It is now two months since Lancashire County Council announced it was about to cut 90% of the heritage and culture budget and close all of the Country Parks, over half of the libraries and several museums.
The programme of cuts, and its consequences, has been condemned by organisations such as the Museums Association which has commented that the scale of cuts is “shocking – the worst we’ve yet seen”.
From a Burnley point of view the most important of the proposed closures will be that of Queen Street Mill Museum, based in Harle Syke. This is run in tandem with the LCC’s other textile museum in Helmshore, Rossendale. Both are under threat of closure and, it appears to me our county councillors need to be informed about the importance of these museums.
The one in Burnley is unique. It should be a World Heritage Site but the County has failed to get it the recognition it deserves. There is no other place like Queen Street Museum anywhere in the world and, if it is closed, it will not be possible to recreate it anywhere else. It will go and, with it, will disappear a great tranche of our town’s history.
The cotton industry, with all its faults, is what made Burnley and, for that matter, the entire county what it is today. Cotton, and the role it gave to Lancashire as the world’s first industrial economy, might have gone but the towns and villages created by that industry remain. It is impossible to appreciate how Burnley, Padiham and Harle Syke, and a host of other places, came into being without what these museums represent.
It is the inability of the County Council to appreciate the importance of these museums that concerns me most. I suppose I should not be surprised because LCC has never been particularly good at heritage. The County Archaeology Service, for example, has never lived up to its name. This, incidentally, is to be another casualty of the coming cuts. The last time I heard about the County Archaeology Service it was restricted to one officer who was sharing a desk at County Hall with someone else. I didn’t think things could get worse than that, but how wrong I was!
The County Council is proposing to rid itself of all its Country Parks. These exist throughout the county. Just about every borough has got at least one, the most well-known one in east Lancashire being Wycoller Country Park which is an exemple of what can be achieved. If LCC closes these parks the effect on the natural environment, at a time when the rest of us are becoming greener every day with be little short of devastating.
If facilities like Country Parks are viewed as assets, rather than the money pits they are seen as being by county councillors, their importance is realised. Country Parks are not only good places to visit, to take the children, to enjoy a breath of fresh air and a country walk, they contribute to other aspects of our lives. Well maintained woodland, peat mosses or brackish seaside ponds all contribute to reducing the risk of flooding and schemes like these also have the effect of reducing damaging carbon in the atmosphere. That the County Council is withdrawing from these areas is a scandal.
I am fortunate to be able to move in academic circles and the general consensus is that the vast majority of my contacts are horrified with what LCC has done to our local libraries. They have not only been de-skilled but LCC has reduced a once proud library service to a shadow of what it was. Burnley’s former Borough Librarian, Richard Caul, would have had something to say about what has happened to the Stocks Massey Music Library, the closure of the Reference Library and dumbing down of the library stock. What he would have said about the former Burnley Corporation’s policy of having a library in each part of the town, when the next closure programme is implemented, I shudder to think.
If members of the County Council read this article, and I hope they do, they will argue it is very one-sided. Let me introduce a measure of balance. I am a member of Burnley Council. I know about the extent, and unfairness, of the present government cuts. I did not approve of the cuts at the time of the Coalition and I do not approve of them now.
For the County Council to cut 90% of what I have called its heritage budget is in itself inequitable. On the other hand, I have not heard very much criticism of the Government from LCC. They have commented a little, and occasionally, but there has been no sustained criticism of the cuts and, of course, there is plenty to criticise, the main feature being that the cuts are being implemented unfairly. Some authorities are affected much worse than others.
Neither have I seen much creative thinking by LCC about alternative ways of financing some of their services. They seem to think there might be buyers for the five museums and myriad of Country Parks they want to close. I think it is unlikely many legitimate private bidders will come forward, so let me suggest something else – special pleading.
The Museum of the Lancashire Textile Industry is undoubtedly unique so, given that this is true, what about asking the Government for funds to keep these museums open?
We would not be asking for millions, but we would be asking for the nation to pay for the continuation of these national assets.