Concern over council loan for Alnwick Garden project

The new play village would be sited to the north of the Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden.
The new play village would be sited to the north of the Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden.

An £8.5million council loan for a ‘play village’ at The Alnwick Garden, the brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland, is sparking criticism.

But the attraction has said that various funding options are being considered and that any council funding will be a loan not a grant, while the leader of the council has defended the decision at a time of cuts and austerity.

As revealed by the Gazette last week, plans for ‘a ground-breaking play village, with the largest play structure in the world’ for a site north of the Treehouse at The Alnwick Garden have been submitted to Northumberland County Council.

Plus, as part of its capital programme for 2017/18, which is set to be approved next Wednesday, the council has allocated an £8.5million loan to support the development.

And it is this latter aspect that has sparked anger due to the perceived unfairness of a loan from a local authority making cuts year-on-year to an attraction which, while run by a charitable trust, was launched by one of the richest families in the North East.

Both of Alnwick’s county councillors have said that they need more information before making a final decision.

Coun Heather Cairns said: “I expressed my opinion at County Hall that I thought it was extraordinary for the county council to be lending money to the charitable trust run by the Duchess of Northumberland.

“I remain very sceptical. I’m told it will benefit tourism and benefit Northumberland, but my concern is that I don’t think it benefits the business people of Alnwick. If I thought all these people would spill out into the town then I might be more supportive.”

Coun Gordon Castle said: “I’m certainly not against the project because I think it could be wonderful for the town and the wider district.

“This is a charitable trust with a board to make decisions on loans. I haven’t got anywhere near enough detail in front of me to make a decision on whether it should be in the council budget.

“I don’t think the trust has made any final decisions, so let’s not rush into any judgement.”

Council leader Grant Davey said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for Northumberland, but I can understand why some people aren’t clear why the council is planning the loan in these times of financial austerity.

“We are living in different times and need to think differently – we want to be clear the loan will not impact on the services the council provides and once Lilidorei is open to the public and generating income, the loan will be repaid in full to the council over a 15-year period.

“We need to focus on the future growth and prosperity of Northumberland and Lilidorei will bring economic benefits from the build stage onwards and further cement the county’s position in the global tourist landscape.”

Mark Brassell, CEO of The Alnwick Garden, described it as ‘a brilliant concept in the earliest stages of planning’, meaning that they are still considering various funding options, but that it will be an international attraction.

He added: “The Alnwick Garden is a non-profit-making, hard-working charity which has generated more than £236million for the regional economy since it opened.”

Coun Davey added: “As a responsible council, we would not look to invest in any project where we were concerned about risk or where there would be no obvious benefit to residents in the long term.

“The council took the decision to invest as we are confident Lilidorei will make a significant contribution to regeneration plans for Northumberland and the region, especially relating to tourism, an area identified for huge economic growth.

“Lilidorei will generate at least 25 permanent jobs and the equivalent of 10 further seasonal positions initially. However a forecast review recently completed suggests that given the range of activities planned, this could easily double. At least another 20 indirect jobs will be created in the area due to the development.

“Recruitment will draw from the local community while local companies are being recruited for the development and build.

“With more to see and do in the area, visitors will stay longer and bring additional money into the local economy, benefitting individuals, communities and local businesses. Hotels and B&Bs, shops, pubs and restaurants, and existing Northumberland tourist attractions all stand to benefit from higher numbers of visitors.

“And based on the same ratio as The Alnwick Garden, the economic contribution of Lilidorei to the local economy will be around £4.4million per year.

“I want to reassure residents that the decisions we take are in the best interests of Northumberland and we are confident the finished project will cement Alnwick’s status as a world-class visitor attraction.”