Botanic Garden future growth under scrutiny

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THE future of the Botanic Garden in St Andrews - one of Fife’s principal visitor attractions - will come under scrutiny at a public meeting next month.

It will be organised by St Andrews University as part of the consultation following its lodging of a pre-application notice to Fife Council for a proposed mixed use development on part of the 18.5 acre site.

A steering group is at present taking forward negotiations between the council and the university on the future of the facility - described by many as “a hidden gem in Scotland” - to help secure its long-term survival.

Owned by the university and leased to the council for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year, the present 25-year lease is due to end. It has been made clear that with both the council and the university facing serious financial challenges there is an urgent need to review the current arrangements and consider ways in which the facility can be sustained in the years ahead.

The council is proposing to halve its £300,000 subsidy and the university will not make up the shortfall. Options already flagged up include the sale of two areas of the garden for residential developments, a new visitor centre and retail facilities.

It has been hinted that the car park off Canongate could be offered for sale for the development of a small number of houses, which could result in a substantial sum to help set up a multi-party trust involving the council, the university, the Botanic Garden Education Trust, the Friends of the Botanic Garden and other interested parties.

Also, a site previously utilised by the council as a depot might be considered for affordable housing to help raise capital for the garden, while another area used as accommodation may be earmarked for commercial development.

Louise Roger, chair of the Friends of the Botanic Garden, said members welcomed this opportunity to widen the debate about the future of the garden.

She said: ”We are greatly concerned about its long term future. This much loved space, awarded four stars by VisitScotland, is highly valued by the 1400 Friends, townspeople and visitors. Any decision to sell off areas for development must be made after consideration of the asset as a whole, and issues such as access and visitor parking.

“The Friends’ ambition is to improve facilities for both visitors and the many schoolchildren who visit for its wide ranging educational opportunities. It is hoped that sensitive and sustainable development could be designed to include that outcome.”

The university has expressed willingness for the garden to continue to be on its existing site, but has stated that a financially sound business plan must be approved before the lease will be renewed.

The institution has suggested that sale of part of the land for development could be used to endow a trust fund, the income from which would contribute to the running costs of the facility. As part of the ongoing procedure following the submission of the pre-application notice, the university will host a public meeting and meet with St Andrews Community Council in the interests of consultation.

A spokesman for St Andrews University said: ”The university is exploring possible options for the sustainable development of the site with the council and Friends.

“The pre-application notice is not a statement of intent, but simply an exploratory exercise – testing the varieties of use the land might be put to.

“It is hugely important to stress that the whole purpose of this pre-application is to test whether it may be possible to sell some of the land in order to endow a trust to ensure a sustainable future.

“These options include residential, retail and leisure use – whether in partnership with the Friends, through sale of the land, or some other combination of initiatives.

“The university takes its responsibly for its assets, its finances, and to the local community very seriously. That is why we want to assess all the options before deciding on the business plan that has the best chance of being financially viable. We will continue to consult and to explore any viable suggestions as part of that ongoing process.”

The garden has existed on its present site for over 52 years and since 1987 has been leased to Fife Council.

Throughout its history, it has maintained a high standard as a scientific collection and horticultural display, provided a valued community resource and education outreach facility, and public attraction.