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Burton on Trent Brewing Museum

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to mention the importance of Burton’s brewing museum not only to local people but nationally and internationally. Burton on Trent grew out of the brewing industry, which developed because of the quality of the area’s water, and it still produces splendid beer.

In 1977, centuries of brewing in Burton were recognised when the Bass museum was opened to celebrate the bicentenary of Bass. At that time, the museum was housed in the grade II three-storey building known as the joiner’s shop. In the 30 years since then, the museum has grown and it now occupies several buildings on the site. There is not only a large gallery that describes the brewing process, but a library, archive and educational facilities, paddocks and stables for the shire horses, a Robey steam engine and vintage road and rail vehicles.

In 2002, Coors Brewers acquired the museum following the company’s purchase of the Bass brewery from Interbrew. However, the Bass name remained with Interbrew and, in 2003, the museum was renamed the Coors visitor centre and museum of brewing. Sadly, in March, Coors announced that it could no longer continue to fund the museum and that it would close at the end of June. That announcement was met with great sadness, some anger and a demand for a way forward to be found to save the museum.

The messages of support for the museum that I received came from throughout the UK and from other countries, including France, Canada and America. Both local and national organisations contacted me. I was grateful that the local paper, the Burton Mail, launched a petition, which gathered thousands of signatures and was presented to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who is the Minister responsible for culture, creative industries and tourism.

I have received e-mails from relatives of those who established the museum, and from those who just wished me good luck or asked me to save the museum. I also received messages reflecting the museum’s importance, saying that it enables local people to find a sense of their own history and connect it with their heritage. Another e-mail referred to the museum by describing the history of brewing in Burton as the foundation on which the town was built and the museum’s closure as damaging to the local economy. A former Burtonian living in New Jersey referred to having brought small groups of Americans to Burton to visit both Marston’s Brewery, with its unique Burton Union system, and the museum of brewing, which was described as the highlight of the trip.

Given so many messages of support for the museum, I felt that it was important to draw together the many organisations that had contacted me, so I organised a meeting at the Coors visitor centre at the end of March. I expected there to be about 20 people at that meeting, but, in fact, 36 attended, including representatives of the following: Coors; Museums, Libraries and Archives West Midlands; Advantage West Midlands; Staffordshire county council, East Staffordshire borough council; the Campaign for Real Ale—CAMRA; the British Guild of Beer Writers, the chamber of commerce; Burton rotary club; local businesses; and local newspapers.

From that meeting, a steering group was formed to take forward the development of an options appraisal. One of the key issues raised at the first meeting was the proposed date for closure of the museum and the lack of time to secure a rescue. There was also concern that the artefacts might be dispersed. Therefore, following that meeting, I wrote to Coors asking whether the closure could be delayed and whether Coors would be prepared to make a financial commitment to the museum’s future operation. I was pleased that before the first steering group meeting, I received a response from Coors saying that it would be willing to contribute ongoing costs of up to £100,000 per year, as well as the lease of the museum buildings at a peppercorn rent. On top of that, Coors would also be prepared to donate a one-off, match-funded payment of up to £200,000 to a new organisation running the museum. Although Coors could not delay the closure of the museum beyond the end of June, it agreed to keep the museum’s artefacts and contents intact until the end of the year, so that a plan could be developed to re-open the centre to the public. Coors also agreed to continue to provide curatorial support until the end of the year to ensure the preservation of the collections, and the shire horses would also be retained during that time.

The steering group agreed to appoint consultants to produce an options analysis and their final report was released this week. I want to express my thanks to East Staffordshire borough council and Advantage West Midlands for agreeing jointly to fund the consultants, and to Staffordshire county council for agreeing to provide administrative and communications support for the steering group, as well as providing the Coors visitor centre and museum of brewing with staff time to catalogue the extensive archives held on site. I would particularly like to thank Jon Finch, chief executive of Museums, Libraries and Archives West Midlands, for his tremendous support and guidance over the last few weeks. I feel sure we would not have made the progress that we have without him on board.

The report from Jura Consultants provided a way forward for the museum, and at the last meeting of the steering group, we agreed to ask the key stakeholders—Coors, East Staffordshire borough council and Staffordshire county council—to meet to endeavour to produce a business plan. The consultants’ report examined the aims and objectives for the future operation of the centre, which include the future contribution the museum can make to tourism and to the regeneration of Burton, finding a financially viable future for the centre, and the necessity to protect the collections, both the objects and the archives.

