A little matter of 198,000 votes

The Royal Horticultural Society wants to move its revered library. It is a matter of some debate. Anna Pavord reports
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The Independent Online
"Well," said an old and wise friend of mine. "You did well to wrench a vote out of them." What was he talking about? A fascist dictatorship? No. The Royal Horticultural Society, which this week delivered to its 198,000 members its monthly journal together with an invitation to vote on the future location of the Lindley Library, the society's unparalleled collection of books and works of art. The library is at present housed in central London and there was uproar when the society, without consulting members as it had promised, proposed to move the library lock, stock and barrel to its garden at Wisley, Surrey.

My friend, who has made a lifetime's hobby out of interpreting the smoke signals that now and again issue from the society's august headquarters in 80 Vincent Square, London, has derived a great deal of amusement from the twists and turns of the Lindley Library debate. He is still laughing over reports of a recent RHS press conference where the president, Sir Simon Hornby, had announced that the society's ruling body reserved the right to choose a different option for the library to that chosen by its membership. "Too wonderful," my friend said, opening a bottle of champagne. "Let's drink to the RHS."

The accounts of the press conference had perked him up no end for he had been afraid during the summer that things were getting rather quiet on the RHS front. He had been extremely entertained by the pounds 25m plan for Wisley published in the members' journal in June, for he knows Wisley rather well. "I loved it," he said. "Especially the walled garden on the high bit of ground. Imagine the turbulence for the plants. And the glass house in Wisley's worst frost pocket. Masterly. Think of the oil bill. It's such a good plan. Didn't you think so?"

But this was where I had what our children call a sense of humour failure. That plan, I said sternly, had been the whole cause of the Lindley Library's problems. If the RHS had not been in such a mad rush to set it in front of the Millennium Commission, from whom it was seeking funding, it could have saved a great deal of the money and goodwill that had been uselessly expended since. As it did not anyway get Millennium funding (the commission turned down the scheme as "insufficiently distinctive"), it was all the more galling to contemplate such a needless waste of resources.

One solid, necessary piece of research commissioned by the RHS has, however, come out of the kerfuffle: the Ove Arup report. This considers redevelopment options for the Lindley Library in terms of cost, quality of space provided, accessibility and other rather necessary factors.

Arup's team pointed out that "conversion/refurbishment options may not offer the optimum solution in terms of providing a building capable of meeting the specialised space and environmental needs of the library in the long term". It also concluded that redeveloping a site in the way suggested by Rick Mather for Rochester Row, close to the society's present headquarters, offered "the best solution in terms of cost, space and the opportunities for external funding. A negotiated arrangement with the site developer could improve further the financial attractiveness of this option."

"That's scuppered you," said my friend. "Why?" I said indignantly, adding that Arup's judgement had seemed like rather a useful endorsement to those of us who had first brought the Rochester Row scheme in front of the RHS. "Yes," he said enigmatically. "That's your problem. Now, how am I going to vote?"

This was the reason he had called me over. Having lost the bet that we would ever get a vote out of the RHS, he wanted to make the most of the occasion in case he never got offered such a chance again. There are three options for the future location of the Lindley Library: to keep the main library in London with provision of library facilities at Wisley (Option A which Arup estimates will cost pounds 5.2m); to move the main library to Wisley and provide a limited service in London (Option B, pounds 8.4m); or to provide a library with main branches in London and Wisley (Option C, pounds 6.6m). Council, the society's ruling body, is recommending that members vote for the last option.

Given that there is already a library of some 10,000 volumes at Wisley, this seems a sensible compromise. But the RHS perhaps needs to add another piece of research to its Lindley Library file by finding a way to open the existing library at Wisley to the public. Then it would have a better idea of how much demand there might be among visitors for a library there and what sort of books they are likely to want to see.

"Ludicrously rational," said my friend pettishly, but he is not entirely irrational himself. "I'm voting for the cheapest," he said finally, putting a cross by Option A. "If they spend less on building, they might spend more on books."

"Ludicrously reasonable," I replied.