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Stourbridge Glass Collection

Volume 494: debated on Thursday 18 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

Stourbridge glass is synonymous with quality, craftsmanship and excellence, and it is one of the greatest names in world glass-making. Since the 16th century, glass workshops and factories in the Stourbridge area have created some of the finest glass ever made, and the industry is a fundamental part of Stourbridge’s history and heritage and those of the wider black country.

The Stourbridge glass collection is currently housed at the Broadfield House glass museum, an internationally renowned museum that is ranked in the top five worldwide. Local people are rightly proud of the collection and of Broadfield House itself, as are local councillors and my Dudley parliamentary colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Sylvia Heal)—and, apparently, as I see him in his place, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). I am indebted to them for their support on this issue.

However, the same cannot be said of Dudley council, which, in its wisdom, appears to have identified the museum as a possible candidate for closure in an attempt to balance the books. I hope that the Minister will bear with me on some of the details, which I think will demonstrate the haphazard and confused way in which Dudley council is handling this important issue, as well as, I am afraid, the disdain it appears to show to its ratepayers, local glass enthusiasts and international experts.

In a series of meetings at the museum on 4 and 5 January this year, Dudley council officers, Duncan Lowndes, assistant director of culture, and Sally Orton, head of museums and green spaces, met Broadfield House staff and told them that the museum would close by the end of March 2010; that the only secure job to remain would be that of the curator; and that all other staff would be offered sideways moves into the borough. In addition, they were told that the collections and the research resources would be moved to the Red House Glass Cone, which is a local heritage site. Since then, the councillors and the executive have publicly denied that those meetings ever took place and have not informed staff about their job security—either way—to this day.

On 7 January, a council meeting agreed to a “review of museum services”, which identified £120,000 to be saved in the sector. Sadly, only Broadfield House was mentioned, which has led many to believe that that was nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise by Dudley council. Indeed, only this week, senior Tory Councillor Malcolm Knowles said at the Stourbridge area committee that he

“considered it to have been a grave mistake to publish the amounts to be saved if Broadfield House was closed.”

So much for openness and transparency at Dudley council.

I am very concerned that there was no public consultation prior to the decision and that the friends and staff of Broadfield House have not been involved in any official way. I am further concerned that the council has made no detailed financial or practical evaluation of its decision. It took the decision on a very short time scale and did not appear even to have considered any sources of external funding.

The information that friends of Broadfield House received from the council has been confusing and evasive at best, and directly misleading at worst. Despite telling staff that Broadfield House would close, various e-mails from councillors have sought to deny that any financial or final decisions have been taken. That was echoed recently by the director of the urban environment, John Millar, at a meeting of the Brierley Hill area committee on 2 April, when he said that the results of a feasibility study would be presented to the council’s cabinet in October. He repeatedly denied that any decision on closing Broadfield House had already been made.

All this conflicting information is obviously counter-productive and has left interested parties unsure of where they stand. Indeed, if these meetings took place and various promises have already been given, the fact that the council has taken a decision to close makes any talk of consultation a farce. For the council subsequently to deny that any such meetings had taken place is breathtakingly dishonest. In my experience, that shows the arrogance, myopia and contempt for the public that sums up Dudley council and its approach to anything in the leisure and cultural sector.

Great strength of feeling was demonstrated in the constituency following the council’s actions, and the Glass Association handed it a petition with more than 6,000 names opposing the move in April. The proposed closure and move has also attracted opposition from nationwide organisations, including the Glass Association and the Victoria and Albert museum. Local people feel very strongly about any diminution of the Glass museum’s size and display area. Indeed, an online poll on the Stourbridge News website found that 94.7 per cent. of participants opposed the closure, and there have been pages of letters written by local people to local and national newspapers.

Let me give a few examples. Nick Baker from Amblecote wrote in Stourbridge News:

“closure of Broadfield house would be a cultural disaster for the area, a massive insult to the history and people of Stourbridge”.

Mr. Roger Brettell wrote:

“It is sad that the Council appears to have so little regard for its own reputation as custodian of this unique and priceless collection that it begrudges the funding to allow it to remain in its present location… I should be disinclined to support any Councillor who fails to oppose this niggardly and ill-advised proposal”.

V. Perry wrote that she

“read with disgust the news to close Broadfield House”,

and described the idea that the Red House Glass Cone could provide a suitable alternative as “rubbish”. She added:

“I would guess that the decision to close the museum is centred on the development potential of the land which would generate a sizeable lump sum for the council should the land be sold!”

