The Alnwick Garden Lilidorei Play Village scheme has £5million grant confirmed by visiting Northern Powerhouse Minister

A new play village which will create dozens of jobs and make The Alnwick Garden into a multi-day tourist destination has been granted £5million from the Government.

By Ben O'Connell
Monday, 20th January 2020, 11:22 pm

The Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry MP confirmed the cash for the project, which will be the first to be delivered through the Borderlands deal, during a visit on Monday, January 20.

The Minister was shown the project site and the detailed plans to convert several acres of land into the Lilidorei Play Village, which is expected to attract 169,000 new tourists a year once complete.

The Play Village will include a settlement of 30 small, wooden houses in a clearing, together with a 19-metre-high aerial play structure set around three towers, unique to the UK and potentially the biggest in the world.

Northern Powerhouse Minister Rt Hon Jake Berry MP visit at Alnwick Gardens (R) with The Duchess of Northumberland and Leader of Northumberland County Council Peter Jackson

It will also include tunnel slides, play areas, a medieval-style long-hall with a capacity of 600 and other smaller buildings.

The development, which received planning permission from Northumberland County Council in July 2018, 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.

Mr Berry said: “Our £5million investment in the Lilidorei Play Village demonstrates this Government’s commitment to levelling up every part of the country so everyone has their fair share of the UK’s future prosperity.

“This funding will make the renowned Alnwick Garden a multi-day tourist destination, create vital new jobs in the area and boost economic growth across the region.“I’m delighted to see first-hand the progress the project team has made to turn these local proposals into a reality for people in the North East and look forward to construction getting underway later this year.”

Northern Powerhouse Minister Rt Hon Jake Berry MP visit at Alnwick Gardens (L) with The Duchess of Northumberland (R) Leader of Northumberland County Council Peter Jackson and Coun Cath Homer

Where the cash is coming from

The £5million funding from the Borderlands deal is subject to match funding being secured and Mark Brassell, the Garden’s director, said that ‘huge progress’ has been made on this front and that he is hopeful that it will all be secured by March 31.

This would mean the ground-breaking should take place later this year with a target completion date of Easter 2022.

He added that the Minister was ‘really enthusiastic’ to hear about the plans and that he is ‘really excited’ not just for this development, but others in Northumberland in line for funding through the Borderlands deal, for example, the Ad Gefrin distillery and visitor centre at Wooler and the Berwick Theatre and Conference Centre.

Northern Powerhouse Minister Rt Hon Jake Berry MP visit at Alnwick Gardens (L) with Leader of Northumberland County Council Peter Jackson

The Borderlands Partnership is a collaboration between the five cross-border local authorities – Carlisle, Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Northumberland and Scottish Borders – which aims to create thousands of new job opportunities, bring millions of extra tourists to the area and unlock investment in towns.

The growth deal, which was signed by Mr Berry and the former Secretary of State for Scotland in July 2019, will result in up to £394.5million being invested into the five authority areas.

Controversy over funding

As the first Borderlands scheme to be delivered, the Lilidorei project is not without its controversy, particularly in relation to being supported by public money.

From left, Northern Powerhouse Minister Rt Hon Jake Berry MP, Leader of Northumberland County Council Peter Jackson, Duchess of Northumberland, Coun Cath Homer, Lilidorei's John Lovett and Mark Brassell at Alnwick Gardens

The Alnwick Garden is run as a charitable trust, with any cash surplus it makes either spent delivering its community programmes or reinvested back into the attraction.

It is the brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland, whose husband was ranked sixth in last year’s Sunday Times North East Rich List with a total wealth of £419million.

The trust also has a ‘close working relationship’ with the Northumberland Estates, which represents the Duke’s business interests.

There was a major backlash when the scheme was first unveiled in 2017 and it was revealed that the then Labour-run county council planned to back the project with an £8.5million loan.

The criticism came from all quarters, including Conservative councillors, resulting in then Labour leader, Coun Grant Davey, agreeing to remove the loan from the authority’s spending plan.

Last March, when the Borderlands deal was first announced, this row reared its head again, although this time the project was being backed by the Conservative Government and county council.

Addressing this issue, the Minister said: “I don’t think it should make a difference how much money your neighbours have or don’t have to the work of a charitable trust and of course the hugely successful Garden was itself set up with a significant grant both from the Government and the European Union.

“I want to mirror the success we’ve seen here, with over half-a-million visitors coming here, and make sure that’s driving the wider Northumberland economy and that those jobs, which people rightly say are often seasonal, insecure or low-paid, become 52-week-a-year, secure, highly-paid jobs for people who live in the area.”

Mr Berry added that Lilidorei is ‘going to drive the visitor economy here and turn many of those people that visit Alnwick and Northumberland as day visitors into overnight stayers, which is the real target for the council to ensure that we can increase the amount of money people spend on a visit to Northumberland’.

Challenged on the often seasonal and low-paid nature of tourism jobs, he said: “That’s exactly the point of this development. It will in truth turn the tourism calendar on its head, it will be a 52-week-a-year attraction that will bring people here and turn those seasonal jobs into long-term, highly-paid, full-time, sustainable jobs.”