The consultants’ report describes the collection by saying:

“The collections held at the Coors Visitor Centre are the most significant collection of brewing related objects in Britain. Furthermore, the archive, which comprises the core administrative, financial, production and employment records of Bass and of the many companies from all over the UK absorbed by Bass over decades, is of national significance. It is therefore important that any future of the Coors Visitor Centre should ensure the collections are protected. The value of the collections could also be diminished if they were to be split up”.

The museum’s collection includes not only brewing and malting equipment, brewery transport and specialist items, such as coopering tools, but packaging and historic advertising items—ceramics, glassware, artwork and mirrors. It is also a repository for the Burton town museum, which closed several years ago. It therefore reflects both our local and national heritage.

The importance of the brewing museum in Burton to our national heritage is reflected in articles that have appeared in national publications. In The Guardian, Roger Protz, editor of the Campaign for Real Ale's “Good Beer Guide” wrote an article entitled “A Beery Past Imperilled”. He said:

“Great brewing nations celebrate the contribution beer has made to their development as civilised societies with dedicated museums. The Czech Republic has two; Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland have one each. Even tiny Slovenia has a brewing museum...while the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin attracts a million visitors a year.”

He went on:

“But Britain stands to lose its sole major brewery museum in June when Coors closes its visitors centre in Burton-on-Trent...Brewing is one of the last major British industries. It makes a sizable contribution to the wealth of the nation.”

The article described the history of Burton, saying:

“Burton-on-Trent became an important brewing centre as early as the 11th century, when the monks of Burton Abbey were encouraged to make ale for the Earl of Mercia—aided by a constant supply of pure hard spring water from the Trent valley. It was this water, allied to new technologies of the industrial revolution, that enabled brewers in the town to fashion a groundbreaking, globally exported style of beer: pale ale.”

The article continued:

“The small town of Burton heaved with breweries and their armies of workers. The brewers developed their own private railways to feed into the new national network. When St. Pancras station was built in London in the 1860s, its cellars were designed to take great wooden hogsheads of Burton ale..

All this history is brilliantly depicted in the Museum in Burton and shows how beer and brewing are part of the warp and weft of British society.”

I should like to thank Roger Protz for his outspoken support for the museum in Burton and for his vision of its development into a truly national museum of brewing. The chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, Tim Hampson, wrote a letter to The Guardian in support of the museum. He said:

“Burton-on-Trent is quite simply one of the greatest brewing towns the world has ever seen... If it closes, we would lose an invaluable, unique resource and be denied the only real large-scale beer tourist attraction in the country. The collection is priceless and inimitable.”

He added:

“The collection of artefacts should be kept with the archives. Nothing on its scale exists anywhere else in Britain. And Burton is the natural place to keep it. Burton and the museum are intertwined and it is essential that we try to preserve the heritage, not only of the brewing industry, but of the town. Coors must give the project to create a National Museum of Brewing something almost as valuable as the collection itself—time.”

Although the museum closed its doors to the general public on 30 June, I welcome Coors’ commitment to keeping everything intact until the end of 2008. I understand that, if significant progress can be made towards finding a new operator for the museum, then an extension to the company's commitment could be forthcoming. However, we need to make speedy progress.

The steering group asked the key stakeholders to consider three options put forward by Jura Consultants. All the options would involve using the whole site, and would therefore be able to secure the £100,000 per year financial commitment from Coors, but all would need an operating subsidy of between £140,000 to £256,000 per annum. Each of the options would provide the potential to develop the museum and to seek national status. The consultants’ report says:

“Even without national status, the museum would be the premier brewing museum in the UK and an important facility for those wanting to understand, research and enjoy the UK's brewing heritage.”

The report continues:

“One further issue regarding national status is that this could lead to the Coors visitor centre attracting significant collections leading to exciting new displays, which in turn would have the potential to attract additional visitors.”

