Duchess and Northumberland council boss defend £8.5m loan for major attraction

An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.
An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.
  • Loan will be paid back with interest, at commercial rates
  • Duchess has been planning this attraction for 12 years
  • Council chief Steve Mason outlines benefits for Northumberland

The Duchess of Northumberland and the chief executive of the county council have spoken out about plans for a new attraction at The Alnwick Garden and – the real source of recent controversy – the proposed £8.5million loan from the authority.

As revealed by the Gazette a fortnight ago, plans for ‘a ground-breaking play village, with the largest play structure in the world’ for a site north of the Treehouse have been submitted, backed by a proposed multi-million-pound loan from the authority.

An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.

An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.

It has sparked a major backlash, being criticised by locals as well as attracting national media attention and in the face of opposition at yesterday’s meeting to discuss next year’s budget, council leader Grant Davey agreed to remove the loan from the spending plan and put it back before the council when a full risk appraisal has been carried out.

Speaking to the Gazette today, the Duchess set out her vision for this one-of-a-kind attraction which she has been planning for 12 years, while Steve Mason, the council’s chief executive, explained why the administration is supporting the project and how it meets the authority’s goals in terms of driving economic development in Northumberland.

The Duchess said she had been wary of announcing details of the proposals for Lilidorei, as it will be known – ‘a small settlement set within a forest clearing, with an unearthly, quirky and magical atmosphere’ – until the scheme had made it through the planning process. Plus, the trustees of the Alnwick Garden Trust, the charity which runs it, still have to sign off on the loan.

“This is the biggest play structure in the world, no one has built anything on this scale before,” she said. “We are building something that’s never been done and that’s part of the reason for this not getting out before.”

It’s like the Treehouse on steroids

The Duchess of Northumberland

The play structure had always been part of the vision, but more recently it developed as the Duchess said that Christmas markets kept being done badly so she wanted to do it properly. “We all want to give children an experience they will never forget at Christmas,” she said.

The whole attraction would take up a large site measuring 100 metres by 100 metres with talking gates, 30 little houses, two party houses, a 600-capacity guest hall covered in bark and a grassy roof called Pookie Dhu – ‘like the Treehouse on steroids’ – for weddings or conferences, a tavern and a restaurant, spaces for traders, 1,000 Christmas trees throughout which can be lit up for the festive season and the Elphic play structure at the heart of it. Among the team working on the proposals are set designers who have worked on the huge TV hit Game of Thrones.

There will even be a skate park, something the Duchess ‘knows the youngsters of Alnwick have wanted’, and schoolchildren in Northumberland will have free access on Fridays. The Garden is also determined to try to employ ‘hard-to-reach’ people in the 48 jobs that will be created, such as Armed Forces veterans.

However, it is clear that the focus of the concern is not so much the attraction itself, but why the council is proposing to lend the money to build it.

An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.

An artist's impression of the proposed Lilidorei play village at the Alnwick Garden.

The authority’s chief executive Steve Mason emphasised that the loan will be paid back with interest. It will be on commercial terms because the council has to comply with EU State Aid regulations, which restrict advantages given by public authorities on a selective basis that could potentially distort competition and trade.

“A key objective of the council is to drive economic development and job creation in Northumberland,” he said. “Tourism is incredibly important, particularly in the rural areas.”

He added that some of the complaints are ‘based on a misunderstanding’ of local-authority finance, pointing out that an £8.5million loan will be paid back with interest and the project also provides wider economic benefits, while to spend £8.5million on the roads, for example, requires the council to fund that money and there is no return; they are not directly comparable.

This loan is part of a wider drive – entirely in line with the Government’s policy as it massively reduces councils’ funding, according to Mr Mason – to become more commercial, to encourage development and to have an economic strategy, as evidenced by the likes of Arch, the council’s development company. “We are using our ability to borrow as a council to generate alternative income streams and those are being used to support frontline service delivery,” he said.

As well as the jobs created, the economic benefits of the Lilidorei project include ‘driving the whole of the tourist industry in Alnwick and beyond’, says Mr Mason.

The Duchess added: “November and December are relatively quiet for the hotel trade and we think Lilidorei will bring visitors in November and December. It’s to make Alnwick somewhere that everyone comes to for Christmas.” That year-round element is something that also applies to the likes of the conference facilities at the site.

Some will still question why the money can’t come from elsewhere, with many pointing to the Northumberland Estates, but that ‘misses the point’, says Mr Mason.

“The Northumberland Estates has already put a huge amount of money into the Garden and it’s been agreed that the council loan would take priority over any other money that’s been put in,” he continued. “In my role as chief executive and senior financial officer, we have to follow due diligence and we are subject to external audit. The council is following an agenda of commercialisation and greater development opportunities.”

The Duchess explained that she had been in discussions with an organisation in London, which was very keen to help her raise funds for the project, but wanted planning permission to be in place first. Upon speaking to the county council about this, they were keen to ensure that Lilidorei was built in Northumberland.

The Garden’s CEO, Mark Brassell, added: “Let’s remember that the Alnwick Garden is a charity, we are a non-profit-making enterprise and the figures are there – £236million has been generated for the regional economy since opening in 2001.”

It has attracted more than five million visitors since then and runs three community-outreach programmes – Elderberries, for older people; Sprouts, which provides education for younger people; and Enterprise, which aims to help young people succeed.

The new attraction still needs the loan to be signed off by both the trustees and the county council, while the planning application still needs to be approved. Given that the build would last two years, it would be spring 2019 before Lilidorei opened its gates.

The Duchess said: “We couldn’t build it without the loan unless we did fund-raising elsewhere. I think the council understands what we are doing and the scale of what we are doing. There’s certainly no politics involved in it. It could have been built anywhere, but I want to build this in Northumberland.”