Protest forces u-turn by Northamptonshire County Council over free access to archives

County Hall
County Hall

County Hall has done a u-turn on plans to cut free access times to Northamptonshire's archives after protests by campaign groups locally and across the country.

Northamptonshire County Council announced plans at the end of July to remove free access sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from August 21. Instead, users would have had to pay £31.50 per hour.

The council said it was being forced to make the changes following "financial pressures" on its overall budget.

But the move was met with widespread outrage, not least from groups such as Northampton Heritage Hunters, which said it was concerned that "denying access to the public sets a precedence for other repositories to do the same". It would, the group said, "diminish knowledge of local and national history and heritage".

The chairman of the national Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives, Sharon Grant, had written to the county council urging it to reconsider.

"Our members are users of county records offices and other local (and national) archives, and we have noted over recent times the increasing trend for public access to archive services to be cut without any regard to the practical impact on service users that are researchers, both professional and non-professional.

“We acknowledge that these are challenging times for all local authorities but these changes have come as a complete surprise.

“They have not been subject to any form of public consultation and no alternatives have been presented for public comment," the letter said.

The protest forced a comedown from the county council. A statement released today, August 4, stated that the decision had been reviewed.

"Northamptonshire County Council has reviewed its decision to change opening hours at its archives and heritage service after listening to the views of its regular users and supporters.

"The archives service will now be open for free access on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm and the first Saturday in each month, 9am to 1pm."

The change may not be permament though, as the statement warned there would be a detailed review of the service.

"In light of financial pressures and reducing visitor numbers, there will be a review of the service ahead of the next financial year as part of the budget setting process and this will include a full consultation around any proposed changes," the statement.

The council said that in 2016, the service was visited by a total of 3,500 researchers, a drop of 50 per cent compared with 2006.

County council cabinet member for public protection, strategic infrastructure and economic growth Cllr André Gonzalez de Savage added: “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.

“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.

“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.”