Council and heritage trust sorry after bungled Greenwich archive closure

Building 41, Royal Arsenal
The heritage centre closed in July with less than three weeks’ notice

Greenwich Council and the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust have apologised for the way they handled the closure of the borough’s archive after the issue threatened to hold up plans for the £31 million “creative district” in Woolwich.

Angry archive users addressed Tuesday night’s planning board meeting, which gave approval for the change of use of the archive’s old home, in Building 41 on the Royal Arsenal, to become a performing arts centre.

But planning chair Sarah Merrill threatened to defer the issue until council assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, cabinet member Miranda Williams and trust chief executive Tracy Stringfellow committed to consult with existing users over plans for the future of the archive, which is due to move back to a nearby building in the Arsenal in 2023.

Councillors clashed with Delaney and Williams about the proposal, with one saying the loss of the archive and museum was being made for a “short term gain”.

A newly-formed users’ group says that until then, Greenwich will be the only one of London’s 33 local authority areas not to have a readily-available local archive.

Sudden closure

The Greenwich Heritage Centre closed suddenly in July, with the trust giving users less than three weeks’ notice. It painted the closure as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” in a press release, which also included council leader Danny Thorpe calling it “an important opportunity”.

At the time, neither the council – whose communications operation is run by Delaney – nor the trust responded to requests from 853 for clarification of their plans. Indeed, one Greenwich press officer even implied the issue had nothing to do with the council.

It emerged at Tuesday’s meeting that the archive is due to be temporarily relocated to Anchorage Point, an industrial estate at Anchor & Hope Lane in Charlton, in December. However, uncertainty even surrounds that that proposal, as the heritage trust has withdrawn its planning application for that scheme.

Archive users are unhappy about the prospect of the fragile collection being moved twice, while one councillor on the planning board, Charlton’s Gary Dillon, questioned whether the effect of construction of the proposed Rockwell development next door had been taken into account when choosing Anchorage Point. Both Williams and Delaney shook their heads.

Communications ‘not up to scratch’

Stringfellow conceded that communications around the closure were “not as strong as they could have been”, while Williams said: “Our communications as a trust and as a council were not up to scratch in terms of the closure of the archive and its reopening in December at another location.

“I think we’ll all put our cards on the table and apologise, and the trust have apologised.”

After 40 minutes of discussion between Williams, Delaney, Stringfellow, and councillors, planning chair Merrill said: “I’m sitting here with a planning board clearly not happy about this. We can go for deferment, which I’m reluctant to do, or we can find some acceptable way forward within these walls in the next five minutes.”

Conservative Eltham South councillor Nigel Fletcher said it was clear the council and heritage trust had decided to move the archive, but suggested a binding commitment be made for users to be consulted on its future.

Williams agreed that this should take place, adding “our archivists are skilled and trained and doing a very good job, despite the reported comments”. It was not clear what comments she was referring to.

Eltham South Labour councillor Linda Bird responded: “I don’t think any of us are questioning the skills or the actual plans, but what I don’t see here is anyone from the archive group around that table.

“We’re hearing about heritage and somehow these people don’t feel included. These aren’t just local things, this is national stuff, and you need to put that at the top of your agenda.”

And Kidbrooke with Hornfair Labour councillor Norman Adams said: “We’re in danger of losing the archive and the museum for the sake of a short-term gain. We haven’t got our ducks in line. People need to sit down and talk and consult.”

‘Increasing interest in archive’

The Woolwich Creative District project involves turning five buildings on the Arsenal site – including Building 41, a former ammunition factory – into a “world class” cultural centre.

It plans to transform the former military buildings into performance, arts and community spaces – aiming to rival the likes of the South Bank and the new venues planned for the Olympic Park.

Plans for three of the buildings – Building 17 (the 1865 Cartridge Factory), Building 18 (the Royal Laboratory Offices) – which surround the now-closed Firepower museum – and Building 19 (the Carriage Inspection Shop) have already been approved, with immersive theatre company Punchdrunk lined up to move in.

The council has offered Building 18 to the trust for a future home for the heritage centre from 2023. In the meantime, it plans to operate out of Anchorage Point and establish a reference library at Charlton House.

Elizabeth Pearcey of the Greenwich Archive Users Group said support was “increasing every day” for their cause from inside the borough and beyond “as concern grows for the future of the Greenwich archive”.

“Since 2014, there has been increasing loss in access to the archive, but increasing demand, including from developers,” she said.

“Surely the archive should stay in Building 41 until an acceptable long-term site is available.”

Architectural historian John Bold said that moving the archive from Woolwich to Charlton and back again was “a recipe for disaster”.

Anchorage Point
The archive is due to move to Anchorage Point in Charlton

Punchdrunk would create ‘destination venue’

Williams said Punchdrunk’s presence would make Woolwich a “destination venue” and would provide training and education opportunities.

“Building 41 will provide the income that will subsidise the cultural use of those buildings,” she added, adding it would be available for commercial hire.

“It is the economic engine of the site.”

Delaney said she was “impressed by the commitment and passion” of archive users, and said the council would provide a building for them that allowed the community to “celebrate and understand their heritage”. She added it would be “for the entire community and not one or two smaller groups”, claiming that figures showed archive users came from “a very small number of postcodes”.

She said the closure of Firepower risked meaning the heritage centre would have been handed back to Berkeley Homes if the council had not come up with an alternative plan, and that it did not have the money to refresh the museum at the heritage centre.

But Charlton Labour councillor Linda Perks said: “It is the responsibility of the council to make sure our archive is preserved. We have a relationship with the trust to do that, but there’s an issue with what the council should be doing.

“We’re doing things a bit backwards and we need to get on the front foot about how we enable people to take place in the discussion about the archive.”

Video of the discussion can be seen on this YouTube playlist.

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