The Labour-run Vale of Glamorgan Council has backed away from a potential clash with the Welsh Government over the National Museum of Wales’s stewardship of the Grade II Listed Turner House Gallery in Penarth.
The Vale Council planning committee has now given the National Museum (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Welsh Labour Government) some wriggle-room to extract itself from an embarrassing situation which has spotlighted the Museum’s indifferent record on overseeing and managing the nation’s treasures.
Turner House was bequeathed to the people of Penarth by its founder (the flour-magnate James Pyke Thomson) – but in 1921 Penarth Urban District Council asked the National Museum of Wales to run it on its behalf.
In 2003 the National Museum leased the building to the “charity” “Ffotogallery” for photographic exhibitions.
In November 2014 Ffotogallery decided to black-out all daylight from Turner House to use it as a the venue for a temporary video “artwork” involving 9 video projectors.
Without any reference to the Vale of Glamorgan Council or to Penarth Town Council, or even its landlords the National Museum, Ffotogallery planked-over the large distinctive light-well on the first floor and removed its surrounding balustrade designed by T Alwyn Lloyd – all features which were noted as part of the building’s listed architectural status within the Penarth Conservation Area.
On February 21st 2015 the exhibition ended – but no work was undertaken to restore to the gallery to what had been there before.
The Vale Council planning officers said in a hard-hitting report:- “These works are considered to affect the character of the building as one of special architectural or historic interest and, as such, are works that would have required the consent of the Council under the provisions of section 7 of the 1990 Act. As the necessary consent has not been granted, the works to fill in the light well and remove the balustrade are a breach of section 9 of the 1990 Act.”
However in last night’s Vale of Glamorgan Council Planning Committee there were concerted moves to row-back on that hard-line position when the Vale of Glamorgan Planning Committee considered an original recommendation from its officers to initiate the enforcement action over Turner House against the National Museum of Wales.
The Vale’s Enforcement Officer Justina Moss told councillors that removal of the lightwell and balustrade was considered a breach of the legislation that relates to Listed Buildings. She told councillors that the current occupiers [Ffotogallery] “did not consider they needed consent to carry out the works” and had said that “the council shouldn’t be asking them to undo the work” or put things back as they were .
However in her verbal briefing, Justina Moss appeared to pull back from the tough position set out in the Planning Report document.
That report had said “a series of correspondence has been sent to the owner [the National Museum of Wales] and occupier [Ffotogallery] to advise of the breach of planning control that has occurred and to request that works are voluntarily undertaken to reinstate the light well and balustrade. To date the necessary works have not been undertaken.”
Justina Moss – however – told councillors last night there had been what she described as “a small error in the report”. She said that contrary to what was stated in the report, the Vale Council had not in fact been in direct contact with the National Museum of Wales.
She admitted however that after the report had been published the National Museum of Wales had indeed been in contact with the Vale Council to say it was “very concerned about the authorisation being sought” [i.e. to issue an Enforcement Notice against the National Museum] and that the Museum wanted to “wholeheartedly comply with whatever the Vale required to re-instate the lightwell and balustrade” and had asked that the decision to issue the Enforcement Notice be deferred to give them ” a bit of leeway” to carry out the works.
Cllr Clive Williams (Conservative Plymouth Ward) said Turner House, Penarth was one of the most important public buildings in the Vale of Glamorgan and had been gifted to the people of Penarth. The cost of the maintenance of the building – even after it had been handed over to the National Museum of Wales – had been met by a local precept charged to Penarth ratepayers. He said the alterations carried out by Ffotogallery represented ” a huge breach of public trust” and the National Museum of Wales had “not discharged its obligations to the people of Penarth “.
Cllr Williams said he now understood that the National Museum of Wales had “given its blessing” for a [food] market to be held at Turner House once a month . Cllr Williams asked “Who is actually in control of this at the moment?”. The National Museum had told him that afternoon that it did not have sufficient space to display the volume of artworks that it holds . Cllr Williams said some of these should be displayed at the Turner Gallery.
