There's trouble at the Mills Observatory

IT HAS given generations of stargazers free access to the heavens as the only public observatory in the UK.

But the 85-year-old Mills Observatory in Dundee is now under threat of privatisation with the city's council considering turning its daily running over to a private trust.

Like other councils throughout Scotland, Dundee is being forced to examine every service that it runs for savings, including the council-funded observatory on Balgay Hill. However, Mills supporters, including Professor John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, and opposition councillors say changes could end free entry and lead to the possibility of the historic building being sold off in the future.

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Professor Brown, said: "The Mills is a unique and very special place. It's a fabulous facility which has enhanced the city for decades. But I have long had concerns about its funding level and this latest 'crisis' comes as no surprise.

"I realise we are facing difficult financial times but the Mills is a great educational resource which has inspired generations of schoolchildren to pursue a career in science at a time when Scotland is crying out for such skills.

"The fundamental point is that the Mills was the only observatory built with the sole aim of encouraging public understanding of astronomy and furthering education. This is what makes it unique."

The observatory, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last month, opens its doors to the public five nights a week giving starwatchers the chance to see the night sky through its "jewel in the crown" - an impressive 10-inch Victorian Cook refracting telescope.

Visitors range from school pupils to astronauts from Nasa, which loaned the observatory rare samples of moon dust and rock from the first lunar landing in 1969 for an exhibition.

The council's annual grant for the running of the observatory, including two full-time staff, is around 46,500 but it is now seeking to make at least 20 million of savings from its total 330m budget next year.

A spokesman for the council said no decisions had yet been taken on the council's budget, which will be set in February next year."

However, in an e-mail sent earlier this month to Fraser Macpherson, Liberal Democrat group leader on the SNP-run council, David Dorward, the council's chief executive, said: "I refer to the meeting we had on the 1st November 2010, during which we discussed the matter you raised regarding the Mills Observatory. As I stated in the e-mail I previously sent you, the officers are examining a range of options."

Sources say a private trust is the preferred option.

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Macpherson said: "I've raised the issue with the chief executive and he has admitted that options are being discussed.But while I welcome the assurances he gave that ownership would remain with the council, he failed to address questions over a private trust taking it over and how it will be run in years to come.

"At the moment it gets council funding and is managed for the benefit of the whole community with no admission charge. It is well-used and provides services not just in terms of an observatory for people in Dundee but the wider region too and has built up an excellent international reputation.

"We are not averse to discussions about the future of any facility in these challenging financial times. But the worry is a private trust would only be the first step and doesn't answer questions about the Mills' long-term future or the possibility of it being sold off. What I am seeking now is an assurance about the long-term."

The observatory, which attracts around 20,000 visitors annually, came under threat in 1997 when the council estimated it could save 7,000 from its arts and heritage budget by closing it for the summer, leading to fears it could have been closed permanently. At the time, astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, presenter of The Sky At Night, and the Royal Astronomical Society voiced their support to keep it open full-time.

The observatory was built in 1935 from a bequest by John Mills (1806-1889), a linen and twine manufacturer and a keen amateur astronomer influenced by the writings of the Reverend Thomas Dick, philosopher and astronomer. Dick believed that studying astronomy was a way of celebrating God's greatness and that every city should have its own observatory.

The unusual construction of the Mills provided much-needed work for men in Dundee during the bleak years of the Depression. It has the only surviving internal observatory dome in the world made from paper mch.