Opinion: ‘Cuts will damage Peterborough’s cultural assets’

Historian Stuart Orme, Chair of Peterborough Museum Society, writes...

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 20th February 2022, 9:15 am
Flag Fen Archaeology Park.
Flag Fen Archaeology Park.

I am writing in response to the recent proposal by Peterborough City Council to cut the budget to the city’s heritage assets, Peterborough Museum and Flag Fen, by 50%.

Whilst the city faces a very challenging financial position, any reductions need to be imposed sensitively if they are not to be the death knell for two of Peterborough’s most valuable assets.

A more considered approach could ensure their long-term survival, enabling the city council to make savings in the longer term.

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The museum and Flag Fen are well loved by local people and visitors to Peterborough alike.

The museum is packed during school holidays with families; houses great temporary exhibitions; and is home to nationally important collections of geology, archaeology and Napoleonic prison work.

Flag Fen is the most significant Bronze Age archaeological site in northern Europe, with particular interest thanks to the recent finds at Must Farm, the ‘Prehistoric Pompeii’. It is a service that I was proud to work for over many years.

Both sites do require capital investment; an element of the Towns Fund awarded to Peterborough is intended for that, which may be lost if match-funders lose confidence that these sites are no longer being adequately supported.

They are also essential to maintain if the council is serious about its ambition to bid for ‘City of Culture’.

Whilst the council has said that services must pay their way, all heritage services across the country require some form of public subsidy.

This is an investment into the local economy, with visitors attracted by heritage sites spending in local shops, restaurants, bars and hotels.

Arts Council research suggests that such public investment brings a 200% return into a local economy, a return on investment that most businesses would regard as exemplary.

Culture, recreation and heritage are going to become even more important in a post-Covid world, where the accelerated decline of the high street means that towns and cities that use these assets as a means of attracting visitors and enhancing the lives of local people, will be the best places to live and the most economically successful.

In recent years, these sites were managed by Vivacity, which had some success, including the museum’s refurbishment in 2012, as well as the establishment of the popular annual Heritage Festival.

Vivacity collapsed over a year ago due to the impact of Covid, but it was an unwieldy structure with disparate services being operated by one organisation.

Since then, services have been in a holding position with City Culture Peterborough, effectively part of the city council’s operations.

For the museum and Flag Fen to flourish, a sensible solution would be to create a heritage trust, an independent charity to manage and look after them; separate to the council but still working in partnership with it and attracting an annual grant.

Such an organisation, with a restructured staff (offering some initial savings as well as those offered by becoming a charity) and new leadership could manage the sites more effectively and generate more income.

Over five years, these two sites could move to the ideal funding model whereby only a third of costs would have to be met by public subsidy, a third by commercial income (ticket and retail sales etc) and a third by fundraising.

This would be impossible to achieve whilst the sites are managed by the local authority.

The blunt instrument of simple cuts will inevitably cause some impossible decisions to be made, probably sending these services into a downward spiral where so they will cease to exist in the next five years.

A more considered response by Peterborough City Council would ensure they not only survive but also flourish and render the savings required longer term.

I’d ask councillors to take a long view when considering these proposals and am very happy to assist to ensure that these important assets survive and prosper.

Stuart Orme

Chair, Peterborough 
Museum Society,

chair, Cambridgeshire Museums Forum