Cllr Gwyn Roberts (Labour St Augustines) said he endorsed what Cllr Williams had said in terms of the value of the Turner House to Penarth. But, he said, the National Museum of Wales now seemed to be acting in good faith and he proposed postponing the imminent enforcement action for a limited period to give them as chance to do the work.
Cllr Clive Williams said he understood that Ffotogallery’s lease on the building was due to expire in November 2016 and that might defer the work . He also thought it important to establish who legally owns the building.
Cllr Gwyn Roberts said Ffotogallery had now contacted Penarth Town Council – but he did not know what they wanted to talk about.
Cllr Jeffrey James (Conservative Rhoose) send a cannon shell across the bows of Cllr Gwyn Roberts. Cllr James said he was unclear what Cllr Roberts was proposing . The recommendation of the planning report was quite clear – to give authorisation to the Head of Legal Services to take action to bring about the reinstatement. If the committee agreed that it “would add weight to officers in negotiating with the [ National Museum] to say let’s actually get on with it”. Cllr James said he was not happy to “leave them to have time to think about it ” Cllr James said the committee should move the recommendation here” .
“LET’S HANG FIRE”
However Planning Chief Victoria Robinson was also a keen member of the chorus to delay pressing the button on enforcement action – even though it was her own department which had initially recommended issuing a formal legal Enforcement Notice to the committee. Back-pedalling on the recommendation in her own report, she said there had been what she described as a “bit of miscommunication” . “ We would now say let’s hang-fire on the formal process for now.”
Officers, she said, were happy from communications received that day, that the National Museum was “intent on sorting out this issue. We’ve got no reason to mistrust them on that”.
Cllr James said “I don’t think this should be open-ended. This should come back to committee – next month.”
Cllr Andrew Parker (Conservative Cowbridge) said he was happy to agree to a deferment but “we can’t necessarily trust them to put back the T Alwyn Lloyd balustrade to its exact form – so what we also need is some strength.”
He said detailed drawing should be required and the deferment should be to allow the National Museum, to “produce the detailed drawings for approval prior to construction”
Cllr Jonathan Bird said “ It does seem strange to me that we’ve got a report here – the recommendation of which is that we ask them for the reinstatement of the lightwell and balustrade .”
“Surely we could pass this tonight and put a time limit on it. This has been going on for over 12 months and my concern is that it will rumble on for another 12 months. It’s here tonight in front of us. I don’t see a real reason to defer.”
Planning Committee chairman Fred Johnson said “The owner of the building – the National Museum of Wales – are saying “hold on a minute, we don’t know anything about this – so give us the time”- because you are talking about the National Museum of Wales – Welsh Government really” .
Cllr Johnson said the National Museum was saying – “There’s no need for you to take formal action against us”
Cllr Gwyn Roberts said “We have to give some freedom to the National Museum of Wales. They appear now to be acting in good faith . It seems heavy-handed and frankly in terms of the credibility of this council – why put an enforcement notice on when someone is voluntarily putting the work right?”
Officer Moss said the National Museum, of Wales had indicated they could complete the works by the end of June and had asked for a meeting with planning officers and the Vale Conservation officer. She suggested progress be reported in the first meeting in July.
Cllr Clive Williams said his concern was that the National Museum, had “suddenly taken an interest. Where were they when they should have acted as landlords? I haven’t got confidence in a landlord which allows that to go on in a listed building “
It was agreed to defer the decision on enforcement action against the National Museum of Wales on Turner House until next month and a report being brought to the next planning committee.
PDN Note: The assertion that the National Museum of Wales ‘knew nothing about the unauthorised alterations carried out in the Turner Gallery until recently’, is unconvincing. The National Museum has a sophisticated media operation which checks all electronic and print media every day and would have been fully aware of what Ffotogallery was up to.