Finance: Dust-up at the museum

The shake-up in local government has pitted city against county in a bitter dispute over who should have custody of the area's past. Paul Gosling reports
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The Independent Online
Dividing the assets of old county councils to create new unitary authorities was never going to be easy. But no one could have predicted that probably the most bitter dispute in England's local government reorganisation would centre not on core functions such as social services or education, but on Leicestershire's museums.

After a three-year determined rearguard action, Leicestershire County Council has accepted defeat and agreed in principle to the new unitary Leicester City Council running its own museums. From next April, Leicestershire will continue to run a diminished museums service across the county, excluding Leicester and Rutland which are to run their own museums and galleries.

The decision so disgusted Peter Knight, Labour's museums spokesman on the hung county council, that he resigned his party's whip, condemning his colleagues on the Labour-run Leicester City Council for destroying a museums service he describes as the "best in the country". Now, he says, "we won't have a service worth its while." Mr Knight has since calmed down, and asked his party to restore his whip.

The row, though, will continue to simmer for many months yet, having already been aired in the House of Lords. Indeed, it seems unlikely that things will be resolved by the time Leicester becomes a unitary authority.

"I still find it difficult to see how it can be sorted out," says Tim Schadla-Hall, Leicestershire's director of museums and arts. "I can't see how scarce resources get better by splitting them up. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Once you start talking about splitting a service you highlight who gets what from the collection. You should be talking about how to give the best to the community."

Mr Schadla-Hall claims that the Local Government Commission never intended to break up coherent county-wide services, clearly expecting them to be continued as joint boards. He accuses the city council of being more interested in taking control of the city's museums than in safeguarding them.

Negotiations between Leicester and Leicestershire have been consistently difficult, made worse when Mr Schadla-Hall posed for the front cover of Museums Journal magazine with boxing gloves around his neck, ready for combat with the city. Relations between the city council and the county's museums service had already been bad for some years, after the new Snibston museum was established in the north of the county, furnished extensively with items the county had inherited from the old Leicester City Council, which had been wound up in the 1974 local government reorganisation.

Ned Newitt, chair of Leicester City Council's arts, libraries and museums committee, says that the city is claiming back what it should never have lost. "In 1974 the city council handed everything over to the county, which is why we have a problem today," says Mr Newitt. "Most counties do not have a county-wide museums service."

Most of Leicestershire's current collection, argues Mr Newitt, originates from gifts to the pre-1974 Leicester City Council. But this, he believes, misses the point. Councils own collections only on behalf of people, and it does not matter which authority has legal possession of them provided there is goodwill, and agreement to lend items between local museums.

Adrian Babbidge, of the East Midlands Museums Service, believes this ignores the complex and unresolved question of which council has the legal right to collections built up over a long period of time. "Items will be owned by the organisation to which given, on the terms given," says Mr Babbidge. "If there were no conditions, then they can do what they like with them."

With hundreds of thousands of items held in the museums service, everyone agrees it is impracticable to check on the origins of each piece, confirming the conditions attached to any donation. But this leaves open the possibility of legal challenges in the future.

The city council says it is willing for pieces to stay in the museums where they are currently on display. The exception to this is with items given to the pre-1974 Leicester City Council but now on display at the Snibston museum, which the city council reserves the right to demand back if that museum is privatised in the future.

One option now being discussed is the transfer of all of Leicestershire's collection into an independent trust, which would decide which museum to lend pieces and collections to, ensuring there is no competition between the three municipal museums services to operate in the county. Deciding the composition of the trustees, though, would be yet another dispute dividing the authorities.

Behind the complex legal arguments lies a basic difference in approach. The county council believes that it runs an excellent museums service, and that the city council is not up to the job of running it in the future. But the city council believes that the county's museums are not particularly good, and mostly ignore social and working-class history. The city talks of wanting to create "people's museums", that are more attractive and more informative. It is, as Leicester portrays it, a battle between the old and new guard of the museum profession.

What the dispute shows, above all else, is the need to resolve inter- authority problems through goodwill and negotiation. Once that is lost, the disagreements multiply.

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