Housing plan option for St Andrews Botanic Garden

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As the award-winning Botanic Garden in St Andrews faces an uncertain future because of severe financial constraints, the sale of two areas of the 18.5 acre facility for residential developments is among the options being considered.

One of the most popular visitor attractions in the town, it is owned by St Andrews University but leased to Fife Council - for a peppercorn rent of £1 a year - who manage and operate it.

However, with the present 25-year lease due to end in the late summer of next year, it has been made clear that with both the local authority and the university facing serious financial challenges there is now an urgent need to review the current arrangements and consider ways in which the facility can be sustained in the future.

The local authority is proposing to halve its present £300,000 subsidy, but university vice-principal Stephen Magee has emphasised that the university will not make up the shortfall.

Speaking to members of St Andrews Community Council at their latest meeting he said: ”We can’t afford it. The university is not prepared to pick up the bill as it is no longer central to our mission.”

He explained that as part of the way forward, options for its future management have already been discussed with several of its stakeholders and consideration given to recommendations made in a report by Edinburgh-based consultants, Natural Capital.

They were commissioned by the university and the council to explore what future and possible alternative delivery models could be introduced and resulted in strong support for the creation of a charitable trust to run the garden.

Stressing that no decisions had yet been taken, Mr Magee said that the present 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.

In addition, a site used until recently by the local authority as a depot might be considered for affordable housing to help raise capital for the garden, while an area used as a house for the head gardener may be considered for commercial development.

In the 60-page report, the consultants highlighted that commercial activities could include a cafe, a small retail outlet and, possibly, a new scientific or education/learning centre

Mr Magee said that while the status quo was not an option, he envisaged that some 10 acres of the present site would be preserved as a garden,

He concluded: “We want to retain and preserve as much as possible of the Botanic Garden. The university does not want to damage the garden, but put it on a solid footing,”

In their conclusions and recommendations, the consultants have stated that there are challenges ahead and attracting funding and investors will require a robust plan.

Given the current context and current weaknesses within the strategic management of the facility it is likely that a phased approach to development is required to enable a strong foundation to be created before development projects are agreed and pursued.

The report added: ”There is some breathing space available to do this as the current funding arrangement is likely to be in place until September 2012. However, this should not encourage complacency.”

Referring to the preferred partnership option, the study also makes it clear that at the most basic level its success will require a long term commitment from both the council and the university and a potential return on investment - which may not necessarily be financial - to a new partner or partners.

The aim for this option, added the report, must be that it will not just result in shared ownership and responsibility, but that it will stimulate the development of the garden and, as a result, it will become more sustainable and stronger.

The university has given a categoric assurance that no decisions about the facility’s future have been made and also made it clear that officials will continue to consult broadly with local residents and all interested parties to examine all the options available.