I very much hope that the many messages of support for the museum, locally and nationally, can now be messages of financial commitment in order to take forward the new operation of the museum, possibly as an independent charitable trust. When my right hon. Friend the Minister of State met a delegation at my request, she offered to contact brewers who might be willing to support the museum. She also mentioned the possibility of support through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance funding. Local people have suggested voluntary fund raising and at this point I should like to thank all the volunteers who have supported the museum over the years. All those forms of funding can help to sustain and improve it in future years, but a secure stream of revenue of funding is needed to take the project forward. For that, I believe that we must look to both local government and industry. East Staffordshire borough council has, as one of its priorities, the encouragement and development of local prosperity and Staffordshire county council includes in its priorities economic development and enterprise and sustainable development. Advantage West Midland’s strategic objectives include attracting more visitors from outside the region. I feel that all these priorities could be helped by support for the brewing museum.

I also urge the brewing and pub industry to come forward with offers of financial support. I know that these are not easy times for the industry, but this is a golden opportunity to have a museum that reflects the industry as a whole. When the museum was run by only one brewer, it could not be a national museum, nor could it draw down financial support from the lottery and other bodies. The opportunity is now there to develop a national museum of brewing. This is a one-off opportunity, and one that we cannot afford to miss.

I urge any local and national organisations linked with the brewing industry, or in the case of local bodies, concerned for the future of the town of Burton on Trent, to come forward and make a long-term commitment to the financial support of the museum, subject of course to its becoming an independent museum. If all the disparate organisations—business, local government and other groups—can join together, both the financial burden and, in a sense, ownership of the museum can be shared.

I have tried to involve all those organisations that contacted me to support the museum in discussions about its future. I hope that we now can see a united effort to secure the funding to take the museum forward as a national museum of brewing. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about any further help or advice he can give us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on her campaign to keep the Bass brewery open. Forty-odd years ago, when Burton was still the brewing capital of the world, and still producing magnificent beers, a few fairly rumbustious friends and I used to travel to Burton by train. I well remember Burton at the time. It used to smell of three things: gasworks, breweries and Marmite. Marmite is still there—the factory is still there, as far as I am aware.

It still smells of breweries and Marmite—great place.

Here is one of my memories of those days. I was a pint drinker; we drank beer in pints in Derby. I had the unique experience of going into a public house in Burton—I think it was called “The Derby Turn” because, coming from Derby, we would go into “The Derby Turn”—and saying, “I’ll have a pint of Bass, please”, and hearing the whole public house go absolutely silent. I could not understand it, but the reason was that in Burton people did not drink pints; they only ever drank half pints. Why? Bass and all the breweries round there brewed a flat beer, and the view was that if you had a pint, by the time you got to the bottom it would have gone flat, so you only drank out of half-pint glasses. It was absolute sacrilege for anyone to come in and order a pint.

Sadly, Bass’s brewery, as such, has gone, it having been bought out by Coors. The chimney with “Bass” lit up at night has gone; that has now, I think, been replaced by “Coors”. It is sad, but a fact of life.

I was well aware that Bass is still brewed. People can still get good copperhead Bass. It is still excellent quality, but it is brewed at Marston’s brewery. For those who want to be technical, the Union brewery process is used to make another excellent beer—Marston’s Pedigree—but, thankfully, Bass is also brewed there. It would be an absolute tragedy if almost the last name of Bass departed as a result of the museum closing. The Minister should take the opportunity to visit it if, as I hope, it reopens.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

The Minister ought to take the opportunity to visit the museum. I have heard little rumours—they might be malicious—that he has been occasionally seen imbibing alcohol, namely beer, in odd places around here. He should go to Martson’s brewery and sample a good half pint of Marton’s Pedigree, followed by an excellent half pint of copperhead Bass—wonderful; the elixir of life. It would be tragedy if the museum were to stay closed. It should reopen. It is part of industrial history, not just for Burton, but for all those people who like good-quality beers, as opposed to some of the noxious rubbish that we are sometimes forced to imbibe in various parts of the world. Magnificent beer; magnificent history; magnificent brewery; and I shall give whatever support I can to my hon. Friend the Member for Burton to ensure that the Bass museum continues to survive for hundreds of years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing this debate and on leading the campaign to save the brewing museum in Burton on Trent. I am delighted to have had the educational experience of hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton, both of whom are members of the all-party beer group. Indeed, the chairman of that group, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is with us now, so this is indeed an important debate on a serious issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Burton has rightly pointed out, there is centuries of brewing heritage in Burton on Trent, with many important brewery buildings and, until very recently, a brewing museum. As she has said, Burton is synonymous with brewing. Great brewing names, such as Bass, Worthington, Ind Coope and Charrington, all had links to Burton, thus making it the brewing capital of the world in the 19th century. By the close of that century, I understand that some 87 miles of private brewery railway lines criss-crossed the town, with 32 level-crossing gates controlling the movement of freight across public roads.

