THE council is pushing ahead with plans to build a new £20 million archives building to house its ‘at-risk’ records.

Sandwell Council wants to build the new purpose-built facility behind Smethwick Council House to replace its displaced archive – with many of the irreplaceable documents at risk of mould and flood damage.

The current estimated cost would be at least £20 million – if designed to meet important accreditation standards – and the building would have a life of around 40 years.

Halesowen News: Two design proposals for the new Sandwell Archives at Smethwick Council House in Smethwick High Street. Pic: Ellis Williams ArchitectsTwo design proposals for the new Sandwell Archives at Smethwick Council House in Smethwick High Street. Pic: Ellis Williams Architects

Sandwell Council has already spent more than £36,000 cleaning and restoring flood and mould-damaged records in recent years because of the shoddy state of its archives.

The council also spends £13,000 every year to store part of its archive in Dudley.

There is also a fear that Sandwell could lose the responsibility of storing its own archive because of its negligent storage facilities. 

The borough’s archives are riskily stored in the cellars of West Bromwich Town Hall and Smethwick Library – where documents have already been damaged by flooding and mould.

The council has shelled out £120,000 in the last eight years papering, in some cases literally, over the cracks of its crumbling archives with an ever-growing list of issues threatening to destroy the important and irreplaceable files. 

This includes £86,000 given to Dudley to store Sandwell’s files at its archives.

The bill also includes nearly £26,000 professionally cleaning, drying and restoring many flood-damaged documents.

The archive, which boasts documents dating back 650 years, contains the “political, personal, domestic, industrial, religious, educational and social histories” of the borough.

The council said its current archives are full and divided across three sites which makes it difficult to search through and organise.

Sandwell’s third-rate archives have also led to an outbreak of mould on collections stored at West Bromwich Town Hall – which will already cost the taxpayer £10,000 to clean and restore.

Sandwell is one of only a handful of local councils not accredited by the National Archives and the authority failed in its bid to obtain accreditation in 2018 – mainly due to the poor state of its archives and for not even meeting minimum standards.

The council said the “unsuitable environment” for storing its archive was ‘jeopardising the ability to effectively care for and conserve the collections.’

If the council fails again to be accredited, then Sandwell could lose its local archive service altogether.

The poor storage standards would mean the council could not be trusted to collect important and historical public records.

Sandwell Council said it would have to refuse the offer of any major collections in the future because of its substandard facilities.

Without accreditation, the council could also lose its prestigious ‘place of deposit’ status and the borough’s records would have to be stored elsewhere – most likely outside of Sandwell and at a cost to the public purse. 

Studies were carried out in 2020 and 2021 to find a new home for the borough’s archives but were abruptly put on the back burner following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But after the plans were dusted off, the council’s first and second choice for possible sites were no longer available or deemed inappropriate. 

The old Gas Showroom in West Bromwich High Street was eyed up as the prime location for Sandwell’s new archives building in a report from early 2021. The council later sold the site for £270,000 in April 2022 to be used for affordable housing. The Albion Foundation in Brasshouse Lane, Smethwick, was also earmarked as a potential site in the report.

The council’s Labour cabinet backed a move to look at designs for a new purpose-built archive behind Smethwick Council House – plans that include moving Smethwick Library from its current High Street location into the grade II listed building and selling off the old library site.

Sandwell Council is also paying neighbours in Dudley around £13,000 a year to store some of Sandwell’s records at the town’s own archives in Tipton Road.

The cost of storing part of the archive in Dudley is ten per cent of Sandwell’s overall archive budget.

A £30,000 report – nearly four times what is spent by the council on the conservation and digitisation of its archives – has been produced by Ellis Williams Architects at the request of Sandwell Council detailing a new archive at Smethwick Council House.

The cabinet report said attempts to find a suitable location for the borough’s archive had never got off the ground in 20 years because of funding issues and a suitable site could not be found.

The council said building a new archive building would also provide an opportunity to build a heritage centre to store more records and provide a community facility for Sandwell’s diverse population with exhibits, arts events and music and theatre performances.

A range of options costing from £10 million to at least £24 million – based on prices from July last year – will be discussed by Sandwell Council’s cabinet at a meeting on February 7.