“And Councillor, this model is so powerful you can even see the planet where they can afford to pay £31.50 per hour to sit in the archive.”
[Image Public Domain via the British Library]
Northamptonshire County Council have made a partial climb down in the face of mounting opposition from researchers using the county archive and professional bodies in the archive sector and reinstated free access to the archive search room on three afternoons per week. The Councils announcement comes after a week of increasingly bloody media coverage of the Council’s original decision to make the afternoon sessions on Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday and all day on Friday, subject to a charge of £31.50 per hour simply for access to the archive search room. The changes were due to be implemented on 21 August. A petition opposing the fees was tonight approaching 4000 signatures.
Critics of the proposed changes were appalled that what had been a free service would now be subject to what many described as an excessive charge, which was not aligned with any other equivalent county archive service and predicted that the changes, if implemented, would make it very difficult for anyone to undertake in depth research into Northamptonshire’s rich and complex history.
While welcoming the Council’s response to the campaign to backtrack on the new charge, many campaigners have expressed disappointment that the archive would now close for an hour between 13.00 and 14.00 and that the archive would be closed on Saturday afternoon on the one saturday per month when the archive is open at all. A change which would appear to discriminate against researchers who can only attend on Saturdays because they work during the week and, unlike neighbouring Leicestershire, the Northamptonshire archive does not offer evening opening.
The fact that the new announcement came in the form of a formal press release rather than a post on the archive service Facebook page where the changes were announced initially, suggests that responsibility for what had been dismissed as an “operational issue” which required no consultation, has been taken in hand by senior managers and possibly elected members of the Council’s Leadership team. This would not be surprising as the issue was doing the East Midlands Council serious reputational damage in the heritage research community and more widely. On Thursday 3 August  the Stuart Linnell Breakfast show on BBC Radio Northampton led on the archive charges story. At that point the Council was unable to put up a spokesperson, issuing instead a statement defending the charges.
In the statement released to thePipeLine and other media organisations, the Northamptonshire County Council portfolio holder for heritage, Cllr André Gonzalez de Savage, takes ownership and responsibility for the issue on behalf of the elected members of the ruling Conservative Group, stating,
“Having listened to the views of our service users here in Northamptonshire and across the UK, a decision has been made to reconsider the proposed changes to opening hours.”
Cllr Gonzalez de Savage added,
“However, given our significant financial challenges, changes to customer behaviour and a growth in online enquiries, we need to consider how best to use our limited resources and will be reviewing the service in the coming months as part of the annual budget process.”
The statement by Cllr Gonzalez de Savagealso contained a further important concession to the campaigners, as the councilor undertook that,..
“As part of this there will be a full public consultation in which service users will be able to provide their feedback ahead of any changes being implemented.”
Looking at Facebook, Twitter, and the numerous articles and statements issued on research and genealogy blogs and websites in Britain and abroad, it is easy to conclude that the consultation regarding what users want to see from the Northamptonshire Heritage and Archive Service has already begun, as the Council’s U-turn today acknowledges implicitly.