Friday 1 June 2012

Botanic Garden "not financially sustainable"

Back in January of this year Cneifiwr took a look at the tortured financial history of the National Botanical Gardens at Llanarthne (here). What emerged was the story of a venture sold to the public as a viable commercial operation in 2000, but where hardly a year has passed since 2004 without a fresh bailout or rescue. And every time there is a bailout, we are told that the future is looking bright; new plans have been put in place, and more visitors will show up.

In March the Carmarthen Journal went to town with a massive splurge on the gardens, spread across three separate articles, including this one. Along with the daffs and the spring bulbs, optimism had returned:

Staff at the National Botanic Garden of Wales are looking to have a better second decade.

The garden needed rescuing within a few years of its opening, but bosses now feel those days are behind them and that more realistic expectations can give them a base from which to develop the garden over the next 10 years.

Visitor numbers were again set to rise (here), and everything in the garden was looking lovely.

Roll on a couple of months, and the same journalist now tells us that Pricewaterhouse Coopers has concluded in a report that, "The National Botanic Garden of Wales not financially sustainable without external funding. This position will not change in the foreseeable future".

Whereas the experts once confidently told us that the gardens would be self-sustaining, the preferred argument over the last few years has been that other major botanic gardens also need subsidies to survive, and they point to Kew and Edinburgh as examples. Kew Gardens date back to the middle of the 18th century, while Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Gardens can trace their history to 1670.

The difference is, of course, that neither Kew nor Edinburgh were sold to us as great investments, and both are in major population centres.

The other argument which is always trotted out is that the gardens are "estimated" to bring millions of pounds into the county, although nobody has been rash enough to put a figure on that. The truth is, of course, that most visitors will visit the gardens for a few hours and then head off out of the county. Anyone desperate to empty their wallets and purses locally will be hard put to find anywhere to spend their cash, bearing in mind that the gardens are miles from the nearest towns.

Typically, the PwC report had to be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Although it has been obvious for years that the garden could never become a self-sustaining commercial operation, the Great and the Good who run it persist in treating the public like idiots with claims that a corner has been turned, and that next year, or perhaps the year after, everything will come right.

The politicians, including of course the leaders of our county council, are no better as they peddle patently daft claims about how much the gardens contribute to the county's economy.

What the gardens at Llanarthne have in common with Parc y Scarlets, Garnant Golf Club and other Carmarthenshire regeneration projects (including the evangelical bowling alley) is that they are set to be a burden on the county for years to come, swallowing resources which could be spent on schools, social care and other bread and butter services.

All of these projects were launched on the back of completely unrealistic business plans, and all of the key decisions have been taken behind closed doors, with the public being fed fairy tales. Nobody has ever been held to account for the failures, and given the supine attitude of the Wales Audit Office, there is no likelihood of any serious investigation into any of these costly and disastrous decisions.

Time for the council to call a halt to the bowling alley project before that becomes another permanent drain on our limited resources.


Anonymous said...

Do you mean the "The Bowling Alley" will only accept Protestants into its arms. That is shocking news.

Alun said...

"...swallowing resources which could be spent on schools, social care and other bread and butter services."
This is an argument that's always trotted out against anything to do with art, heritage or culture. The fact is that most things like this that we value are subsidided in some way, and quite right too. I hate to think what a grim, utilitarin society we'd have without them.

Cneifiwr said...

A fair point, but it would be a refreshing change if someone told us the truth from the start, wouldn't it?

Alun said...

Sorry about the typos in the last comment.

Maybe they didn't have hindsight. I suspect they had some ideas, thought positive, did their best but failed. Like we all do. But then maybe I'm being too charitable.

Cibwr said...

Its a point that I would also make, it should never have been sold or seen as a profit making or even a break even enterprise - it should be a scientific institution first and foremost and a visitor attraction second. It should be supported in the same way as the National Museums and Galleries of Wales is.

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Anonymous said...

We do not argue about supporting the National Library of Wales, National Museum and therefore we should not argue about the National Botanic Garden of Wales , These are for all people and are doing a marvellous job of conservation, education There is more to education than schools

Cneifiwr said...

The difference is that the National Library, etc. were not sold as commercially viable ventures, and we have not been bombarded with spin year in year out about visitor numbers and bogus financial forecasts.

Welsh not British said...

It costs £8.50 to get in. Which let's face it is a massive rip off. But if you use your club card vouchers and convert them to deals then you can get in for about £2 each.

Maybe if they advertised this on their website and/or facebook/twitter they would attract more visitors.

Speaking of twitter their account is a joke. They haven't used it since April 2011 and even then they've only made 13 tweets.

Their facebook page is a bit better but despite having over 2000 likes they attract very few interactions which suggests that what they are posting is dull and of little interest.

For example, on friday they posted a link to an article about a folk singer playing in the gardens. 2 likes in more than 3 days.

What they need is a blitz on both facebook and twitter. Showing photos of young families and their children playing in the gardens. There's alot there besides flowers and plants. if they haven't already got a proper play area (I can't remember) then build one and show it off. And if they took a hit on the entrance fee by marketing the club card deals they would make more money on food, drink and shop sales.

And if anyone from the gardens wants any advice on how to switch a computer on then get in touch.

Welsh not British said...

I stand corrected on the twitter thing. They must have an old account.!/walesbotanic

Anonymous said...

National Botanical garden of Wales is only subbed by Carms County Council and bailouts by the Welsh Govt at every (frequent) financial crisis. This was a vanity project for the carms County councillors who were determined to push an realiastic Millenium legacy through ( Our version of the Dome). Only two councillors at the time objected to it and highlighted the inviability of the project due to its remote location and they were completely blacklisted by their parties for telling the truth (Plaid & Labour).
Nid yw'r Cyngor yn medru rhedeg un sefydliad yn llwyddiannus a gwneud elw gan eu bod yn cael eu llethu gan biwrocratiaeth a diffyg effeithiolrwydd fel y gwelwn o'r prosiectau eraill - clwb golff/parc y Scarlets/Parc Penbre

Tessa said...

I know one of the original objectors to the Garden project. He is a truly wise gentleman. He shared with me many documents which he'd collated over time which showed right from the outset that the plan was ridiculously optimistic, and massively expensive. It was the "Pemberton Stadium" scenario of his day - although much, much more expensive than even that. One can only wonder what better use could have been made of the monies used in these projects. And here we go again - smaller sums thankfully, but still crazy in the current climate - the bowling alley/church project.