Kew gardens may be forced to close world's largest Victorian glasshouse

Temperate House at Kew is in urgent need of restoration and in a few years could endanger public and staff, report warns


The Temperate House at Kew could pose a health and safety risk within a few years. Photograph: Martin Argles/Guardian

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London may have to close one of its iconic glass structures and mothball other historic listed buildings, according to a government-commissioned report published today.

The report said the Temperate House, the world’s largest surviving Victorian glasshouse and home to many plants from the world’s warmer climates, was in urgent need of restoration and could pose health and safety risks to public and staff within two to three years.

Such closure would result in “severe reputational damage” for Kew and the UK given the 250-year-old gardens’ status as a world heritage site, said the report, which also detailed several other historic buildings on the London site that were in a poor state of repair. There was an £80m backlog of maintenance and repair that could take a decade to complete.

Kew’s position as a world-class scientific institute was also under threat because of insufficient funding and a temptation to spread its efforts “too thinly” despite many of its “impressive” achievements both as a research base and visitor attraction.

The report, headed by Sir Neil Chalmers, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and former director of the Natural History Museum, London, recommended there should be no real-term cuts in the £28.5m a year government funding to Kew despite the harsh economic climate.

Extra cash to cover the operating costs of the Millennium Seed Bank, which houses seeds from the UK’s native species, and from further afield, should be provided over the next three years. The report also suggested that grants might rise to reflect extra help given in recent years to museums and art galleries. Kew meanwhile should attempt to boost both its self-generated annual income from commercial activities, at present £23.4m a year, and its fundraising, currently £8.8m a year, to £13m by 2012-13.

Rises in admission charges beyond the current £13 for the London site would be unlikely to raise more money, according to the report, in particular since visitor numbers had not risen in recent years.

The review team welcomed plans for using the Joseph Banks Building, named after the botanist who travelled with Captain Cook and was the gardens’ first director, as a revenue-generating conference centre, adding that some buildings now lived in by Kew staff could be privately let at commercial rates. “Given Kew’s location in a wealthy residential part of London, this might provide useful income.”

Kew should concentrate on its traditional core scientific strength, the classification, indentification and naming of plants, along with areas such as plant physiology, developmental genetics, biochemistry, ecology and conservation. But in areas where Kew was weak, including climate science, geomorphology and ecology, it should seek alliances with other leading institutes.

The environment department Defra and Kew will respond to the recommendations later this year.

Kew’s director, Professor Stephen Hopper, said it had “much to contribute to dealing with the environmental challenges of our times”.

He added that Kew was attempting to renegotiate its lease with the National Trust for Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, Kew’s “country garden”, which at present limits potential commercial and capital developments. The review said that unless changes were made, Kew should mothball its operations there. However, these would not affect the seed bank which is on land owned by Kew there.

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