Kew heralds operating surplus as turning point

Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), Kew has reached a "turning point in its history", according to its annual report for 2015-16.

RBG Kew: annual report notes securing enough income to care for collections continues to be the major challenge
RBG Kew: annual report notes securing enough income to care for collections continues to be the major challenge

This year Kew delivered an operating surplus for the first time in many years - up by £300,000 compared with a £600,000 deficit in 2014-15. Expenditure was up five per cent to £57m.

The gardens also reported a record profit of £2m, up 18 per cent on last year. The biggest year-on-year growth came from commercial events, especially Christmas at Kew, which sold 173,000 tickets, and Kew the Music. Total retail sales at Wakehurst and Kew exceeded £3m for the first time, while venue hire and the Kew Explorer both exceeded budget.

Kew successfully reached a four-year funding settlement with Defra this year. Chief executive Richard Deverell said it "enables us to develop long-term plans to grow self-generated income from marketing the gardens and commercial events as well as leveraging philanthropic support for our horticultural and scientific programmes".

Board of trustees chairman Marcus Agius said the settlement represents "a huge vote of confidence in Kew by the Government (that) will provide us with a period of stability, reassure stakeholders and staff, and allow us to plan ahead".

The report shows self-generated income climbed £1.6m this year to £22.2m, but still well short of the target of £26.6m. This was due to less income being generated for estates infrastructure than targeted, with the remaining income generation meeting targets. Capital spend and pounds spent per square metre were significantly lower than hoped due to a shortfall of funds.

"We have demonstrated we can grow self-generated income and thus total resources should grow, allowing us to invest in strengthening RBG Kew's future sustainability," said Agius. "The settlement also provides valuable leveraging opportunities for the Kew Foundation in its fundraising efforts. The capital commitments will enable us to address decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure. I believe this settlement will be transformational for RBG Kew and will mark an enduring turning point in our financial health."

Securing enough income to care for Kew's collections continues to be the major challenge for the gardens, with key risks including volatility in Government funding, financial pressures on donors and sponsors, and the need to drive commercial income. A backlog in infrastructure investment as well as staffing and structure changes have also taken their toll. Two minor instances of fraud were also detected during the year, the first relating to around £900 of cash handling and the second to an allegation of ticket reselling to the tune of £460. A review of ticket issuing and recording methods will be carried out in 2016-17.

The annual report shows visitor numbers at Kew and Wakehurst rose 300,000 to 1.56 million - slightly short of targets, though this is partly due to misrecording of visitor figures in previous years. Both gardens also fell marginally short of membership targets, with Kew up four per cent to 79,894 members and Wakehurst up 39 per cent to 11,807. Wakehurst is still recovering from a fall in visitors after it introduced car parking charges in 2014.

Kew is one year into its science strategy. The first cohort of students for the Master of Science programme joined in September 2015 and there is high demand for the second intake in September. So far 141 articles have been published in science journals this financial year. Other science developments over the past year include continuing the digitisation of Kew's collections and the launch of the Plants of the World Online portal in June.

Horticulture is also seeing investment including the planting of the Great Broad Walk Borders, to open this summer, and continuing work on the Temperate House, which will reopen in 2018. In June an agreement was signed with Historic Royal Palaces for the restoration of the Pagoda, which will be complete by spring 2018. Developments are also continuing at Wakehurst following the appointment of new director Tony Sweeney.

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