Kew Gardens – the Royal Botanic Gardens – is an extraordinary combination of public pleasure garden, historic institution, architectural marvel and world-class research centre. Right now its youngest visitors can take part in an Easter egg hunt and assorted cocoa–related activities linked to the anniversary of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, using the gardens’ botanical resources. It is part of the institution’s tireless efforts to appeal to the widest possible audience by popularising its vast range of exotic and indigenous plants. Away from public view, its scientists engage in scholarly and commercial work, from its extensive seed bank to a historic research library.
Kew, then, triumphantly fulfils its statutory obligations: research, public education and care of its historic collections. Yet, despite its manifest success, it has a £5m shortfall in funding which means it must lay off as many as 121 staff, including botanists and scientists, and reduce its range of scientific activities. The chief reason for the shortfall is the reduction of £1.5m in its funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for the year to 2016. In addition, the Kew Foundation, its partner charity, has reduced its funding by £1.3m. This, combined with rising costs, accounts for the £5m shortfall, a tiny sum in terms of almost any other area of public spending.
The case against the cuts is that they are short-sighted: many of the job losses will be those of scientists and botanists with decades of experience. The work undertaken by Kew is of international significance – it places Britain at the forefront of critical areas of scientific research, including conservation. Part of the problem is that Defra covers areas of spending unprotected from government cuts, unlike health, schools and overseas aid. But given that its work impinges on all these areas – education, obviously; plant-based pharmaceuticals; and seeds and environmental research critical for developing countries – it is not improbable to say that it could legitimately attract funding from any of these departments. In fact, it is not overstating the case to say that Kew, like the best British universities, is an element of the country’s soft power.
There is, moreover, the curious circumstance that the Kew Foundation is not permitted to fund Kew Gardens’ operating costs and is required to maintain its own reserves. Yet, given the present difficulties in covering the gardens’ costs, that restriction must be lifted. The foundation is successful in its fundraising; there is no good reason why it should not be permitted to contribute to the costs of maintaining the work of the gardens. Kew has already gone as far as it can go in raising money from attractions; £16 for adult admission is already prohibitive for many would-be visitors.
The educational function of Kew is especially critical given that botany is not now a subject that can be studied at any British university – a worrying state of affairs. It is an area with a bearing on many other parts of the economy, from developing disease resistance in crops to medical research. Indeed, any visitor to the gardens will be gently reminded of the importance of plants to almost every area of life; the labels include descriptions of the multiplicity of uses to which plants can be put.
The GMB union has suggested that the Government would, if the cuts are implemented, be in breach of its obligations under the 1983 National Heritage Act, whereby it is committed to ensure that Kew is adequately resourced to fulfil its statutory obligations. That is a charge that ministers should take seriously. A petition against the cuts has already attracted some 50,000 signatures. Frankly, £5m is a risibly small sum for an institution that gives so much profit and pleasure to the country. Britain is still a nation of gardeners – and would-be gardeners. The country’s pre-eminent garden deserves better than this.