The suggestion that the collection could be moved to the Red House Glass Cone does not appear to be viable without extensive renovation of the current buildings. There is simply not enough space there to house such an important collection. Vast expense would be involved in the creation of a new museum with new display cabinets, lecture facilities and modern audio-visual devices, along with the costs of wrapping, moving, insurance and the interim storage of these priceless exhibits.

As the council has said that one of the aims of the move is to save £120,000, we can only assume that it would not then be prepared to make funds available for the expansion of the Red House Glass Cone itself. If that is true, the move from Broadfield House would downgrade the museum facility, as the Red House Glass Cone has neither the exhibition space nor adequate lecture space for the collection to be displayed.

There are also fears about the structural integrity of the Red House Glass Cone site. Charles Hajdamach, the former principal museums officer for Dudley, claims that one of the tunnels underneath the cone—there are several—is due to collapse. However, although Janet Hendry of Friends of Broadfield House submitted a question about the structural integrity of the site to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at a council meeting on 3 June, a council spokesman told Stourbridge News yesterday:

“We have not been made aware of any existing issues with the Red House Glass Cone building”.

The site to which the council may move part of the exhibition appears to be falling apart, and the council does not seem to have any structural information about what is going on there.

I understand that a feasibility study is being conducted, but the council has refused to release information on the tender documents submitted by consultants, on the brief given to consultants, and on how much the study will cost. Barbara Beadman of the Friends has received a letter promising her a full copy of the feasibility study brief, but, unsurprisingly, it has not yet arrived in her letter box. The Friends have been refused copies of the tenders, and the chief executive of the council, Mr. John Polychronakis, has said that they are “commercially sensitive”.

Many campaigners fear that the study is a sham intended to pay lip service to the campaigners and that the outcome was decided months ago. Of course, we are used to shams from Dudley council; unfortunately, it has form in that regard. I am sure that I need not remind my hon. Friend the Minister of the debacle of so-called consultations on the closure of the Brierley Hill leisure centre and baths and Cradley high school and leisure centre—recently criticised by the local government ombudsman—or of the botched library review and the current fiasco over yet another proposed closure at Coseley swimming baths in the north of the borough.

As the briefing terms of the feasibility study have not been made public, campaigners also fear that it is only considering how much of the collection can be moved to the Red House Glass Cone site as it is at present. That is a very narrow remit, and will not constitute an improvement. The council’s refusal to release a copy of the tender document and the winning consultancy’s bid is only adding more weight to the argument.

As the hon. Lady’s next-door neighbour, I do not wish to get involved in a dispute with Dudley council but, as chairman of the all-party arts and heritage group can I say that she is performing a very real service in outlining the problem? It is crucial—

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9 (3)).

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

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not notice the time. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech. She is performing a very real service. It is crucial that this internationally famous collection be kept together and displayed, preferably in the historic setting that it already enjoys. I will do anything I can to help her.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is indeed a very good neighbour.

Campaigners are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of meaningful dialogue with the council. As well as not being consulted initially on the decision, they have offered to assist with the feasibility study and are finding that the council is evasive and unhelpful. The council website has not been updated for some time and communications are at best vague. As a result of the secretive manner of its operations, there is of course a lot of suspicion among interested groups that the intention of the council all along has been to maximise a capital gain from the sale of Broadfield House, possibly to move some of the glass collection to the Red House Glass Cone site and to pack the rest up to be forgotten about deep in the bowels of one of the council’s storage facilities.

At Monday night’s Stourbridge area committee, the council agreed to a special meeting with the Friends of Broadfield House—but not until September, by which time stage 1 of the feasibility study will have been completed. That would appear to be a deliberately obstructive move by the council, which has stated that arrangements have been set in place for engaging all the organisations and groups that have shown their interest in the future of the museum—although it has of course refused to meet them until September, which goes completely against their statement. Furthermore, the Friends of Broadfield House has offered the council £120,000 for a year’s breathing space. It has received no answer to its offer and the council claimed on Monday to know nothing about it, despite the e-mail being sent twice, and the second time to 25 councillors.

The decision to move the glass museum, its assets, collections and archives from Broadfield House strikes me at best as a knee-jerk reaction to cut budgets and at worst as a deliberate attempt to undermine the heritage of my constituency. So far, I have not been convinced that the council has the preservation of the glass museum at the heart of its plans. It would be disastrous for the region’s heritage and for the glass industry if the collection were to be hidden away, not available for us to see and enjoy, split up or reduced in any way. The Friends of Broadfield House, the Glass Association and the Glass Circle would support a move if it were to improve and enhance the Broadfield House museum experience and would be delighted to help facilitate any improvement that would preserve and display the collection. However, there has been no indication from the council that that is in any way likely.

