INDIFFERENCE AND INDECISION|
- THE STORY OF OUR COUNTY ARCHIVES
The first formal survey to highlight shortcomings in council archive storage facilities was carried out in 1993. It concluded the Record Office "has all the hallmarks of a record office which has remained undeveloped for the last 20 years . . . and has now reached a stage where investment is required." The council noted the report but took no action.
The council's cancellation of the latest plan to relocate the County Record Office is just the last in a series of abandoned proposals. Recent Freedom of Information disclosures show how the council has failed to deal with the archive crisis over two decades.
The survey was carried out by The National Archives (TNA). They hold responsibility for storage and access to Britain's official archives, both on their own premises and at nationwide locations. Their responsibility is for public records, which are those belonging to central government, some of which are held by local authorities. Even TNA seem unsure as to exactly what this category embraces, although it's thought the documents probably constitute around 10% of the total Island archives. Some date back to the 16th century but a fair proportion are contemporary and these are still growing. The bulk of the archives are not included but substandard storage facilities could result in a general loss of confidence in the record office.
The present County Archivist was appointed in January 1996. At the time, he stated that his first priority would be to find a new home for the archives, adding that he hoped the issue could be resolved during 1996. Today he is no closer to achieving that aim.
The next formal TNA survey was in 2000. It concluded that, although numerous minor improvements had been carried out since 1993, " . . current storage fails to meet the recognised standard." Their concerns covered building security, potential water ingress and fire protection. They placed emphasis on the risk to documents through a lack of environmental control over temperature and humidity. Following this survey, TNA informed the council that unless they could arrive at suitable premises by 2003, public records would be removed from the Island. This would leave them out of reach for regular local research. TNA would then charge the council for the storage and associated services.
Following this notification, the council began considering options for relocation of the record office. By 2003, nothing positive had been established but TNA accepted there was serious intent and their deadline was put back. In 2005 a feasibility study got underway on the basis of a new, purpose built, one-stop Heritage Centre, housing the complete archives and all heritage departments. TNA welcomed the project but warned that such grand plans often failed to come to fruition, so there should be a plan B. Project planning was at an advanced stage when financial constraints put an end to the concept. It's not clear if there ever was a plan B, but the hunt was then on for an existing council building to adapt. A number of properties were considered and by 2010 a vacant Nodehill School had become the favoured location. It would require an additional structure and would house heritage facilities and a relocated Newport Library. The planning for this project was still in process when it was cancelled.
In April 2011, TNA wrote to the council, noting that developments had come to a halt and giving them until October to come up with a solution. Then came the Newport Guildhall proposal. TNA were not impressed with this plan as it seemed likely to result in storage split between two locations, which they regarded as unsatisfactory. They nevertheless reluctantly accepted it.
With the new council no longer committed to the Guildhall solution, we are back to square one. More cuts are due in the next budget, so the outcome is likely to be less than ideal. There can be no doubting the time and effort the Heritage Service have devoted to the various options, but above them, there has been only grudging support from executives and councillors. A comprehensive solution may be possible but it will probably require both TNA and the council to be more inventive than they have been to date.