Subsidy and a major capital asset in Wales…

Being preoccupied recently with lot of the discourse of community asset transfer, this story from south Wales struck me as an interesting snippet to throw into the mix.

It concerns the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire, which was one of many capital projects floated via public funding around the time of the millennium. I’m told it’s a fantastic resource, and yet it is struggling to keep open without substantial transfers of revenue funding from the Senedd (Welsh Assembly):

Last year, the Assembly Government announced a three-year package comprising GBP550,000 of annual revenue funding between 2012 and 2014, plus the conditional GBP150,000 grant. After meeting performance targets over the last 12 months, the Carmarthenshire attraction is now in line to receive the extra support from the Assembly Government and local authority.

There’s little doubt that the gardens generate important income for the local community by attracting tourists and providing jobs for local people. It’s a largely rural part of the country that needs all the economic stimulus it can get. But this resource is also costing in excess of half a million just to keep the doors open.

Sustainability is something reiterated over and over in the interviews I conducted people involved in the community sector in Belfast last week, that building assets are not enough. Sustainability must be part of the design. It requires flexibility, creativity and ingenuity as well has bringing in a series of competencies that allows value to grow over the longer term.

 

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  • Isn’t it a wee bit like the rather febrile and one-dimensional debate in Belfast last week over the Cathedral Quarter arts funding?

    Of course, the state realises all art since Aeschylus requires state subsidy – it cannot become self-sustaining without also becoming the privilege of the elite; so it must prioritise its interventions, usually guided by either ideology or pragmatism.

    Likewise, in this context – regeneration, delivery of services to low income communities, community cohesion – all require decisions by the state about who, what, by whom, where… But as Alan in Belfast graphically demonstrated on Saturday, http://sluggerotoole.com/2012/02/18/what-is-the-laganside-events-grant-scheme-spent-on/ the state (in this case, the NI Executive) might want to examine its strategic coherence in explaining the rationale for Regeneration (DSD) / Tourism (NITB) / Municipal (BCC) / Arts (ACNI) and other support for tremendous outcomes – but what a time-intense, bureaucratic labyrinth must it be for applicant groups?

    Similarly, in Maurice Kincaid’s excellent interview http://sluggerotoole.com/2012/02/20/catjrf-a-property-asset-is-much-like-any-other-asset/ the case is made for clearer governmental policy objectives, simpler processes and fairer distribution across the public, private and third sectors. Same in this Welsh example… maybe the same all over?

    Who’s up for that joined-up thinking as the PfG consultation draws to a close?

  • syniadau

    I’m not sure what you’d expect “sustainability” to mean in this context, Mick. It would appear that you think spending in excess of half a million a year is unsustainable. But surely a national asset doesn’t have to pay for itself without public money.

    There are some old figures here, Fig 4 which note that Kew Gardens in London gets about £25m grant in aid a year, and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh gets £7m a year. In comparison with both those, Llanarthne is very much closer to being sustainable.

  • socaire

    Just talking of public (my) money. Look at the ridiculous waste of money by local councils. Entering Cookstown from Dungannon the first eyesore is a roundabout. I think a grassy mound with a few trees would have sufficed, would have required little maintenance and would have looked well but what do we get? A monstrosity designed by some spacer given a free hand with my money and allowed to go through the council basically nobody cared enough to object or was afraid that they would have been asked for an alternative. Along with these follies we have logos for council/city regions which were expensive – remember B for Belfast – and nobody seems to be responsible. Surely this money should go to public parks and amenities like the Welsh one in question. Council cutbacks mean payoffs and cutbacks in services while this lunacy goes on unchecked and smaller rural gardens/parks are allowed to go back to nature.

  • Dewi

    Its a super day out. I wasn’t convinced to start with but they’ve made a great go of it. (Faggots and Peas in the Cafe is just lush..) – this is what I like paying taxes for..

  • Mick Fealty

    So I understand Dewi. And clearly there is sufficient political capital to maintain the kind of subsidy required to keep it open. As syniadau notes, there are examples from other parts of the UK which demonstrates what it takes to keep such an asset viable.

    There are similar problems with the Castlewellan Arboretum, where there has been a gradual degradation over a generation or so. Asset transfer of course may not be the answer either, not least because the line between asset and liability can be paper thin.

    The support group Arboretum Regeneration Castlewellan (ARC) clearly have boundless energy and enthusiasm, but the kind of capital transfers required to renew and maintain the asset would be, as with Llanarthne, almost impossible to run sustainably by a support group.

    So in some (probably most) cases there are hard decisions to be about what constitute a resource that is sustainable, what needs support and what needs to be let go of…

    One person I spoke today recently went to see the Shoreditch project (http://www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk/) and asked the host what a certain derelict building was. The answer he was given is that it had been a swimming pool, but they would not touch it. The reason being that it is heritage buildings are most likely to trigger a ‘something must be done’ but in fact they are the most difficult to maintain create a viable community use for.

  • El Simon

    As a resident of Carmarthenshire I find the Botanic Garden a great local asset – but often seems sadly underused. It has a good location just off the A48 trunk route from the M4 to the west with loads of Pembrokeshire-bound tourist traffic flowing past. I know compared to Kew etc the public subsidy is peanuts, but we’re talking relative to the tiny population of Wales compared to London.

    Sustainability? Hmm… I ‘m really not sure what that means any more. It’s hard to find any locally-generated economic activity other than services, tourism and the remnants of farming in rural Wales! Local retail is on its knees with even the smallest towns still prey to new supermarket developments (eg Newcastle Emlyn, Llandeilo).

    The Botanic Gardens certainly need better marketing – for example the gardens were open free of charge throughout January but I only found out by word of mouth – there was no advertising of this, not even at the gates of the Gardens themselves!

  • Mick Fealty

    It was the poor marketing of that January free entry month that brought the issue to my attention by someone else who lives locally…