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Southwark’s "shabby" London Fire Brigade Museum debated at City Hall

The under-threat London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark Bridge Road won a temporary stay of execution at an ill-tempered fire authority meeting at City Hall on Thursday.

Winchester house, Southwark
The museum is based at Winchester House in Southwark Bridge Road

Since the London SE1 website first reported fire authority chairman Brian Coleman's colourful remarks about the museum and the possibility of its closure, a petition calling on the authority to save the collection has been started.

Last month a joint letter to Mayor of London Boris Johnson was sent by representatives of the Fire Brigades Union, GMB and UNISON unions. The union officials described Mr Coleman's comments at a London Assembly committee meeting as "very disturbing, displaying ignorance of the value and purpose of the museum and its contents".

The unions also condemned Mr Coleman's remark that "when you've seen one brass helmet you have seen them all", accusing him of "a lamentable lack of respect for the fire brigade's history, particularly from someone who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts".

On Thursday the London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) met at City Hall to consider the Fire Brigade's budget for next year. Closure of the museum – which costs 82,000 a year to run – was one of the recommendations made by the authority's officers.

LFEPA says that since the recent publicity about the future of the museum it has received "a number of approaches from parties expressing an interest in maintaining the museum, either on site or elsewhere", including an approach from the Worshipful Company of Firefighters. A full report will be prepared by March at the latest.

Campaigners wearing "Save the Fire Brigade Museum" t-shirts sat in the public gallery to watch the debate.

"We believe that if the museum was promoted properly, if it was adequately funded, it could actually generate a lot more of its own income," UNISON branch secretary Tony Phillips told the Authority. "The cost of keeping the museum going doesn't have to be something that the authority has to put lots of money in to."

Labour and Lib Dem members lined up to condemn the handling of the museum's future by the Conservative chairman Brian Coleman.

"I must condemn the flippant manner in which the chairman has dismissed the importance of the Fire Brigade Museum and in doing so insulted and outraged firefighters, members of the public and volunteers of the museum," said Navin Shah, leader of the fire authority's Labour group.

"There are 340 years of history and heritage of the fire service that the museum represents. When the chair talks about firefighters' helmets in his much-publicised comments, little he knows that every helmet represents lives saved." At this point Mr Coleman rolled his eyes.

Mr Shah added: "In our view the museum represents our heritage and cannot be allowed to disappear under any circumstances. If we do decide to close, it will never ever open again, and that's the biggest danger that we face. Let's remember that.

"In my view it is premature even to talk about closure before options for a more viable and better museum have been explored and agreed."

Mr Coleman was unrepentant: "I make absolutely no apology for bringing the museum into play because ... after at least four or five years of talking about it, it has focussed minds."

He added: "It is frankly clear that the current building is not suitable with no disabled access, that the collection is to put it mildly – and it was put to me by a very senior officer of this authority – 'a little bit shabby' – and as members know these days life has moved on.

"It's all interactive and involving young people. And sadly our current collection, laid out as it is, doesn't do that."

Val Shawcross, who chaired LFEPA during Ken Livingstone's mayoralty, said that to close the museum "is to disrespect and rubbish the heritage of this organisation and to devalue the people who work for it and have worked for it – and indeed have died for it as well".

She added that the fire authority's budget proposals are "shot through with the personal prejudices of our chair".

Tory member Roger Evans told the Authority that the museum is too difficult for Londoners to visit: "For a start because you have to make an appointment to go there ... then there is the accessibility of the building ... then there is the location of the building because it's not in the best of places to get people to come and look at it as well."

Lib Dem Cllr Ed Butcher, who chairs LFEPA's finance committee, called for the future of the museum to be considered in the context of the fire brigade's entire Southwark Bridge Road training complex which is currently under review.

Labour, Lib Dem and Green members of the authority (who between them command a majority) supported an amendment to the authority's budget proposals which removed the immediate threat to the museum and called for a further review.

But Mr Coleman warned museum supporters in the public gallery that they shouldn't assume that the matter is now closed.

London Fire Brigade Museum

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