On 16 December, Cardiff’s Planning Committee approved the building of a Museum of Military Medicine on Britannia Park in Cardiff Bay, despite local and wider opposition. The Museum was created in 1952 to tell “the story of army medicine and healthcare, human and animal, from the English Civil War to the current day”. It is currently housed in Keogh Barracks at Aldershot.
Planning approval is not the end of the story. The campaign against the Museum will continue. But how did we get here, and what does this tell us about where power rests in our city and how decisions are made?
In 2011, the UK’s new Tory Government announced reviews of public bodies as part of its austerity drive. The Ministry of Defence subsequently announced the withdrawal of funding from its museums. The Museum of Military Medicine decided to find a new location that could attract more visitors than a barracks site allowed. Other cities turned them down. But Cardiff was interested, and in 2016 Edwina Hart, then Minister for the Economy, gave Welsh Government’s blessing.
Why did Cardiff want this museum when others, with stronger links with military medicine, did not? For the city’s leaders, it looked like a prestige project towards their aspiration, shared by Welsh Government, of becoming “a world class European capital city”. They would claim that locating it in Cardiff Bay would help restart its stalled regeneration.
The then derelict station building on Bute Street was initially suggested but could not accommodate the Museum’s ambitions. A new construction was designed for a nearby site on Hemingway Road and granted permission in 2017. But Cardiff’s ‘Capital Ambition’ keeps growing. Plans for a 15,000-seat indoor Arena, at the heart of a grandiose £500 million development for Atlantic Wharf, now demand that site, so an alternative had to be found.
Meanwhile, campaigners had succeeded in stopping a 24-storey block of luxury flats being built on Britannia Park, close to the Norwegian Church on the Bay waterfront and much appreciated by local residents, most of whom live in flats. In November 2018, Cardiff Cabinet agreed to buy the park from Associated British Ports. Hopes this would secure the park for the local community were dashed in the summer of 2019 when plans to build the Museum were announced.
The Cabinet paper had hinted some land would be sold but had only mentioned the gravel on which the Bay Visitor Tube once stood. The exact area was hidden under the ‘confidentiality’ clause that shelters Council dealings with private business from scrutiny. Campaigners would later uncover that Council had offered the land to the Museum seven months before Cabinet discussed it. Britannia Park is to be sacrificed to free the space Council wants to offer investors in its Arena dream.
In fact, gravel covers only half the land required by the Museum. Trees, and grass to sit or play on, will be lost. Public art and a listed lockkeeper’s cottage must move. The Norwegian Church will be dwarfed by a five-storey construction in glass and rusting steel that will overshadow the remains of the park. Cardiff claims to be Child Friendly, but the playground will have to relocate, and nobody yet knows where.
We have been told public indoor facilities will compensate for the lost open space. At times in the Planning Committee, it felt as if the whole project was being justified by access to a few toilets. Britannia Park is a small though valued green area. It has no room for this Museum.
The Friends of Britannia Park opposed this new threat to open space, researching facts, organising objections, and running a petition that now has close to 5,000 signatures. It is absurd to build over the park, right next to a large wasteland owned by Welsh Government. Once allocated for the aborted Porth Teigr project, this now lies empty with no planned use, as does the site once occupied by the Dr Who Experience, which failed at a cost to Cardiff Council of over £1 million.
In the summer of 2020, Cardiff Civic Society stepped up the campaign with blogs and tweets. The military dimension of the Museum sparked wide concern. Peace campaigners questioned its role. YesCymru supporters asked why an institution linked to the British Army was coming to Wales. With Black Lives Matters drawing attention to the Empire’s history of slavery and conquest, choosing a site in Cardiff, close to one of Britain’s oldest diverse communities in Tiger Bay, offended many.
The few defenders of the Museum have been keen to stress its medical rather than military aspects. Huw Thomas, Leader of Cardiff Council and an enthusiastic supporter of this vanity project, has done so repeatedly. But the Museum is tightly linked to the Royal Army Medical, Veterinary, Dental, and Nursing Corps.
