A SoMAG response to SBC’s leader’s response to a question

SoMAG responds to SBC’s leader
NB: I’ve edited the following only for the purposes of SEO &YOAST

Dr Barbara Swan sits on the committee of the Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery. At SBC’s cabinet meeting on 13th Oct 2021 she asked this question of the Leader:

( a title I can’t hear without thinking of Daleks …)

‘Can the council explain the financial logic of selling off a substantial piece of property in a prime location [Apsley House], at a time when interest rates on cash deposits are very low, to part- fund a project that has no starting date as yet?

Property is the one asset that increases substantially in value. So what’s the financial argument for selling the building now? Surely it makes far better sense to make the necessary repairs (which we understand you’re making in order to make it saleable) and hang on to it so the council can get maximum benefit from its future appreciation in value?’

The Leader of the council responded thus:

‘Thank you for your question.

As we explained at the previous meetings of Cabinet and Scrutiny, we need to sel Apsley House to contribute to a new permanent facility in the Town Centre. The sale of Apsley House will make a small contribution to the cultural quarter as a whole. But a potentially significant contribution to an Art Pavilion in the Cultural Quarter or a relocated museum elsewhere. 

We need to move quickly with the sale of Apsley House. That will enable us to deliver a solution that will minimise the time that the collections spend in a temporary location. The costs of repairing Apsley House are significant. And the problems of disabled access into the majority of the building were detailed at the previous Cabinet and Scrutiny meetings. The Council cannot make Apsley House DDA compliant. And we cannot continue to permanently operate a facility in a building that does not enable access for all.

Of course, not all improvements costed for Apsley need doing prior to any sale. Indeed a number could prove abortive depending on the end use of the building. 

There is no guarantee that the value of the building would increase if it were retained. Buildings deteriorate quite quickly when they’re empty. Especially so in this instance as the building is listed, so there are holding costs for maintenance and for security. In the circumstances, there is nothing to justify the Council retaining ownership of the building.’

Aspley House home of Swindon museum and art gallery - Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Closure - SoMAG responds to SBC's leader
Aspley House home of Swindon museum and art gallery – Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Closure

SoMAG’s response

A spokesperson for Save Our Museum and Art Gallery (SoMAG) said:

To be very clear, SoMAG is in full support of the concept of establishing a cultural quarter. One that includes a museum and art gallery, in Swindon’s town centre.

Indeed, many of our 5,000 plus supporters, from all areas of the borough, worked to support the 2017 Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a new museum and art gallery in that very area. That demonstrates our passion for a central cultural quarter.



Yet SBC’s response to Dr Swann’s question is alarming for several reasons


In 2017, as part of the bid for HLF funding for a central museum and art gallery, the Council committed to retaining Apsley House as a community asset. The Council has come under fire over the years for failing to safeguard buildings it doesn’t actually own and thus has little control over. The Mechanics’ Institute and the Corn Exchange being two examples.

But the Council does own Apsley House. It can control that building’s future, at least until realisation of its vision for the town centre.

It’s worth remembering that, in 2017, SBC requested the Parish Council take on Apsley house for community use in the event of success with the Heritage Lottery Fund bid. Indeed, South Swindon Parish Council did register an expression of interest in 2017.

SBC state the sale of Apsley House has the potential to make a significant contribution to an art pavilion in the cultural quarter or a relocated museum. In which case isn’t it crucial that SBC does all it can to maximise the real value of the sale?

A disingenuous assertion?

They assert ‘there is no guarantee that the value of the building would increase were it retained. That is either very naïve or disingenuous.

‘There’s no guarantee about almost anything in life. But history shows that well-maintained property very much tends to increase in value. We’re not proposing that Apsley House remain empty, to deteriorate. Rather we’re urging SBC to take South Swindon Parish Council up on its offer to take on a lease and running it.

That way, the Council can sell Apsley House for a far larger sum when everything is in place to start on the art pavilion in the cultural quarter.

3. If Swindon Borough Council sells Apsley House now, the money will sit in an account earning very little interest. Meanwhile the cost of a potential art pavilion is almost certain to rise as inflation bites and construction costs rise.

Light years away

By the Council’s own admission, the cultural quarter is years away from happening. And, by the time it does, the contribution from the sale will make will be a drop in the ocean.

Referring to Apsley House, SBC also says: ‘it can’t continue to operate, on a permanent basis, a facility in a building that “doesn’t enable access for all”. But as things stand now, there is access for no-one.

The final words from SBC, that ‘there is nothing to justify the Council retaining ownership of the building’ are both shocking and sad.

2017

In 2017, as part of the bid for HLF funding for a central museum and art gallery, the Council committed to retaining Apsley House as an asset for the community. The Council has come under fire over the years for failing to safeguard buildings which it doesn’t actually own, and thus has little control over. The Mechanics’ Institute and the Corn Exchange being two examples.

But the Council does own Apsley House. It can control that building’s future, at least until realisation of its vision for the town centre.

It’s worth remembering that, in 2017, SBC requested the Parish Council take on Apsley house for community use in the event of success with the Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a new museum and art gallery. Indeed, South Swindon Parish Council did register an expression of interest in 2017.

A beseechment to SBC

Let the parish council take a lease on it and run it in the meantime. That rather than sell it to a speculative developer and risk it going the same way as those other historically significant buildings.