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Tories seek rich benefactor to save London Fire Brigade Museum

The prospect of a philanthropist coming forward to save the London Fire Brigade Museum was raised by Conservative members of the capital's fire authority at its meeting on Thursday.

The Conservative-led London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority approved a draft budget submission to City Hall which includes the closure of the London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark Bridge Road.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson describes himself as a "strong supporter" of the museum but has so far shown little inclination to step in and reprieve it.

Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green members of LFEPA all spoke out against the closure proposal at Thursday's meeting. Conservative members also expressed a hope that outright closure could be avoided but the budget submission was passed without amendment.

The authority also approved plans to privatise the training of London firefighters which will eventually lead to the sale of the Southwark training centre complex where the museum is situated.

Labour's Navin Shah AM asked whether the brigade had considered allowing the Friends of the London Fire Brigade Museum to set up a trust to take on the collection.

"We would be happy to talk to them about that, but we have talked to a number of organisations over the last four to five years about their capacity to take on the collection," replied assistant commissioner Rita Dexter.

"All of the organisations to which we have spoken have talked about the need for a fairly substantial revenue dowry to take on the collection.

"We would be happy to talk to the [Friends] as we have talked to a number of organisations – ranging from the Museum of London to more modest undertakings – in the last five years but I am not aware that at this point time the [Friends] are likely to have the resources available to them to maintain the museum as a going concern into the future without substantial financial support from some organisation."

Navin Shah added: "We remain opposed to the closure of the museum except that it could be better located and it could be more accessible.

"The fact is that you are looking at a collection which, if it is disposed of ... will be lost forever.

"We are talking about the heritage and history of the London Fire Brigade and how it has served the community and saved lives over the years. There is a huge amount of history and pride that the museum represents.

"Quite frankly it is a short-term approach and a complete lack of vision to shut down an important resource to the community.

"I would proposed that the authority, rather than shutting down or storing the collection, should look at options to see how we can continue the museum in a better location and enhance the facilities."

The Green Party's Darren Johnson AM was in agreement. He said: "The disposal of the museum collection would be a totally wrong step for London.

"We must safeguard that important part of our heritage. Whatever budget pressures we face, we need to look for Imaginative ways forward that preserve that collection as a single collection."

Liberal Democrat Mike Tuffrey AM took up the same theme: "We've just had the Remembrance Day ceremony at City Hall and one of the moving aspects is the wreath-laying on behalf of the emergency services which reminds us of the heroic role the emergency services played.

"I concur with with others who say that we shouldn't throw away that history lightly.

"Last year there was a feasibility study into a so-called blue light museum. I think we should revisit that.

"There was talk – which is proving to be loose – from the Mayor and from others about the importance of bringing the various historical collections together.

"If that can't be done jointly then I think this authority should be looking at preserving our own collection either independently or in partnership with others."

Mr Tuffrey reminded LFEPA chairman Brian Coleman AM that Simon Hughes MP had offered his assistance in finding a new venue and partners for the museum.

"I hope you will respond positively to that offer of help and I certainly believe that this authority should not be voting to close the museum until appropriate successor arrangements are in place," he said.

"On the money side of things ... the saving is of the order of 80,000 per annum but the cost of closing the museum is upwards of 300,000 so there wouldn't be any savings until into the fourth year. So on that basis it seems to me it isn't even a sensible saving and the case for closing it doesn't stack up when you look at it."

Brian Coleman replied: "I am always open to the good offices of that distinguished parliamentarian Simon Hughes who visited the museum a few days ago."

Conservative fire authority member Gareth Bacon AM said: "I don't think any member actually wants to close the museum."

He added: "I would like to see if we can relocate the museum somewhere else, if the business case for doing so washes its face. I would believe and hope that we would do that."

Another Conservative, Cllr Colin Tandy, said that the museum's Southwark Bridge Road home was well-known to him. "I have to say that it has often concerned me that it is a far from ideal place to display that collection.

"I believe that the museum collection is important and deserves to be displayed – and displayed properly.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be displayed by this authority. This authority is responsible for operational firefighting and does not need to be diverted into doing things which are not part of its core business.

"We need to make sure that those items are looked after and hopefully transferred to another museum with the ability to display them properly to many more people in a situation which is more conducive to being being able to appreciate the artifacts."

Richard Tracey AM (Conservative) reminded authority members that in his home borough of Wandsworth the local museum had been saved when local philanthropists put up 2 million.

"There is every possibility that some such benefactor may well come forward here and we do have to construct a sensible budget in these straightened times," he said.

The final word on the subject went to Cllr Maurice Heaster (Conservative) who said: "There seems to be a great deal of unanimity with regards to the museum.

"We do have a bit of time. There is time to find the benefactor. There is time to work together in London.

"The concept of a blue light museum seems like an excellent idea to me, and if there is the goodwill round this table, perhaps we should still be pursuing that. I think that there is plenty of opportunity in the coming months for us to make sure that that the collection is displayed in a proper manner.

"There is still some good hope that we will in the future be able to display our artefacts."

On Sunday the Friends of the LFBM said in a statement that they were "heartened to hear that members from all parties were keen to both retain the collection intact and to explore ways of creating a long term solution that retains this vital piece of our heritage and we are keen to build on this.

"We will be taking up the deputy commissioner's offer of discussions to help in this process and look forward to having a role in the current, interim and medium term storage arrangements and in developing suitable a suitable governance model for a new museum.

"The requirements for closure will need to be in accordance to the requirements set down by the national bodies for accredited museums and this includes offering those who have donated items to reclaim them. We intend to keep these individuals informed and to notify them when the new museum is safely secured."

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