I am concerned that the proposals serve only as a short-term money-saving ploy with no real consideration of the long-term future of the Stourbridge glass collection. I strongly urge the Minister to intervene and to ask Dudley council to reconsider its decision and, importantly, to open up its processes for us all to see and be part of. I would like to invite my hon. Friend the Minister to see the collection with me in the near future to appreciate how unique it is and how bad our situation is at present. Glass-making is a key part of the history of the town that I am proud to represent. It is part of the very fabric of the place and it gives us our distinct character. Its tradition and heritage is on the verge of being destroyed as part of a short-term financial policy. Is not it only right that its townspeople, workers, artists and supporters have a real say in its future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this debate on an issue about which she, her constituents and other local MPs obviously care so passionately. In common with my hon. Friend and the people of Stourbridge, I, as the Minister with responsibility for museums, am passionate about the role of local museums in communities. They preserve, conserve and make accessible the tangible history of an area, and they allow people to understand, and interact with, their heritage. In this case, that heritage is the glass made in the factories and workshops of the Stourbridge area over the past 400 years.

I know that the Broadfield House museum, about which my hon. Friend has spoken so clearly and passionately, has a magnificent collection of local Stourbridge glass dating from the 17th century to the present day. The museum also has an impressive programme of events and demonstrations, which allow the visitor to see a glass-making studio in action. I completely understand my hon. Friend’s desire to preserve such a gem for her community. Thanks to her questions and letters, I am aware of the current situation at the Broadfield House museum, and of her concerns about the future of its contents. I am pleased that we are having this debate, as it gives me the opportunity to respond in detail to the points that she has made.

As my hon. Friend has asked me to intervene, I know she will not be pleased that I must point out that the future of this collection and the funding of the Broadfield House museum is a matter for the local authority concerned, Dudley metropolitan borough council. The delegation of authority and responsibility from central Government to local government is the basis of the relationship between them, and it means that I, as the responsible central Government Minister, cannot intervene in matters that the conventions of that relationship dictate are the concern of a democratically elected council.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying about that relationship, but in a case where a council appears not to be acting in the best interests of the collection or of local people, there must be something that the responsible Minister can do; otherwise such a council will just get away with it. Dudley council has got away with a lot of other decisions. Local decision making is bad, and local people have no confidence in what is going on.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but we in central Government have options, and I will describe them to her now. Central Government obviously have in their armoury the nuclear option of complete intervention, but we are loth to deploy it, particularly in situations—such as this one, I have to say—where it appears that the local authority concerned is going through due process. Let me try to make my case.

As my hon. Friend is aware, Dudley council is currently exploring options in respect of the future of the Broadfield House museum and the proposal to move its glass collection to the Red House Glass Cone museum. Dudley council strongly believes that the facilities at the Red House Glass Cone museum and the large number of visitors it attracts—well over double the number that the Broadfield House museum currently attracts—make it better placed to showcase the borough’s important glass collection for the community. That is why the council has commissioned a feasibility study to look into this proposal in more depth.

I understand that, as my hon. Friend has outlined so clearly, local feeling does not reflect as much confidence in this decision as the council would like. That is why central Government welcome the feasibility study, and the fact that consultants have been appointed. The first phase of this process—an options appraisal—will be completed by the beginning of August, and I am told that the full report is due to be ready by 26 October.

I understand that my hon. Friend is working from information gathered by people who are not from Stourbridge or who do not understand the local conditions. The Red House Glass Cone site is very small, whereas the Stourbridge glass collection is vast. I am no expert, but I know about putting things in rooms and I can tell her that there is no way that that collection will ever be able to be displayed in the Red House Glass Cone; it is fantastic, but it is not suitable for this collection—and it is falling down.

I have taken my hon. Friend’s concerns on board, which is why I asked the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council—the MLA—to go to Stourbridge to meet local stakeholders, including her, and to visit the Red House Glass Cone museum. I wanted to establish whether it could house the Stourbridge collection and whether the MLA, the statutory advisor to central Government, thought it was suitable. I shall cover its reactions as I get further into my speech.

As my hon. Friend has stated so clearly, local people do not believe that this proposal is the correct solution. Dudley metropolitan borough council has assured my officials and the MLA that if the Broadfield House museum does close, the money received from the sale of Broadfield House will be used to extend the Red House Glass Cone museum and make it more suitable to hold the collection. The council has also assured my officials that staff will be redeployed, either at the Red House Glass Cone museum or elsewhere, as part of the council’s redeployment strategy.

