The Friends of Chadkirk
John Pengelly – Chair
Mr P Ashworth
Head of Culture and Leisure
Fred Perry House
Edward St, Stockport SK1 3UR
c.c. (by email) to:
2. Cllr. K Butler, Ctee. chair
17th Nov 2019
Dear Mr Ashworth,
Stockport Museums consultation – formal response from the Friends of Chadkirk
As promised, this letter forms the formal response of the Friends, but should also be read alongside the email exchanges which have taken place with you and other council officers, and also our minuted meeting on 31st October. Our comments are directed solely at the proposal to close Chadkirk Chapel as a museum facility.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the Friends are wholly opposed to the current proposals, which seek to withdraw the already limited weekend opening, and to remove museum status for the building. We see this withdrawal of core council support as a significant retrograde step, after many years of reducing assistance. It potentially jeopardises the long established partnership we have developed over 40+ years. We can also confirm that we have no intention (or resource) to open the chapel as per the current hours on a voluntary basis should the facility close. Our resources are just capable of continuing the current voluntary commitments of organising a programmed calendar of community events, and maintaining the formal gardens. This is of course subject to the continuing availability of some funding or support, of which there is no certainty. We are in no position to take on additional responsibilities here; the need to seek additional funds will itself place a strain on our volunteer activity.
1. The consultation process
We are of the view that this is flawed on the following grounds:
a) The consultation relies heavily on electronic means of consideration and response, which is prejudicial to those users of the facility who are either not proficient with electronic communication, or are not on prescribed circulation lists. Until the Friends took it on themselves to publicise the proposal, which was some time into the specified consultation period, there were no public notices at the site and public knowledge of the council’s intentions was negligible. There has been no attempt by the council to engage meaningfully with the general public users of the site.
b) In the consultation document sent to councillors “Getting More out of our Spending” (sic) it clearly states that the consultation would be sent to schools. As a governor of the nearest primary school to Chadkirk, I have been advised that no consultation has been received by any of the local schools. At a time when OFSTED are looking to examine in
more detail the wider school curriculum, to propose closure of a facility of this nature is short sighted in the extreme. Chadkirk performs a valuable function in educating and informing children of their local heritage and history, and is much visited by parents with
young children when open. To close it without considering this impact is unacceptable, and undermines the purpose of genuine consultation.
2. The proposal
a) The document has been written in a deliberately pejorative manner to advance the case for closure of Chadkirk. The sites proposed for retention are justified as “unique to Stockport”, “defining the identity of the town” and “most important buildings in their own right”. Chadkirk is dismissed as a “popular refreshment facility” and its offer is” limited”. This is nothing more than crude propaganda, and has no place in a document of this type.
We would remind you that Chadkirk Chapel is a Grade 2* listed building, which ranks it alongside the Town Hall in terms of its perceived historical and architectural significance. Only 5% of listed buildings nationally fall in to this category. It is possibly the oldest religious site in Stockport Borough. It was the earliest practising chapel for non-conformist religion in the area. To dismiss its importance in the manner that this document does is risible.
That its offer is “limited” is solely at the behest of the council, who for many years have done nothing to enhance its status, or look to build its collection. The audio visual display explaining its history has been broken for at least 10 years. This sums up the council’s deliberate neglect of this museum. In the meanwhile, other museums (Bramhall, Hatworks) have been, or are being, lavished with cash to preserve and enhance their offer. The decision to commit to the enhancement of Hatworks knowing that this consultation would be taking place appears to be a deliberate ploy to constrain the consideration of alternative cost saving options.
b) Chadkirk Museum is part of the Chadkirk Estate, which has grown in importance as a recreational and environmental resource over the past 20 years. There is no recognition here of that symbiotic relationship, nor any thought as to how the museum and estate could be managed together to reduce council cost and exploit potential. Each council department is working in an isolated bubble, as manifested by the current document.
c) It is normal for a consultation document to set out alternative options which have been considered, and to set out in a justified argument why the preferred option has been chosen. There is none of that here. The claimed savings of £40k pa are shared with the main Stockport Museum, but there is no breakdown of the cost which Chadkirk embodies. Given that the chapel is only open for less than 500 hours per year, we estimate staff costs at less than £5000 per annum. There will be income from refreshment sales, say £1000 over the year. There is no consideration of the potential impact on the Events income (which we understand to be growing) of the proposed closure. Without the ability to informally view the chapel when it is open, the likelihood of choosing it as an event venue decreases. Every event lost is a foregone income of £600 – £800. Additionally, there will be more calls on the events staff time to visit the site to enable potentially non-productive viewings. The museum “saving” (small as it is) will be outweighed by the increased staffing requirements and income loss elsewhere in the council. And that also assumes that the wedding event usage can continue, which is discussed later.
