News Monday, December 28th

Herefordshire Council "called out" on commitment to culture

Herefordshire Council has been “called out” on its commitment to culture in the county - to come back with a robust defence of present policy.

An exchange during Member’s Questions at the final full council meeting of 2015 saw It’s Our County group leader Councillor Anthony Powers warn cabinet member for contracts and assets Councillor Harry Bramer of the county being “embarrassed” by Hereford’s bid to be a City of Culture when funding for libraries, museums and cultural services faced unprecedented cuts – if not devolved altogether.

That embarrassment, said Coun Powers, was extended to Hereford and South Herefordshire MP Jesse Norman – chair of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee.

Coun Powers cited Chancellor George Osborne and his statement during the recent spending review in which he said: “One of the best investments we can make as a nation is in our extraordinary arts, museums, heritage, media and sport. £1billion per annum adds £25 billion to our economy: not a bad return. Deep cuts are a false economy."

Raising the question in the council chamber, Coun Powers called on Coun Bramer to “recognise his chancellor’s wisdom by honouring those words at local level” with Hereford bidding to be the UK City of Culture in 2021.

Coun Bramer defended the council as one of “the few” to have invested in the cultural sector over recent years despite subsidy cuts.

He cited the council’s new county archive centre at Rotherwas as an example – built, he said, to complement a museum resource centre among the best in the country.

“We continue to work with bodies such as the Courtyard to support their plans for development, and, in response to the budget consultation, we are working closely with the county’s network of library user groups to explore a cost effective model for sustaining and improving the library service.

“In similar vein, we are working with the Hereford Library Users Group and associated groups on the opportunities for Hereford Library, setting aside £900k in the capital programme proposals to contribute to a community led solution for the library in Hereford,” said Coun Bramer .

In respect of the wider museum service, Coun Bramer cited “continuing exploration” of income generation opportunities - with a further report due for cabinet consideration in 2016.

“As part of the bid for City of Culture Herefordshire should be proud of its achievements in the cultural sector. Rather than just reflect on the investments of the authority, we should celebrate the achievements of voluntary and community groups, businesses and small enterprises, and the significant contribution they have and will continue to make to the cultural life and economy of the county,” said Coun Bramer.

Hereford Library remains closed to the public over an asbestos scare.

The council is hopeful of asbestos removal starting later next month – with the work expected to take 5-6 weeks.

Earlier this month, the council’s cabinet approved the spending of £86,000 on the asbestos removal and committed to further funding of £900,000 on the library itself.

The council has said that the future for the library service was “one part” of a broader set of questions included in the recent budget consultation.

In August, all but one of the county’s main libraries were marked for closure or “self-service” under the council’s cost saving proposals.

Community libraries would be expected to find their own funding for administration and support services.

That plan went further than savings proposed for libraries in 2013 when the service faced cuts in library opening hours by as much as 50 per cent, with libraries themselves on borrowed time if they couldn’t lend themselves to other uses or find volunteers to run them through fund-raising support.

Then, as now, critics warned of the service ceasing to exist.

A strong show of opposition forced the council into a compromise, but the service has had to undergo significant change in the way it works.

Under the latest plan, the libraries in Leominster, Ross, and Belmont would have been  “withdrawn” along with their associated customer services and access to public computers.

Bromyard, Kington and Ledbury would have “self-service” libraries but lose their customer services.

Hereford Library and the Hereford Centre Customer Service Hub would stay as the “most used” facilities.

The library delivery service for house bound residents would be retained, but the school library service is expected to become self-funding.

Communities would also have to finance back office support for community libraries for themselves.

Since the proposals went public, the council has been quick to distance itself from any definitive options for closure.

Library groups have raised the risk of the council breaching its responsibilities under the 1964 Public Libraries Act fearing a reduction in stock purchases and the loss of expert staff.

Heritage services face the prospect of being effectively “cost neutral” within the next two years.

With the council needing that cost neutral position, the challenge specifically facing heritage services lies in not only maximising income opportunities, but whittling down how much they need in the way of subsidies to do so.

The council currently holds some £3 million of heritage assets, including an art collection valued at well over £1m alone.

These assets, last valued in May 2012, consist wholly of the museum exhibits held by heritage services.

All told, the final figure topped £2.8m with the more than 3,500 paintings and prints worth £1.4m.

That fine art collection features a significant number of early English watercolours, mainly landscapes, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and is rich in its representation of work by county artists – such as Brian Hatton – or artists with strong county connections. The costume and textile collection, dating from the 17th century, and Stone Age material from King Arthur’s Cave are regarded as being of national significance.

Herefordshire Council had defended its commitment to culture.

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