The results

A public consultation ran from 23rd January until 6th March 2014 via the Tough Choices website and through the Heritage Service offices in Exeter and Barnstaple. We were seeking people’s views on the proposal to transfer the governance of the Devon Heritage Service to a joint independent Heritage Trust with the Somerset Heritage Service. This proposal received in-principle approval from Devon County Council in December 2013, subject to the results of further consultation. Around 200 responses were received. In addition, a stakeholder meeting was held in Exeter on 20th January which was attended by over 70 individuals and groups interested in the future of the Heritage Service.

Key Findings:

Collections

  • A concern that archive collections should remain within the ownership of the County Council (where that is currently the case)
  • There was a general misapprehension that Devon records might be transferred to Somerset under any new arrangement

Expertise

  • A desire to see the retention of suitably qualified professionals to manage heritage collections as well as the retention of local knowledge and expertise

Identity and governance

  • The importance of retaining Devon’s distinctiveness and identity within a joint organisation
  • A concern that Devon should not be a ‘junior partner’ in the Trust, given that it is a smaller service
  • A concern that the service would be moving out of accountable local authority control

North Devon

  • Concerns from North Devon groups and individuals around the potential future of the North Devon Record Office

Future developments and opportunities

  • A recognition of the need for a clear strategy to digitise records in future
  • A recognition by many respondents that the trust concept provides an opportunity for the service to develop new and innovative solutions and improve long-term sustainability
  • Some respondents would be prepared to contribute financially to protect service levels.

Responses:

  • Collections will remain in the ownership of the County Council, where that is currently the case. There are no plans to transfer Devon records to Somerset.
  • The Trust model offers the most scope for retaining and sharing the level of professional expertise required in the future. If retained in house, the financial savings required are such that professional expertise would be significantly eroded over the next 2-3 years.
  • There is a recognition by both Councils that local knowledge and expertise is important to the delivery of a high quality service.
  • The individual identities of the two counties and of the respective facilities within the two counties will be maintained from a customer perspective.
  • Devon County Council and Somerset County Council will each have one place on the Board of the Trust so Devon will be an equal partner from a governance perspective. There will be wider representation from Devon on the Board of Trustees so that the Devon ‘voice’ is heard strongly within the Trust.
  • The Trust will be outside of local authority provision but there will be a clear funding agreement which will be monitored on an ongoing basis by the County Council to ensure the new arrangements are meeting the needs of local people.
  • We will engage with partners and stakeholders in North Devon to determine the future shape of provision there. It is understood that stakeholders have strong views and we are developing a new model which could be introduced to enable users of the service to have continued access to a wide range of materials in Barnstaple, whilst still delivering savings.
  • The Trust will have a clear digitisation plan in place. Devon will benefit from the more extensive digitisation expertise developed in recent years by Somerset.
  • It is encouraging that many respondents recognise that, in the context of ongoing budgetary pressures, the Trust represents the most viable option for the service in the long term.
  • The new Trust would have a clear income generation policy in place and opportunities to contribute towards the continuation and development of existing and new services would form part of that policy.

Conclusion:

A greater number of respondents expressed explicit support for the proposal than those against. Those in support generally expressed the view that it represents the best option in the current economic climate to preserve standards of care and accessibility of heritage collections. However, support was often conditional upon current levels of service being maintained in both Exeter and Barnstaple. Some saw it as an opportunity for an even more dynamic, engaging and joined-up service, with a wider regional scope and with opportunities for cross-boundary working. Digitisation was regularly cited as a productive way forward. Again, those in support stressed the need to preserve the expertise and local knowledge of staff as a means of interpreting the content for users, and they identified the need for a secure financial arrangement with a long-term commitment from the respective County Councils as the key to sustainable success.

The findings of our public consultation showed a general level of support for the proposal as providing the best option for safeguarding the continued preservation of and access to the unique and irreplaceable written and pictorial heritage collections in the care of Devon County Council. The Heritage Trust is seen as having significant potential to bring a new energy and vitality to the promotion of Devon’s heritage collections and to attract a wider customer base through collaborative outreach and engagement activities. Many of the concerns expressed by respondents will be noted and mitigated as the new organisation develops its own policies and practices. The major concern registered, that of the future level of provision at the Barnstaple office, is being addressed by the formation of a local working group charged with the task of formulating a sustainable, collaborative service offer in north Devon that makes the best use of the available resources, while still delivering the necessary savings.