Friday 27 January 2012

Gardeners Question Time

Here is a selection of headlines from the local press on the subject of the National Botanic Garden of Wales:

Botanic garden in line for Government funding - January 2012
New funding for Botanic garden - February 2011
Assembly cash to rescue of National Botanic Garden - March 2010

Anyone spot a theme here? Notice also how the bailouts seem to be coming earlier every year. That annual mulch of fresh £20 notes just doesn't seem to be lasting as long these days, does it?

If the on-line press archive for the South Wales Evening Post went back further, we could have found strangely similar headlines from just about any year back to 2003

At a meeting of Carmarthenshire's Executive Board earlier this week, the issue of the National Botanic Garden popped up on the agenda but was exempted, so that the public were excluded from the meeting. All we are allowed to know is that something or other to do with the garden was discussed and that it was unanimously resolved to increase the county council's contribution to its finances by another £15,000 a year.

In October 2003, the Welsh Government and Carmarthenshire County Council each agreed to pump in a further £150,000 each on top of their previous funding to support "essential running costs". Six months later in March 2004 (remember the gardens opened in 2000), a 5-year recovery plan was announced, with the Welsh Government, the Millennium Commission and the County Council each agreeing to pump in another £300,000 as an initial injection to stabilise the garden's finances. By December 2004, the gardens had received funding commitments totalling £43.6 million, with the county council chipping in £2.4 million.

At the time of the 2004 rescue, the Welsh Government announced that in addition to the initial injection of £300,000, it would be providing a further £150,000 per year in each of the following four years. That would be the garden's lot, it said.

In 2008 things had again reached crisis point, and the Welsh Government coughed up a further £1.9m as a bailout, with annual revenue support being raised to £500,000.

In 2010, the Welsh Government came up with an additional £250,000 as "a short-term package designed to help the garden with cash-flow difficulties."

The next major crisis was not long in coming, with another bailout announced in February 2011. This time, the Welsh Government stumped up £800,000, and Carmarthenshire agreed to annual payments of £60,000 for 2011-12 and 2012-13. The county's contribution this year has now just risen to £75,000. In addition, the County Council has an outstanding loan of £1.35 million to the garden. In 2010-11, the council agreed to extend the term of the loan to March, 2014. Whether the garden is actually paying any interest on this loan is unclear. The accounts for the previous year show that no interest was payable, while for 2010-11, just £13,000 was paid in interest by the garden on its various debts.

To date, then, the garden has swallowed more than £50 million in public money. Quite how much the county council has contributed is unclear, but it would seem to have passed the £4 million mark, including the loan of £1.35m, which on current form is unlikely ever to be repaid.

Just as the daffodils come out each spring and the garden asks for more money, so too at about the same time we can hear the first cuckoos from Cardiff and Carmarthen expressing confidence that a corner has been turned and things are looking up.

This year, the Welsh Government appears to have learned a lesson, and is staying quiet, saying only rather vaguely that it will make a statement in the spring.

Meryl Gravell, leader of the county council, was rather less reticent, saying that she had had a long chat with the minister (Huw Lewis) and that he was a lot happier with what was happening at the gardens. At least we can be grateful that she did not tell the garden's employees to dig harder.

As in all the previous years, it is hard to see where this confidence comes from. A look at the garden's  accounts available from the Charity Commission tells a rather gloomier story.

The garden's income hit a high-point of £4.4m in 2007-08, before falling back to £3m in 2008-09, rising to £3.9m in 2009-10 and plummeting to £2.4m in 2010-11.

Losses for the most recent year available totalled £769,000. The number of paying visitors was 122,000, down from 134,000 the previous year. The garden's business plan originally reckoned that 200,000 visitors a year would be needed.

No figures have been published for visitor numbers in the last year, but with a fairly poor summer and the prevailing economic climate, a dramatic increase in numbers would seem unlikely.

The question is, then, whether the taxpayer should continue to throw more and more money into this venture. Supporters point to the scientific and research work carried out there, and Meryl Gravell has argued that it makes an important contribution to the county's tourism. Supporters also argue that not even Kew Gardens can run without subsidies. Fair enough, but the garden at Llanarthne was sold to the public as a venture which would become self-sustaining. Would it ever have got off the ground if a more realistic assessment had been made at the start?

As an attraction, it is fair to say that for most people it is only a moderate success. Having been a couple of times, the experience has on each occasion left this author at least with a feeling of being slightly underwhelmed. True, the glasshouse is impressive, but the rest of the site somehow seems a bit bare and windswept. Whether it really makes such a big contribution to tourism in the county is open to question, given the struggling visitor numbers and the fact that most of those visiting come in from other areas for just a day.

If Huw Lewis is now "happier about what is happening at the gardens", it looks as though we are about to get another rescue headline to add to the collection, and Mr Lewis will join the growing line of former ministers who were all confident once that the garden had been turned around.

The truth is that nobody dares to pull the plug. Mr Lewis won't, it seems, and Carmarthenshire's chief executive and leading white elephant breeder will certainly never put one out of its misery. If the garden is thrown another lifeline, it should be tied to a radical rethink. Otherwise, it will continue to limp along from year to year, always on the brink of collapse.

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