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Birmingham museums board trustees resign following row with council

Birmingham museums board trustees resign following row with council

🕔23.Mar 2016

Four members of the Birmingham Museums Trust board have resigned following a dispute with the city council over the future of the world-famous Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Among the trustees quitting are understood to be the chair and Penny Cobham, who as chair of Visit England and a former special adviser to the Government on tourism and heritage is regarded as one of the country’s leading culture and heritage experts.

The dispute revolves around the future relationship between the council and the trust, which is responsible for running and raising investment for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), Aston Hall, Blakesley Hall, Museum Collections Centre, Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Thinktank and Weoley Castle.

The resignations followed weeks of tense negotiation with the city council over a new five year contract and lease agreements for the museum buildings.

One of the sticking points is believed to be the council’s insistence on granting only a five year lease for the BMAG, while all of the other museums have been given 25-year leases.

City bosses are unwilling to agree to a longer lease for BMAG because the future of the building housing the museum and art gallery, in the Council House extension, remains uncertain. The entire Council House and civic estate is the subject of an internal review about the best use to be made of the buildings given the dwindling council workforce and the requirement for less office space.

The trustees who have resigned believe that a five-year lease will make it almost impossible to raise funds from banks or other organisations who will insist on long-term guarantees.

The issue was raised at a meeting of the city council cabinet yesterday, where opposition Conservative group leader Robert Alden claimed the relationship between the museums’ trust and the council was in danger of breaking down.

Cllr Alden said:

How can you have a long term relationship if we don’t give them a long term lease? There are so many grant conditions they won’t qualify for to get investment.

I have real concerns that the relationship between the trust and the council is breaking down. People who have had concerns have left the trust.

We need to make sure we have high-profile national figures who can make a great deal out of Birmingham’s cultural offer.

Penny Holbrook, cabinet member for skills, learning and culture, admitted negotiations with the trust had been difficult, but she insisted the council was determined to secure a long-term partnership. Cllr Holbrook said:

This has not been the easiest of negotiations but our relationship with the trust remains very strong. The museums trust remains incredibly important for Birmingham city council and we want a long term relationship.

It would be wrong to say our relationship with the museums trust is broken. It is stronger than it ever has been.

It is perfectly natural that we won’t agree on everything, but the relationship is not in any danger. We are very clear the trust is our delivery partner for the long term.

Mark Rogers, the council chief executive, said the relationship between the council and the trust required “some tender loving care”. Mr Rogers added:

Some trustees have taken the view that they couldn’t get any further with us in their conversations.

We need to strike a balance with the trustees about an unequivocal long term commitment to museums in this city. It needs TLC. We will take this forward in a spirit of constructive dialogue.

The vision is intact even if there is some disruption in the long term.

The dispute comes at a time when the trust has been able to report increased visitor numbers and trading income.

The majority of trustees are still on the board and are understood to be supportive of the council’s position and are backing a memorandum of understanding setting out a 100-year vision for Birmingham’s museums. The trust is likely to be seeking reassurances over the main building and preservation of the collection in order to generate funds from a variety of other public and private sources as well as grant making trusts and foundations.

The vision document was drawn up following a jointly commissioned review of the relationship between the council and the trust. Chamberlain Files believes The resulting recommendations have been agreed by both parties.

Yesterday’s cabinet meeting approved a five-year financial deal for the trust which will receive £3.183 from the council in 2016-17, £ 2.933 million in 2017-18 and £2.683 million in each of the three years from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

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