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The Furniture Project
The elected members of Derby City Council seem determined to get rid of another bit of heritage. I am talking about St Helen's House, surely one of the finest buildings in Derby. Originally home to the Strutts, at one time Derby School, and for a few years home to The Joseph Wright School of Art, the building is under threat of closure and possible sale. The council is supposidly carrying out a review of the options, to be finished by July 2004.

I cannot understand why important items relevant to the buildings are being sold when no decision on its future has been made. Why were the items not sent to Derby Museum? It looks very much like the future of St Helen's House has already been decided. All the council needs to do now is strip it of anything it can sell, let it continue to decay over the winter, then inform the public it is in too bad a condition to be economically viable and the original interior and fittings have gone away.

The council has already demolished the rare Fives Court, which stood in the grounds, just to provide parking spaces. Why can't the original part of the house be used as a gallery or museum, and the later additions and outbuildings be used for the local community? It belongs to Derby and should not be sold. Chris Raisin
The Government is to abolish the Grade II* listing for historic buildings in a move designed to make the listing system easier for the public to understand. The changes are being introduced despite over 90% of respondents to an English Heritage consultation saying that the present system should be kept....
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St Helen's HouseSenior council officials agreed behind closed doors to auction-off four items of antique furniture, worth more than 20,000 from St Helen's House. Members of Derbyshire Archaeological Society, Derby Heritage Society and Derby Heritage and Environmental Association for Residents and Traders (Heart) were outraged when they found out. But the council has no plans to withdraw the items from the sale at Mellors and Kirk in Nottingham. Ellen Hutchings, Heart chairman, learned of the sale through a fellow member in the antiques trade. She raised the issue at the council's monthly meeting. Mrs Hutchings said, "I'm so angry. These items are a part of Derby's heritage. When I made inquiries at St Helen's House, no-one knew when the furniture was removed. It was as though it was done in the middle of the night."

In February 2003, the council's former Labour-run cabinet agreed in private to give senior council officers the authority to sell the four items. They include a George IV mahogany console table, worth 400-500, mahogany wine cooler, worth 2,000-3,000, and a mahogany bookcase, worth 2,000-3,000. The centrepiece is a George III mahogany serving table worth at least 10,000-15,000. St Helen's House was designed and built by Joseph Pickford in 1766-67. In 1803, it was bought by William Strutt, who is thought to have originally purchased the items. According to a council spokeswoman, officers from Derby Museum and Art Gallery examined the four pieces of furniture last year and were unable to house them.

Councillor Chris Williamson, council leader when the decision was made to sell the furniture, said, "There was nothing secret about the decision. We wanted the best value for taxpayers' money. We were concerned that the items would be damaged if they remained at St Helen's House." He said the decision to sell was not deemed to be a "key decision". But he added, "We decided it would not be in the best interest to let people know there were valuable antiques in St Helen's House, so the decision was delegated." Present council leader Maurice Burgess said he did not understand why the decision was not publicised.

It is very difficult to give city councillors the benefit of the doubt when they argue that no secrecy has been intended over the sale of valuable antique furniture from St Helen's House. Had a member of campaigning group Heart not raised the issue at a council meeting, it is very doubtful that the Derby public at large would ever have been made aware that the items were scheduled to go under the auctioneer's hammer. Publicity for auction items is generally seen as beneficial to the sellers, the more interest, the more bidders are likely to be attracted.

But, in this case, it would have suited the authority very nicely if the four lots could have eluded advance media publicity and taken their chance before specialist bidders on the day. More than 20,000 might easily have been realised anyway, and, coincidentally or not, part of the overall package which St Helen's House offers as an attraction would have been reduced. There are deep suspicions that the authority is less than fully committed to retaining public ownership of the building, which needs 5m for urgent repairs. Already plans are in hand for the dispersal of adult education classes from there to other venues.

The attraction of the Georgian building to property developers, prime site, suitable for conversion to luxury apartments, is plain. The previous Labour administration took the decision in February 2003 to try to sell off the items. Because it was not classed as a "key decision", responsibility was delegated to an officer, rather than a committee of elected representatives. As a result, it never came up for public debate, until now. And now may be too late, for the current leader of the council, Maurice Burgess, is happy for the items to remain up for auction. That cannot be right.

What harm would there be in delaying any sale of items until the future of St Helen's House is decided next summer? As antiques, these items are not going to lose value. The most revealing comment in this curious episode comes from Chris Williamson, who was Labour leader of the council in February: "We decided it would not be in the best interest to let people know that there were valuable antiques in St Helen's Housem so the decision was delegated." So there we have it, it WAS precisely the intention to conceal the decision. (Source: Derby Evening Telegraph)

I recently received a letter from city council cabinet member Martin Repton about the future of St Helen's House. I was staggered by what he had to say in the letter. He said that he and Labour were committed to protecting Derby's heritage and St Helen's House in particular, this from Mr Repton who, as a member of Labour's cabinet, voted to sell off St Helen's House! He then claims that it would cost 5m and 8% on council tax to restore St Helen's House. What rubbish!

As far as I am aware, no-one in Derby has ever suggested using council tax payers' money to restore St Helen's House. Securing lottery money for refurbishment is the aim of the groups who have been fighting for St Helen's House, and the Lib Dems, who have been running a petition to save it. Mr Repton says that his first objective is to get lottery funding for St Helen's House. Yet he was one of the cabinet members who voted to relegate St Helen's House to third on the list for lottery funds. John Paul-Keane

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