An inspector found “hazardous substances risks” and “significant contraventions of health and safety law” in Wirral’s Transport Museum.
The Wirral Transport Museum was closed on April 20 ahead of an inspection by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) and the council said it expected it to reopen afterwards. While no prohibition notice was issued by the ORR, Big Heritage, who have since taken over the museum said procedures were put in place “to monitor and record a range of health and safety and control of hazardous substances risks.”
The company, which manages the Western Approaches museum in Liverpool, also said a model railway donated to the museum 20 years ago was removed as it posed a serious fire risk and was in a poor state of repair.
Big Heritage finalised its takeover of the museum from Wirral Council on November 17. They are looking to raise between £5m and £6m to transform the museum including doubling its size and said it's committed to working with volunteers from the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society (MTPS) going forward.
The MTPS is a group of volunteers who helped run the museum since 2014 and was first founded in 1960. They had been supportive of the takeover bid by Big Heritage but some members said they worried about the security of the trams and criticised a lack of communication.
Volunteers have been unable to access the museum since the closure, which led to relationships breaking down between some members, Wirral Council and Big Heritage. However Big Heritage said they too were unable to access the building until the health and safety issues were addressed and some volunteers would be coming back on December 1.
At an annual meeting for the MTPS held on November 27, one volunteer said there was anger expressed but “the overall mood was we want to see Merseyside's heritage trams stay on Merseyside” with members voting for an agreement with Big Heritage so the trams stay local.
The member said he saw Big Heritage as the way forward for the museum and would be a good thing in the long run but added: "The biggest issue about the whole thing is that Wirral Council's oversight wasn't good enough which meant things didn't happen that should have been done and when they found out about it, they ran for the hills."
He said because of this, the relationship between the society and the council and Big Heritage broke down and now “some are feeling like washing their hands and walking away from it all."
The member said: "The council could have kept the society and the general public informed of what was going on. They said it would be closed for a short period and then nothing from then,” adding: "There was an initial failure of oversight and now the council has buried its head in the sand to the detriment of the people of Wirral."
In an update posted to their website, Big Heritage said: “We have every sympathy with volunteers and visitors who have been frustrated at this situation, but we can attest that Wirral Council took the results of the inspection very seriously and have spent considerable time and resources to address the issues raised as quickly as possible.
“The closure was obviously an inconvenience for all, but no inconvenience supersedes public safety and the risk to life of visitors and volunteers.”
It added the MTPS has been pivotal in keeping the museum open, adding: “Their collective knowledge and experience is irreplaceable. Indeed, it will be lost if it is not passed onto future generations within the next 5-10 years.
“It is without question that we will welcome back the volunteers who have kept the museum alive since 2014. However, it cannot be a case of carrying on ‘as normal’ as liability for accidents to volunteers, staff and members of the public now lie with Big Heritage.”
Big Heritage said they have agreed the terms to retain and display four trams owned by Wirral Council and National Museums Liverpool. The firm said it hopes for another agreement with the MTPS over the future of the trams they own and has appointed a volunteer coordinator.
One Lisbon tram owned by the MTPS is now being sent to the Beamish Museum in Stanley which will be paid for by the volunteers. They are also paying for two Birkenhead horse trams to be stored and repaired in Hooton Park, Eastham but Big Heritage have said they are “delighted to welcome them back to Birkenhead should MTPS wish.”
A Wirral Council spokesperson said: “We know there is real affection and enthusiasm for the Transport Museum from the volunteers who have operated it in recent times. That’s why, when the transfer to Big Heritage was agreed earlier this year, it was on the proviso that their passion and hard work would be nurtured by the new operators and used as the base from which to build up the museum into an even more popular attraction in the coming years.
“Ahead of the transfer of the building, there were several issues identified by the Council and the Office of Road and Rail report that needed to be addressed and which required the facility to remain closed so the work could be carried out safely. Over that time, Wirral museums service visited regularly to maintain the general condition of the building to a satisfactory standard. We also provided a number of updates to the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society and other volunteers and reiterated their value and essential role they have in the development of the museum.
“The security and upkeep of the building is now in the hands of Big Heritage CIC, while the council-owned heritage trams are on loan to them, with specific contractual requirements around their safety, security and maintenance. The council is committed to providing ongoing support to all parties with an interest in the future success of the Wirral Transport Museum.”