Even today, there are still brewery businesses in the town, including Coors and Marston’s, and the town’s brewing heritage continues to be celebrated in the name of the local arts centre and the nickname of the local football team—the Brewers—to name but two. So it is not surprising that the people of Burton signed a petition in their thousands to save the museum from closure and came on to the streets to protest against the closure, with the support of their local newspaper.

Clearly, it is disappointing that Coors could not keep the visitor centre and museum running as a going concern, but I would rather focus on the future than on the past. Yes, the museum may be closed for now, but that should not be the end of the story. The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), met my hon. Friend and local representatives on 16 June. Both my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are keen to see the museum reopen in some form. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council—the MLA—which is the DCMS’s strategic body for the sector, is advising a steering group on the options that are available. As was reported in the Burton Mail, we do believe that saving the museum is possible and that the setting up of a charitable trust and then fundraising is a fight worth fighting. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has said that she will write to the major brewers in this country to seek their financial support for a national museum of brewing. This is not simply about rebadging the Coors visitor centre under a new name; it has to be about celebrating and explaining the role that brewing and pubs play in underpinning our communities.

The new museum must tell the story of brewing in the community of Burton and its importance for the country as a whole. As a nation, we take our beer pretty seriously, and a national brewing museum has the potential to be the public front door for the brewing industry and its impressive history. When the museum reopens, I shall take up the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North and visit it.

However, first the stakeholder steering group needs to assess what needs to happen to make the museum a viable proposition. That includes arriving at a good, solid, sustainable business plan with a broad range of long-term funding partners behind it. Those will need to include not just Coors, the other brewers and the wider brewing fraternity, but the local authorities—Staffordshire county council and East Staffordshire borough council. As local authorities, they should consider the value that they place on the museum and whether they can contribute to its future, as I understand that there has not been a local authority-backed museum in the town since the 1980s. Support could also come from the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, which has the strategic leadership role for the tourism economy in the region. For instance, there could be scope for marketing the museum as a visitor attraction, alongside the national forest, to draw in visitors to the area.

The new brewing museum should work towards achieving the museum accreditation standard. Accreditation is about a minimum standard of service delivery and public accountability and more than 1,800 museums across the United Kingdom have so far achieved it. Whether a museum has accreditation is a factor in the Heritage Lottery Fund’s assessment of funding applications from museums. East Staffordshire is a priority area for the fund. Only accredited museums can receive funds from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council-Victoria and Albert Museum purchase grant fund.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport can also play its part through the Renaissance programme for regional museums, which is managed by the MLA. The Renaissance programme received an index-linked settlement in the comprehensive spending review and the programme includes the Museum Development Fund, which provides advice and support to the museum community in the west midlands. Once the museum is a going concern, it could use Renaissance in the west midlands to build its audiences and develop its strengths. The new brewing museum will also need to earn its own income from entry fees and other commercial activity. The working group is considering whether corporate and private hospitality and conferencing could help cross-subsidise the museum. Other ideas have included setting up an further education school of brewing as a centre of excellence.

Gaining charitable trust status could also help in winning public grant funding and make the museum more attractive to private and philanthropic giving and local entrepreneurs. However, competition for resources is tough. More than half the museums in this country are independent; they range from small local organisations, mainly operated by volunteers, to larger national organisations such as the Ironbridge Gorge museum or Chatham historic dockyard. The museum will have to operate within the resources that are ultimately available to it, and volunteers will have an important role to play in developing the museum and its visitor programme over time.

The coming months will be a challenge for the steering group. I am optimistic in my support for the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton and for the wider industry. The enthusiasm of the people of Burton on Trent gives us the opportunity to ensure that the wider community of people in this country, who are passionate about beer and brewing, can have a museum of which they are proud. I hope that we can assist the stakeholder group and that my hon. Friends will keep up the pressure to try to get the museum open again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Six o’clock.