Three-year Saffron Walden Museum project is axed

A THREE-YEAR project to find a new storage facility for Saffron Walden Museum has been ditched – and almost �1million of lottery funding withdrawn as a result.

The Museum Society has been on a pressing search to find suitable accommodation to showcase its extensive collection and free up space for the museum itself.

But plans and funds – a �976,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was approved for the project back in 2008, as well as local donations, sponsorship and money from Uttlesford District Council – which were in place to build a new �1.1m facility, called the Heritage Quest Centre, on district council-owned site in Thaxted Road have hit the buffers and the lines have had to be redrawn.

This week the Museum Management Working Group agreed a proposal to replace the existing store at the council’s Newport depot with a purpose-built storage facility. The new build, including research space, would require planning permission and have to be designed to cope with the flooding problems. It would cost in the region of �400,000, funded partly with taxpayers’ money.

The decision has been described as a “second best” alternative by Uttlesford Lib Dem councillor David Morson, who was heavily involved with the project when his party was in power from 2004-7.

He said: “It is extremely disappointing that things have gone this way. I feel especially sorry for the museum staff who have worked really hard.

“This is very much a mini version of the Heritage Quest Centre – nothing on the scale that was envisaged.”

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A decision to shelve the original project came after it ran into “insurmountable” obstacles: ground investigations revealed a chalk pit under the site which would require deep piling while the land would also need to be built up by two metres. Officers have said the work would “be expensive and eat into the available budget”.

The site has also become landlocked due to the failure of the site owners to sell the land for development.

However, Cllr Morson pointed out that things were ready to move before Sainsbury’s waded in with its offer of a location on the same site as its proposals for a superstore in Thaxted Road in October 2009..

“I was against that relationship with Sainsbury’s from the start, although I was assured that we had the original site as a fall back option,” he said.

“To be fair we would have run into the same problems [on the original site] but, because this application was refused, the window of opportunity has been lost and some previous sponsors withdrawing funding, thus making the project untenable,” .

As part of the revised project, the working group – made up of Museum Society and district council members – will submit a revised bid to the HLF to develop the museum.

If successful, it will cover improvements to the building such as more exhibition space, along with an outreach project to take the museum’s collections out into the community.

Chairman of the museum society Tony Watson said: “It is disappointing to have to change our plans but at the same time it is rather exciting that we can achieve what we really wanted to do in the first place – to improve the museum – a bit faster than we had originally planned. Hopefully this will be the better way around.

“This is very much a partnership between the council and museum society trying to do what is best for the long term future of the museum in light of the money that can be found.”

Cabinet member for community partnerships and engagement, Cllr Howard Rolfe, insisted that the revised plan retains the key features of the original plan “but means the project can proceed much more quickly”.

He said: “The difficulties encountered at the original site are insurmountable within the available project budget which is why this alternative plan has been drawn up. It will resolve the pressing storage issue at the museum and therefore free up space in the museum building, meaning staff can make better use of the varied collections in its displays. The outreach element of the original bid was important and it will be retained in the new bid.

“By removing the storage facility from the HLF bid and resolving it ourselves, it means we can focus lottery money on improvements at the museum itself. The HLF has expressed concern about the viability of the original Heritage Lottery Fund proposal in a time of tightening council budgets and this revision will help the long-term future of the museum service.

“I am pleased that a sensible and affordable way forward has been found. The HLF has been very supportive and has encouraged the council and museum society to look at this alternative.

“Although it will require a new bid to the HLF, we very much see it as an extensive revision of the original project rather than starting again.”

However, Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said that a revised application for funding is not guaranteed.

“If the decision is made by the council not to proceed with their plans for the Heritage Quest Centre, then the award will be withdrawn.” he said.

“Should the council wish to seek HLF support for a revised project, they will need to make a new application outlining their proposed plans and how they meet HLF priorities for funding.

“We would encourage the council to discuss their ideas about the way forward with us. However, competition for funding is currently high, so there is no guarantee this subsequent application would be successful.”

The new proposal will go to the August cabinet meeting for final approval.