The row over the use of public funds to support the creation of the world’s largest play structure at The Alnwick Garden has reared its head again.
It was revealed last week that the charitable trust behind the famous attraction will receive an up-to-£5million grant, if match-funding can be secured, as part of the £345million deal from the UK and Scottish Governments for the Borderlands Partnership.
This collaboration between the five cross-border local authorities – Carlisle, Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Northumberland and Scottish Borders – aims to create thousands of new job opportunities, bring millions of extra tourists to the area and unlock investment in towns.
The Garden’s Lilidorei play village project, which was approved by Northumberland County Council in July last year and is due to open to the public in 2021, appears to support those goals, as it will initially provide 57 full-time jobs plus 40 in the build phase and is expected to boost the economy in Alnwick and the surrounding area by £68million over 10 years.
However, while the Garden is run as a charitable trust, many cannot look past the fact that it is the brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland, whose husband was ranked seventh in last year’s Sunday Times North East Rich List with a total wealth of £382million. The trust also has a ‘close working relationship’ with the Northumberland Estates, which represents the Duke’s business interests.
The criticism came from all quarters, including Conservative councillors, resulting in Labour leader Grant Davey agreeing to remove the loan from the council’s spending plan during the debate on the 2017-18 budget.
But this week, Conservative council leader Peter Jackson said: “The Alnwick Garden is one of the county’s top tourist attractions and Lilidorei is set to bring a big boost to Northumberland’s economy as well as generating scores of jobs.”
Fellow Tory, Coun Gordon Castle, one of the ward members for Alnwick, was the one who proposed removing the loan from the budget two years ago.
He explained that this was because there was not enough information at the time on the details of the loan, adding: “This did not mean I was against the project, only that the council should not be the lender of first resort.
“This grant is very different and is what should have happened in some form the first time.
“It is to build the world’s biggest play village and bring a conservatively estimated 250,00 extra visitors during the notoriously dead shoulder months and benefit the town and county enormously.”
But some county councillors continue to have worries about using taxpayers’ money, with Coun Georgina Hill, independent ward member for Berwick East, saying she was concerned about ‘both the reality and the perception’.
Referring to the Garden as a ‘world-class tourist destination’ and ‘a highly successful commercial operation which charges visitors through the nose’, she asked: “Is regeneration (and funding of) not meant to be targeted at areas in real need of revival and a stimulus?”
Coun Steven Bridgett, an independent who represents the Rothbury ward, seconded Coun Castle’s motion to remove the loan from the budget two years ago.
He said: “I’m sure it will be hailed as a fantastic thing for Alnwick and could well be good for the town, but I know it won’t sit well with many of my residents whose homes straddle the Scottish border at the top end of the Coquet Valley (30 in total) and who don’t even have mains electricity (they are powered by generators) and who have been battling for years to get what many of us take for granted, and the Government is awarding £5million in public funding to an organisation that is still run/influenced by one of the richest families in Northumberland for what can only be described as a multimillion-pound play area.”
Meanwhile, Coun Scott Dickinson, chairman of Northumberland Labour, highlighted the ‘hypocrisy’ of Tory support for something they criticised when his party tried to do the same two years ago.
“I welcome the jobs this is going to create, but giving away taxpayers’ money, when the council could have enjoyed a repayment with interest on a loan just beggars belief,” he said.
“It looks like a fabulous fantasy play village. The Tories in our council and in our country are in a fantasy land of their own.”
Coun Davey added: “I’m personally pleased that common sense has prevailed and that a world-class feature is to be developed in our county. On behalf of Labour group members, I would like to wish the trust every success with this venture.”
Mark Brassell, the Garden’s director, said: “To clarify, The Alnwick Garden is an award-winning charity that has contributed over £282million to the local economy since opening with £120million spent with local suppliers.
“The visionary behind the Garden, the Duchess of Northumberland, has not received a penny from the charity and any cash surplus the Garden makes is either spent delivering its community programmes or reinvested back into the Garden.”
He added: “I’m proud to be leading the team that has secured the funding for our charity and for Alnwick. If we hadn’t been awarded the Borderlands grant then the fund would have been invested into other initiatives across the region, potentially drawing tourism and business away from Alnwick.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service