Freemen of Newcastle snub claim over future of botanic garden

Sparks are flying over the future of Newcastle's Moorbank botanic gardens as choice specimens from their plant collection are set to go

Newcastle University's Moorbank Botanical Garden
Newcastle University's Moorbank Botanical Garden

Plant experts from across the UK are to descend on Newcastle next week to remove choice specimens from the city’s botanic garden as sparks fly over the fate of the site.

Newcastle University is not renewing its lease on the 90-year-old Moorbank botanic garden on Claremont Road and will end the relationship at the end of this month.

The Friends of Moorbank, who have just won a Royal Horticultural Society award for their “outstanding” voluntary work at the garden’s outdoor grounds and tropical and desert glasshouses, put forward a business plan to retain the site.

With interest from Kirkley Hall College in Northumberland, they envisaged keeping the botanic garden intact and opening it up more to the public and for educational purposes.

But the landlords, the Freemen of Newcastle, said that the plan was not viable and will take possession of Moorbank on December 1.

But the Freemen have now come under fire for what is claimed to be their lack of response to repeated requests for meetings or talks on the future of Moorbank and the hopes of keeping the tropical collections in the city.

The Friends say that they told the Freemen that they were in talks with the Sainsbury Trust, which was interested in investing in a North East project, such as Moorbank.

Eileen Killing, lead member for Moorbank on the Friends executive committee, said that there had been no reply from the Freemen since May to emails, telephone calls and letters, which pointed out the trust interest and that time was running out on how to keep the tropical collections. She said: “Despite every effort to communicate with the Freemen I feel I was being stonewalled.”

On September 4, Newcastle City Council passed a resolution of support for the Friends and a bid to broker a meeting of all interested parties to discuss options for Moorbank.

Council leader Nick Forbes immediately wrote to the Freemen on the subject of arranging a meeting, but did not receive a reply.

His letter said: “ I am very concerned about Moorbank. There is a huge amount of interest from people willing to work for some sort of future for the gardens.

“I hope we can explore opportunities of maintaining the gardens.”

Last month Ms Killing sent an email to Coun Forbes to say: “Since the council passed the motion I have continued to write to the Freemen and despite making telephone calls, texting, sending emails and letters I have not been able to instigate a single reply from the Freemen regarding the future of Moorbank and the potential funding offer. I am totally disgusted and exasperated. I feel they are deliberately avoiding contact with anyone and refusing to engage with interested parties concerning Moorbank.”

She sent a letter on September 14 to the company of stewards of the Freemen saying: “ I would be grateful for your help to open up lines of communication and develop a plan that would allow the Freemen to retain control of the garden, but also save the rare plants for the benefit and interest of the city. The name of the garden could be the Freemen’s botanic garden.

“Unless the Freemen meet in the very near future with the Friends and other organisations , including the council, to develop a plan for the future of Moorbank, we are faced with a depleted garden and will lose the tropical and desert houses.

“The fact that we are not being afforded the courtesy of a reply regarding the offer of funding aid or the opportunity to meet will ultimately mean it will be too late to stop the removal of plants.

“I am extremely frustrated by the lack of communication.”

The Friends have now invited councillors from neighbouring Westgate, Wingrove, Benwell and Scotswood wards to a tour of Moorbank tomorrow.

The invite says: ”With its central position in the city and excellent facilities, superb environment and important, diverse plant collections, Moorbank has a great deal to offer the citizens of Newcastle. Pleases come and see what Moorbank can offer, before it is lost to the city for ever.”

Ms Killing said yesterday: “It is ironic that we have received the RHS award at this time.”

The Friends were founded by Newcastle University Professor of Botany John Richards, who said: “ This concerns me very deeply. By avoiding discussions on the future of the garden, the people of Newcastle are being deprived of a potentially important facility. The Freemen are just ignoring everybody.”

Prof Richards said that plants which remained in the glasshouses would die.

“It is tragic. It’s 90 years of work down the drain,” he said.

Coun Forbes said: “I wrote to the Freemen asking to meet them to discuss the future of Moorbank. I haven’t had a response.

“I am encouraging the Freemen and the Friends to continue talking about the future of the botanic garden because I believe a solution is in sight if people are prepared to work together. I am offering again to facilitate a meeting between the Freemen, the Friends and other interested parties in the hope of saving this facility for the city. I am also concerned if the unique collections at Moorbank are broken up and dispersed before we have exhausted all opportunities”

'REALITY CHECK' ON TASK AHEAD

THE leader of the Freemen of Newcastle said yesterday that there will be a “reality check” when the body takes possession of Moorbank at the end of this month.

“We will assess the structures and the overall site, and the legacy of dilapidation,” said Sir Len Fenwick, chairman of the stewards committee of the Freemen.

He said that bringing Moorbank up to modern standards could cost hundreds of thousand of pounds.

“It requires a step increase in investment. We have to stand back and have a reality check on what the infrastructure could be used for,” he said.

Sir Len said that previous dialogue over the site had become “exhausted.”

He said: “ We will take stock and co-operate with the city council to ascertain what can and what cannot be done. It requires a significant assessment.

“There will be meaningful dialogue and we will discuss the options. I think we are being reasonable. We are pro-environment. I take exception if our environmental credentials are called into question.”

He said that the Freemen were now maintaining playing fields at Highbury in Jesmond, Newcastle, which the city council had handed over Newcastle University plans to remove plants of research value from Moorbank to its Cockle Park base in Northumberland.

A statement issued by the Freemen said: “The Freemen are in effect the guardians of the Town Moor and environs.

“An issue of public interest has arisen since the University of Newcastle determined to relinquish an already time expired lease and not opt for a more modern commitment that would by necessity require significant capital and revenue investments to sustain an acceptable safe environment in this day and age.

“The site, on vacation, will be made secure with ongoing care and maintenance exercised by the Freemen as an integral part of the overall Moor Bank infrastructure which includes the Lodge, agricultural yard and buildings together with associated paddock/protected zone for infirm cattle.

“It does need to be said that ensuring a safe, hazard free environment shall in the first instance be our overriding priority.

“Matters of life cycle assessment, dilapidations, backlog maintenance as well as health and safety shall be firmed up and more comprehensively understood from a legacy consideration following an occupation that dates back to 1923.”

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