A campaign group’s bid to save and run a city’s botanic garden is facing failure.
Last October it was revealed that as part of cost-cutting, Newcastle University would not be renewing its lease of Moorbank botanic garden from landlords, the Freemen of Newcastle.
The 90-year-old Moorbank site, with its gardens, plant collections and tropical and desert glasshouses, is off Claremont Road near the Town Moor.
The university will pull out of the four-acre site, which holds several open days a year, in November.
The Friends of Moorbank, a group of volunteers dedicated to the garden, immediately launched a drive to continue running the site and its plant collections, with the aim of opening more to the public and schools.
Behind the bid was the belief that the botanic garden, on the edge of the city centre, would be a major asset to the community, visitors, and for educational use.
The Friends drew up a business plan and presented it to the Freemen.
But a statement by the Friends yesterday said: “With much regret, the likelihood of Moorbank botanic garden closing in November is now very high.
“The 50 strong band of volunteers at the garden, known as the Friends of Moorbank, have been working to keep the garden as a community asset, working on a business plan, securing a strong local educational partner to run the site with, and fundraising to assist with the upgrading of the facilities.
“However, the Freemen who manage the land that Moorbank resides on, have announced they have no intention to offer a lease for the land and buildings to a third party.
“They have also confirmed they do not wish for the Friends of Moorbank to continue working on the site once the university has withdrawn.
“Although they have stated they intend to care for and maintain the garden, they are recommending that the plants of botanical interest currently at Moorbank should be relocated before the university departs.
“This news has come as a blow to the Growing Moorbank executive committee which has been working tirelessly to secure the future of Moorbank for the benefit of the local community, the public and horticultural students of the future. This news has come as a complete surprise.
“Moorbank has one of the largest and most important collections of plants in the North East, which have been gathered from around the world by plant hunters over the last 90 years.
“The collections of plants are expensive to maintain and service, in particular the indoor planting, and it became obvious that the Friends would not be able to attract sufficient income from being open to the public. A local college expressed their interest in running the site; for use as a training centre for horticulture, arboriculture and other land based courses.
“This would have benefitted the local community immensely, and the wider population, who are denied opportunities to learn these subjects due to lack of local provision. In addition, they were keen for the volunteers to continue on site and assist with open days and gardening, as is the current model. They were also supportive of increasing the numbers of days the garden would be open to the public.
“Although plants are difficult to value in monetary terms, the committee estimates the value of the plants to be in the region of £300,000.
In addition to this, Moorbank holds collections of rare plants that are not found in other botanic gardens in the UK.
“Losing this vital resource will have significant damage to the UK’s collection of plants. In addition, many plants found at Moorbank are facing extinction in the wild, and the conservation work that has been carried out at the garden may now be lost.
“The Freemen of Newcastle have informed the Friends that they intend to care for and maintain the site, but in the absence of the skilled and practised help provided by the volunteers, it is assumed that all the special plantings will rapidly disappear.”
Helen Talbot, former Newcastle University education officer at Moorbank and a member of the executive committee, said: “This news is devastating to the Growing Moorbank team.
“There has been overwhelming support for Moorbank from all who know about the garden and we are making one last appeal to the Freemen to reconsider this decision.
“Over the past two years, public interest in Moorbank has massively increased and we have hosted growing numbers of tours, open days and school visits. It is a fabulous resource, capable of inspiring generations of plant scientists and conservationists. We are now calling on the public to help us persuade the Freemen to save the facility.”
An online petition is at http://you.38 degrees.org.uk/petitions /save-moorbank -botanic-garden-newcastle.
John Richards, former Professor of Botany at Newcastle University and a founder Friends member, said: “The news that the university was not renewing the lease came out of the blue.
“What was clear is that we could not keep the garden going and open to the public without the help of a partner.
“We did have such a partner, which proposed to run general environment, horticulture and art courses and would cover our overhead costs.
“We realised that money would be needed for projects like a new car park and entrance and the Freemen said that quite a lot would be needed to bring the place up to scratch.”
That sum was estimated between £100,000-£200,000 and the Friends were in the process of becoming a charity.
Prof Richards said: “We had a reasonable expectation that the money would be raised. A lot of interest has been shown.
“The expectation was that if we were given the go ahead by the Freemen, by the end of July we would have applied for major funding. This was the plan we presented to the Freemen.”
He said that the Freemen’s decision was “potentially a great blow for Newcastle. The botanic garden would have been a wonderful facility for the city.”
David Wilson, vice chairman of the stewards committee of the Freemen, said: “The Friends had an aspirational plan, but there was not a lot behind it. As a business plan it didn’t have substance.
“We have not fully formulated our plans for the site. There is a lot of ageing infrastructure.
“We are going to take over on a care and maintenance basis and have a look at what needs prioritising.”
Mr Wilson said that the broad vision could include working with groups like the Greening Wingrove project which is running a scheme to environmentally improve the neighbouring Wingrove council ward, and public access to parts of the site.
The vision may be that the site would become more of a general open space rather than a specific botanic garden.
Mr Wilson said that the Freemen had a long pedigree for protecting the Town Moor.
“We would like to think we have good environmental credentials. We want to benefit the people of Newcastle and the garden is part of the Town Moor.”