to existing staff, rather than new staff; (ii) the pension scheme will not be available to new staff; and (iii) we noted in passing a number of telling references to personnel matters in terms that clearly indicated they were regarded as part of the problem (e.g. references to ‘the problem of pensions’).  As regular users and supporters of both collections (the local studies library and archives) we well know that competent, knowledgeable and experienced staff are the very core of a successful operation of this type, and their expertise and detailed knowledge of the collections greatly enhances the experience of many users.  We believe that the present staff (already eroded, and probably demoralized, by cuts) should be recognized as the key asset of the Devon Heritage Centre, and one that needs to be valued and developed.  The contrary approach revealed by the various comments relayed at the Exeter and Taunton meetings appears deeply worrying.

Another issue of concern is that of ownership of collections, and particularly of confidence in the DHC as a responsible archive repository.  DCC will provide funding guaranteed for five years, and we were told this would be re-negotiated thereafter (which we take to mean likely to be reduced thereafter).  We were also told that the move to a trust would not affect the present ownership status of the collections.  But if confidence begins to be lost (either by the move to a trust, or by worries over its longer-term viability) what is there to deter depositors of documents, who have in the past been led to believe that the County Record Offices provided the best location and optimum conditions for long-term care and curation of archives, from retrieving their deposits and ‘going it alone’?  Devon’s archivists and local studies librarians have laboured for sixty years and more to build up the collections: loss of confidence could mean regression to the bad old days of muniments becoming inaccessible again and prone to neglect, decay and even total loss.

Peter Child


Devon Buildings Group.