In 2017, a Trust was formed as a registered charity, as the Museum would no longer be managed by the MOD. Its objectives give a central place to military goals: “To educate the public and members of the Army medical services: in the history, military accomplishments, scientific achievements and dedication of the Corps; and in the history and developments of military medicine; also to promote military efficiency and encourage recruitment by public exhibition of the collection in a museum.”
Celebrating military accomplishments, promoting military efficiency and encouraging recruitment are not public health goals. This will not become the centre of excellence for medical leadership that its advocates claim.
The fight to preserve Britannia Park is not over. Cabinet still needs to approve the sale of the land so that the Museum can be built there. That will be an overtly political decision, with no room to hide behind planning law. It must be contested.
Even with the land, the Trust will not have the money to build the Museum. Its financial statement shows assets of £9 million, but £7 million of that is accounted for by its valuation of its artefacts. The remaining £2 million was given by the Treasury to help the move but much more will be needed. With extravagant plans for a hi-tech ‘Deep Space’ immersive facility, the Trust has estimated the cost of the Museum at £30 million. Where will this money come from?
Once the Museum is built, it then has to be operated. In its current smaller Aldershot location, where the barracks covers much of the cost, it runs at a loss. The Museum predicts 225,000 visitors a year, but toilet users will not pay the bills. The US equivalent in Washington attracts just 50,000 a year, with free admission and parking. How much will the Museum charge? A low price will not raise the revenue it needs; a high price will deter visitors, as happened to the Dr Who Experience.
Viability was not an issue for the Planning Committee, but the Planning Officer accepted that the public interest would not be best served should the project falter during construction or become vacant later. Many museums have failed in recent years.
It is hard to see how this can work without either large private donations or public subsidies. Council insists it will not provide those, but how is that guaranteed? Agreeing to sell the land without a rigorous and credible business plan from the Trust would recklessly put public funds at risk.
The handling of the Museum application has exposed how development happens in Cardiff. Huw Thomas claims Cabinet members are not party to discussions about planning applications by private developers. But Russell Goodway, Member for Investment and Development, is behind this. He invited the Museum Trust to build on Britannia Park, and the project depends on Council’s willingness to sell or lease land it owns. The Cabinet is accountable and cannot cower behind the Planning Committee.
The Museum decision is just one of a series of failures in the Butetown ward and across the city.
Large-scale residential developments are frequently approved without the Planning Committee enforcing the requirement for 20% affordable units, as doing so would reduce the developer’s profit or the land’s value. Many Bay flats have structural defects from developer cost-cutting under weak Council oversight. Ugly towers of student accommodation at rip-off rents scar the skyline.
Council spent £1 million to save the historic Coal Exchange, then gave it to a dodgy investor to convert into a hotel. Large parts of the roof are still missing, exposing the building to steady decay. Council was only saved from handing over another £2 million by speculator bankruptcy. The hotel is now managed by a former Cabinet member. Council wants to buy Merchant Place and Cory’s Buildings on Bute Street, but who can trust them with restoration?
Little built in the city in recent decades is worth preserving for future generations. The Arena will entail demolishing County Hall, opened in 1988, but who will miss it? Will this be another failed regeneration?
Across Cardiff, ever more people are becoming conscious of how the city’s planning process fails its residents. Local campaigns are springing up to protect valued spaces like Britannia Park or Northern Meadows. City-wide groups, like Cardiff Civic Society and Reclaim Cardiff, are challenging the priority given to developer interests.
Cardiff has started to review its Local Development Plan. This will determine how the city will grow from now until 2035. We need an LDP that puts the well-being of the city’s people first, one that provides homes and vital services, but which also preserves our environment and delivers the carbon neutral city the One Planet strategy aspires to. That is worth fighting for.