MPs question Kew's vision after Defra plugs funding gap

A Parliamentary select committee meeting at Kew has heard senior staff dissent and uncertainty over future funding, in the midst of science provision at the gardens changing fundamentally from 2015.

The Parliamentary science and technology select committee has suggested Royal Botanic Gardens Kew could be reduced to being an "ace garden with nice science department attached" in an echo of the famous advert for the V&A, which joked the museum was an 'ace caff with a quite a nice museum attached' in a 1988 advert.

The committee was addressing the "budget gap" of £5.5m - 12 per cent of Kew's income - that has led to at least 100 proposed job cuts at the west London garden, which is a World Heritage site. Of those 47 are in science, with overall jobs reducing from 730 to 630.

Committee member David Heath MP, a former Defra minister, made the allusion to the V&A and added that ash dieback and flooding emergency expenditure had taken funding away from Kew.

He added that Defra should not be deciding "what fudge Kew stocks in its gift shop" and must give the garden's managers more autonomy to spend on what it believes is necessary.

Defra gave Kew a shock £2.3m emergency payment the day before the hearing, in a bid to tide Kew over until it balances its books, projected to be by 2016/17, but Kew will carry on with the cuts regardless, citing a need to be more streamlined and a lack of certainty over long-term funding from Defra.

Nevertheless submissions to the committee heard public dissent from former senior Kew staff and suggested Kew is not fulfilling its statutory duty under the 1993 Heritage Act.

The committee heard Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, which aims to hold all the world's seed species, had "set standards across the world".

Kew Millennium Seed Bank head Dr Paul Smith became the most senior scientist to take redundancy in September and spoke out about the cuts in a submission to the select committee.

Questioning the "new broom's" knowledge of the institution's strengths and weaknesses, Smith said he feared that by December 17 [the date of the select committee hearing] "much of the damage will already have been done due to a fundamental shift in science policy that is only partially related to Government funding cuts and has not been acknowledged or debated."

Smith said his main concerns was Kew was moving away from applied science to simply documenting plants and that the proosed science strategy had not been shared with staff or anyone else before the cuts were made. Kew's science strategy is not due out until February 2015, by which time redundancies will have been completed.

Kew director, Richard Deverell said: "I disagree with comments in Paul's submission. There are glaring factual errors."

After the hearing Deverell said: "From February 2014, if there's one thing that I'd do differently it is consult more with staff in all areas. But consultation is not a right of veto." He added: "Ideally we would have published the science consultation first but we didn't have that luxury. We had to press ahead."

Deverell told the committee change to the department was "necessary and essential. We have to rejuvante what we were doing. Some structures and policies date back to early 19th century. We'd be doing this even if funding was not being cut."

He said pressure on the £8m a year in capital expenditure on "unglamorous" aspects of the garden such as paths, toilets and guttering meant there was "rust and algae in the Palm House you shouldn't see and a bucket catching drips in reception."

Royal Society chair Professor Georgina Mace, who chaired a 2012 independent review into Kew's science, said: "Some of what Kew does could no be done elsewhere and that's because of the collection."

Sir Neil Chalmers, the former Natural History Museum director and chair of a 2012 independent review into Kew Gardens, told MPs that Kew's collections are very big and very special" and its scientists investigated important taxonomic groups such as foods like potatoes and tomatoes, or looked at plant conservation in regions such as East Africa.

Chalmers said his review had found particular concern over staffing at Kew's herbarium and library, saying "staff were very stretched indeed. This is at the heart of what Kew does. If there are further staff losses that must make it very much more difficult to maintain the future of the collection. If you continue cutting year by year you risk in 3-5 years time having crossed over the boundary from more than adequately fulfilling your duties to start having fallen short of that in years to come might be very difficult to recover."

Chalmers added: "My concern is that the loss in science staff must reduce the ability of Kew to carry out its fundamental science and that really does threaten the future ability of Kew to deliver top-class science and deliver its statutory duty."

He added: "What Kew needs for the future is some sort of stability so it can plan properly for its future work so it's not suddenly found short of £5m or suddenly getting a welcome uplift. It's not the way to run a world-class institution like Kew."

Defra minister Lord de Mauley said a triennial review in 2015 would establish a more sustainable future for the gardens.

De Mauley added that the £2.3m, plus £1.5m given in September, brought Government funding for Kew close to where it had been in recent years. He said he "cannot see a likelihood of failure" based on the current Kew management's plans. He said of Defra's funding of Kew: "We do the best we can."

He added: "Floods and plant and animal disease outbreaks are competing priorities. We have tough choices balancing the overall budget. It's never easy to exert cost-cutting on an organistion but inevitably an organisation comes out of it healthier and better able to plan for the years ahead."

Deverell said Kew had to change to be "fit for purpose" because of cuts. He argued that the garden would have had to close at certain times and that schools programmes, which work with 100,000 children a year, would have stopped if Kew had not made immediate efforts to cut expenditure.

Committee chairman Andrew Miller MP said crises "don't come out of thin air" but Deverell said a triple whammy of Defra funding falling, the charitable Kew Foundation's funding to fill the gap being unsustainable and cost rises meant matters had come to a head.

He said visitor numbers were at a six-year low and there was resistance to further increases in gate prices above a 50p hike next year, meaning a ticket is £15 for an adult from 1 February 2015.

However, Kew is considering charging an unspecified entrance fee for children for the first time. The garden attracts around 1.3m visitors a year but hopes to raise that to 2m by 2020.

Deverell said there had been a one-third cut in Defra grants to £21.5m over two years. He said if he had known that the £2.3m cash injection was coming when he planned the cuts "it would have delayed the issue rather than avoiding it".

Deverell added: "It's about making Kew fit for purpose", adding that "the biggest risk is funding volativity".

Kew science director Professor Kathy Willis said there was much duplication in Kew's three science departments - Herbarium, Millennium Seed Bank and Jodrell - , which have now been abolished and losing 47 posts, meant an £800,000 saving.

She added: "We're now at the bones-we can't go any further." She said the duplications had "evolved" because of poor communications between departments and that grant-funded posts becoming permanent posts when grants had run out meant staff numbers had spiralled. But she defended Kew's plans for its mycology department, saying five staff were being added.

Prospect, PCS and GMB trade union lead Ken Bailey said science was "seen as a soft target within Kew".

Prospect officer Julie Flanagan said: "Some of the decisions over the structure going forward are very difficult for staff to understand." She said Kew no longer had a pollen specialist at Kew meaning work on bees was at risk.

She added that with the Millennium Seed Bank seed conservation department now broken into six clusters staff don't believe there is a "focussed group of scienticts now".

Deverell said there remained 216 full-time scientists but added that the 1840s Herbarium 1840s and 1860s Jodrell Laboratory were no longer departments at Kew, which now ran science around six reserach themes such as conservation.

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