May I seek a further point of clarification? Is my hon. Friend talking about the proceeds of the disposal of the whole Broadfield site, which covers a vast acreage? That sum would probably run into millions, and it would be fantastic to have it. However, we—or rather, Dudley metropolitan borough council— could well be talking about just £120,000, which would perhaps replace some windows or allow a small extension; £120,000 would go nowhere.

I have been told that the capital receipts from the sale of Broadfield House would be used. I shall clarify for my hon. Friend exactly what that means in a letter. I take her point that if we are talking about the smaller amount of money that she has mentioned, I do not think that that would go far enough.

The feasibility study will examine the Broadfield House museum closure and the Red House Glass Cone museum proposal in depth. The council assures me that it will not make a decision until it has received the final report, and that no decision has yet been made. Since the future of Broadfield House museum and the Stourbridge glass collection has been brought to my attention, I have asked the Department’s lead agency on the museums sector, the MLA, to work with Dudley metropolitan borough council to ensure the best outcome for the council and for the people of Dudley. Dudley Council welcomes the MLA’s involvement, and both organisations have been working together to ensure that this feasibility study is robust, has a clear vision and takes into account the views of the local community.

As I have said, the MLA has met a range of interested parties, including my hon. Friend and the local glass bodies. The MLA believes that the feasibility study will be very thorough, including investigations into the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, such as security, display facilities, accessibility and other on-site facilities, as well as overall cost-effectiveness. The MLA’s chief executive recently visited the Red House Glass Cone site and, like my hon. Friend, described the museum as remarkable. He believes that it would be possible to extend the displays and interpretation by including collections from Broadfield.

As my hon. Friend will know, the MLA has developed a real capacity to engage in local issues and to forge good relationships across the sector. Its ground-breaking renaissance in the regions programme aims to transform England’s local museums by using funding from the Government to raise standards and deliver real results in support of education, learning, community development and economic regeneration. The programme has had investment of £242 million since 2002, and it is beginning to make our museums great centres of life and learning, which people want to visit. I want to ensure that that is the case in Dudley, too.

I assure my hon. Friend that although the Government cannot intervene directly in this matter, I am watching progress very closely. I have met with the MLA’s chief executive and spoken to him about it, and I am taking the whole matter very seriously.

May I stress that it is not only the people of Stourbridge but those of the whole region who regard this as an important collection? Will the Minister do all she can to ensure that whatever its precise location, the collection is kept together and on proper display, as it should be—not closed up for years? If she will give us that assurance, it will be as welcome in my constituency as in that of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho).

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I understand his concern. I have made it the central plank of my time as Minister for the arts to ensure that we democratise our arts and our culture. In other words, I want to ensure that we do not keep arts and culture locked away, that we keep collections together, that we make them available by whatever means we have at our disposal—such as making them available digitally—and that we let people get to them and see them as they ought to be seen. As quite a large section of my family worked in the china industry in parts of Staffordshire, I understand the value that people put on such collections. I understand the historical value of holding them together. I assure him that I will do all I can to ensure that they are preserved.

As I have said, I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge and of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about the preservation of the history and heritage of Stourbridge. I hope, therefore, that Dudley council will not take risks with the collection, which is so precious to the people of Stourbridge and the surrounding county, and that it will not implement any unnecessary or hasty closures, especially of a local museum that is providing an excellent service. I hope, too, that the council will do all it can to work collaboratively with the local community, to listen to it and to resolve this situation.

I am pleased by what my hon. Friend is saying and by her obvious commitment to the collection and to Broadfield House. She speaks about democratisation, but there is a worry that decisions are being made in secret. The Friends of Broadfield House is a collection of business people, artists and supporters, and they are world-renowned experts. Surely it would be sensible for them to be part of the feasibility study now, rather than being just another group to be consulted in October. That is a key point: we need to get the experts involved. I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the MLA, but we need to get our local experts involved, too.

Again, convention constrains me in this case. My hon. Friend and her hon. Friends and colleagues are making the kind of representations that I would expect the people’s representatives to make. I would expect Dudley council to hear these representations, because they are the expression of the people’s will, and I hope that it pays attention to them. I hope that it makes a considered decision that leads to the best possible outcome for the potential of the museums in the area, that ensures that this treasure of a collection is made as accessible as possible to the local community, and that ensures that it is kept together.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.