Clash over National Glass Centre Sunderland relocation plans after '£45million' repair costs force move

City leaders have said there are no plans for the National Glass Centre to “take over” Sunderland’s Culture House development, following news of the glass centre’s planned closure and relocation.

The building on the north bank of the River Wear, which opened in 1998, celebrates Sunderland’s proud glass-making history and has showcased work by leading international artists.

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Over the years, it has also hosted international conferences, television broadcasts and welcomed senior politicians, including Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown.

National Glass Centre. Picture by David Wood.National Glass Centre. Picture by David Wood.
National Glass Centre. Picture by David Wood.

The University of Sunderland took over the building in 2010, which is also home to the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) and the university’s glass and ceramics academic programmes.

A specialist external review commissioned by the university concluded that multi-million pound investment was needed to address structural-related problems with the site, prompting university bosses to look for an alternative location – or locations – for the NGC.

At a meeting of Sunderland City Council this week, questions were raised about the extent of the glass centre’s potential move to the Culture House at Keel Square.

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While city leaders confirmed some of the glass centre’s offer could be relocated to the city centre cultural hub, they ruled out a complete relocation.

The comments were made at a full council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, January 25, during councillors’ questions.

“I, like many residents of the city, was shocked at the news that the National Glass Centre will be closing and its offer relocated – potentially to the Culture House,” said councillor Niall Hodson, Liberal Democrat Group leader.

“Could the leader explain how accommodating the glass centre into the Culture House would be possible without diminishing the library, exhibition and community activity space for which the Culture House is being built?”.

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Councillor Linda Williams, Labour cabinet member for Vibrant City, responding, said she was shocked by the announcement of the NGC relocation, adding the council “had not given any commitment” to relocate the NGC to Culture House.

Instead, she explained, the local authority was working with the university “to explore if, or how, Culture House could accommodate parts of what is at the NGC”.

Cllr Williams continued: “That would need to complement the offer and maintain our original intention for the purpose of Culture House.

“We absolutely can’t give up on what we have planned for Culture House but if there is space to accommodate, that absolutely makes sense, I would hope you would agree that.

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“So that support will continue through the team […] and yes we would welcome some.

“But NGC is absolutely not taking over Culture House in any shape or form because we have our own plans for that.

“It’s about accommodating what we absolutely can”.

Cllr Hodson also asked a supplementary question referencing reports of a £45million estimated cost to repair structural damage to the National Glass Centre, dating back to its original construction.

The Lib Dem opposition councillor asked whether Labour bosses agreed that “this failure demands a public inquiry”.

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Cllr Williams, responding, said the council “were not part of building the NGC” and that it has been in the university’s ownership since 2010.

She added: “I think we have to look at how we move forward and see what comes out of the whole thing as to what we demand and what we don’t.

“But I’m very unhappy with the situation that, in reality, has just been dropped on us”.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor and chief executive at the University of Sunderland, has confirmed the university are working with the city council and Sunderland Culture to explore new city centre locations for the NGC.

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Speaking earlier in January, 2023, he said: “The university is committed, as far as it is practically possible and viable, to maintaining within the city the exhibition and display of glass art, alongside academic work in glass and ceramics.

“As well as undertaking internal review work on these matters, we are also in active discussion with Sunderland City Council about alternative locations for the activities currently undertaken within the NGC and NGCA”.

For academic work in the NGC, the university said it has started working with staff to carry out a ‘thorough assessment’ of the equipment and facilities required to support academic activity in glass and ceramics in another building and the associated cost implications.

According to a statement from the university, the “outcome of this work will be reviewed by the university executive, with a recommendation on next steps being made to the board of governors in due course”.

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University bosses hope the relocation will be concluded within three years and until then, the intention is for the National Glass Centre to remain at its current home operating as usual.

Councillor Williams said at the time of the announcement: “Across the city we have an excellent cultural and heritage offer, and really strong partnerships through which to continue to grow and develop that offer. Plans for Culture House are beginning to take shape - an exciting major new investment now underway at the heart of the city for residents and visitors alike.

“We are working closely with the University to explore whether becoming part of Culture House provides the best opportunity for the next generation of the much-loved National Glass Centre – one of our key cultural assets – to continue to grow and thrive in Sunderland for generations to come.”