Shoestring Gardens: A National Question
The National Botanic Gardens, Llanarthne, have been run on a shoestring (relatively speaking) since opening in 2000. Director Dr Rosie Plummer resigned at the end of 2015 after six years, reportedly because of reducing financial support from Carmarthenshire County Council and uncertainty over funding from the Welsh Government.
These days it seems that every endeavour has to pay for itself, and the original idea was for the gardens, on the historic Middleton Hall estate, to earn enough from visitor admissions and commercial activity to be self-funding.
Well, the gardens are a charity and not self-funding, and probably never will be if their main purposes are research and conservation. Trouble is, Wales is not a wealthy country and both the government and the county council struggle to find cash for the gardens year after year. The pressure is on for the gardens to function as a tourist attraction.
Last week I made some notes as I walked around:
- Tickets are expensive, £9.75 for an adult paying the gift-aid price, £8.86 without gift aid. The gift aid concept is not that well explained. I think the 89p difference between the two prices is classed as a ‘gift’ and HMRC will give the equivalent of 25% of it to the charity.
- The open-air walk of 600 to 700 yards from the car park to the world’s largest single-span glasshouse is nothing for young, fit people but for the elderly who seem in the majority, it is quite a distance, and uphill. More benches – and some mini-gardens along the way for visual variety — could help.
- The paths in the great glasshouse are quite narrow, without space for benches, although there are several spots where it would be pleasant to study the plants at leisure. There are seats in the glasshouse but around the edge and without a good view of the planting.
- The planting in the glasshouse is of threatened ‘Mediterranean’ species from Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and from around the Mediterranean Sea, fascinating but not really connected to the Welsh aspects of the garden. And Welshness is another issue – Carmarthenshire County Council has been unhappy with the lack of true bilingualism at the gardens, and would like to tie continued support – albeit at a reducing level – to a more visible and audible Welsh dimension.
It all looks rather under-staffed, and depending too much on the enthusiastic volunteers. The last available trustees’ report, for 2014-15, says there are 155 volunteers, together putting in over 21,700 hours a year. That is equivalent to 12 full-time staff.
It seems unrealistic to me to expect a venture depending so heavily on volunteers to offer a professional level of bilingualism. I did not hear a word of Welsh spoken when I was there, but that does not make the gardens any less important as an emerging centre of international botanical influence.
Carmarthenshire County Council supported the gardens to the tune of £90,000 in 2014-15, but cut the funding to £70,000 in 2015-16, and announced only £50,000 for 2016-17 and £30,000 for 2017-18.
The gardens cost around £3.8 million to run and improve in 2014-15, and ticket sales provided only £349,000 – a contribution of under 10%, and less than £2.33 per visitor. This suggests that many visitors are admitted on free passes or pay concessionary rates. The main funder for ongoing running costs is the Welsh Government, which gave £720,000 in 2015-16. The garden’s managers spend money sparingly, and in 2014-15 employed the equivalent of only 71 full-time staff, down three on the previous year although the work to be done increases annually as planting expands. Only one person had a salary exceeding £60,000 and the average on a full-time basis – including all the botanical experts – was between £18,000 and £18,500, hardly over-generous.
The garden’s merchandising and sales activities are the main self-generated income, £958,000 gross in 2014-15, and fund-raising events provided another £123,000. Donations and gifts of £111,000 were also important. Altogether, the garden itself generated more than £1.6 million, about 65% of the day-to-day running costs and something over 40% of the total expenditure in the year. Without grants, the gardens would have to be on a much smaller scale, not meriting the title ‘National’.
Improvements to the gardens – such as the ongoing restoration of the 18th century water park — are another matter entirely, and utterly dependent on capital grants and gifts.
As for money owed long-term, £1.35 million (on which interest has been waived) has been lent by Carmarthenshire County Council. This is small compared with capital grants of £22.3 million from the Millennium Commission, £6.3 million from the European Regional Development Fund and £4.4 million from the Welsh Government. The money has come with lots of strings: the Millennium Commission has a second charge (after the Royal Bank of Scotland) on the garden’s freehold land and buildings. The Welsh Government also has a charge against some of the land. Lombard Property Facilities Ltd has a 75-year lease on part of the garden and charges £5,000 a year rent.
It seems to me that a decision needs to be taken whether to make the garden into primarily an exciting visitor attraction, the botanical equivalent of the Oakwood theme park in Pembrokeshire, or into a research centre investigating food, medicinal and ornamental plants, particularly those which are likely to grow well in Wales as our climate changes. At present I sense that the garden’s trustees and managers are trying to do both, without sufficient resources to do either sufficiently well. Either choice would require another slab of financial aid, which might be repaid by a top-notch visitor attraction, but which would remain buried in the Carmarthenshire soil if the research route were selected. Personally? I would prefer the gardens to develop further into an international research and education centre, even if it means paying a little more tax every year. Research which is ultimately for the benefit of all of us should be funded from taxation, levied according to income and/or wealth.