d) There is an implicit assumption that volunteer activity might increase here, albeit no mention of the many museum supported activities that take place here at the Friends’ instigation currently – another way in which the document downplays Chadkirk’s uniqueness. (Where else in the borough does a well dressing of this type take place each year? That truly is “unique” – and yes, there are other museums with hat collections, albeit they are displayed in the context of the town museum where they are sited). In ignoring the volunteer activities, the document also ignores the potential implications for such
community events following the withdrawal of museums funding. Should the Friends withdraw from such events due to lack of funding, a potential casualty would be maintenance of the formal gardens which feature so prominently in the Events team promotional literature. Again, the potential negative implications for broader council considerations are lacking.
This is a one-dimensional, museum driven document, with no thought given to wider cost/benefit aspects.
e) The public document states that the proposed closure date for the chapel is 29th December 2019, but the “Getting More out of our Spending” (sic) document indicates that the implementation of changes would be phased take place up to April 2020 following a cabinet decision being made in December. The general election “purdah” will impact on the decision timeline. The “consultation” process does not conform to the stated parameters, and arguably should be extended until the parameters are met. We have sought to establish what the future arrangements for use of the chapel will be (should it close) without success. The questions referred to you after our meeting with you and other council officers on 31st October remain unanswered. To close the chapel on the 29th December in the absence of any clear guidance as to its future use and management is in our view ill-conceived, and we would ask that the timescales for any change are extended to enable suitable arrangements to be discussed and put in place.
3) Future usage
a) The document sets out no vision or recommendation for what happens to Chadkirk should the museum close, other than a vague resolution to contact volunteer groups to “see if they are interested”. We have sought, but not obtained, written assurance as to the future functioning of the Friends group in areas such as use of the chapel for our events; where costs will fall; where responsibility for management of the building will sit; and how the site will be publicised if it leaves the museum grouping. These all appear to be “work in progress”. It does make it more difficult to be “interested” if there is no formal framework or commitment to how future volunteer activity will be supported. The borough is already littered with underutilised buildings where council services have been withdrawn; the setting of Chadkirk Chapel is itself already diminished by the vacant and deteriorating farm buildings next door (abandoned and unused since school visits ceased many years ago). Woodbank and Vernon Parks also bear testament to this lack of joined up thought. We do not want another casualty here.
b) The Chapel was acquired from the church in 1971 with a covenant that it should be used for community use. The planning consent for the current use derives from the refurbishment in 1995, which refers to the building as being used as an “interpretation centre”. Withdrawal of the museum status will breach both of these requirements should the primary use change to that of a council “events venue” as appears to be the
proposition. Planning consent for such a use would raise conflicts with many Stockport planning policies and seems unlikely. Without it, the registrar approval which currently exists for the performing of civil wedding ceremonies here would fall. The council has a history of legal breach at Chadkirk due to lack of forethought (paths constructed without planning consent; new window installed without listed building consent; weddings performed with the public prohibited). There appears yet again to be no thought given to this aspect when these proposals were formulated. Cessation of the events income through loss of the registrar’s weddings approval would certainly nullify the purported savings.
c) Given the lack of proposals for the immediate term (i.e. beyond the closure of the museum), it is no surprise that any medium to long term vision is lacking. Whilst this
proposal may theoretically satisfy the need to reduce museums expenditure (and that, from previous analysis, is arguable), it does nothing to secure the longer term future of the site. The council’s policy seems to be resting on the Micawber principle that “something will turn up”. Experience indicates that the more likely outcome will be a further reduction in use; further cost-cutting pressures; and ultimately the complete closure of the building to public and community access.
The Friends of Chadkirk believe that the current proposals are flawed. They will not deliver overall savings to the council, and place in jeopardy the future of this building as a community venue.
We are more than willing to work with the council to produce a management arrangement that will address the currently perceived difficulties of public access and in the process address the cost pressures that the council is experiencing. However, for all the reasons listed in this letter, what is currently being proposed meets neither of these requirements and should therefore be rejected pending the formulation of a more robust and sustainable proposal.
Chair, Friends of Chadkirk