Formal Question to Sidmouth Town Council on 7 February 2005.

This question, by the SeeRed author, followed the introduction of an 'open question' session at town council meetings - and years of acrimonious debate within Sidmouth about the worth of Britain in Bloom! Open questions were introduced as a part of the town council achieving 'Quality Status'. However, only two minutes are allowed for the member of the public to speak, and there is no right to reply to any misinformed or arrogant responses by councillors. Local democracy has some way to go! This page is part of the folk festival section of SeeRed - but it links also to the gardening and sustainability section and to the local government incompetence section.

Formal question, as submitted to Sidmouth Town Council

The regimented floral displays that typify Britain in Bloom and other manifestations of 'cheque-book gardening' can be seen in towns and cities across the UK. They do little to make Sidmouth stand out from other resorts. The International (folk) Festival was unique to Sidmouth and arguably served to put the town on the international tourist map.

I understand that this year, no less than 9760 is being spent by the town council on Britain in Bloom in addition to money set aside by EDDC. Late in the day, 5000 has been found to help 'folk week'.

It has been obvious for six months that a critical factor in the success of folk week in 2005 could be the assured availability of 'up-front' money to provide basic infrastructure. There are nowadays several competing and well developed festivals.

I have in mind also that Britain in Bloom as a competition could simply be scrapped. Under the Tidy Britain Group, it became merely a competition to see which councils could spend most public money, and at the behest of a tiny minority of citizens. The new RHS management have done little to change this.

Why therefore has the Town Council continued to give priority to repetitious displays of chequebook gardening when even most gardeners nowadays have a more developed sense of what is worthwhile?

Verbal presentation to the Council - 2 minute limit!

Mr Chairman.

It is possible to argue that spending of many Councils is both misdirected and excessive. Administration here costs nearly 100,000 per year, well over 50% of the total budget.

East Devon District Council have published absurd figures for how much money the folk festival brought in. Where is the analysis for Britain in Bloom?

I have here a recent newspaper headline from the North of England. "City plans to prune bloom budget". And not before time. Britain in Bloom brings little that is unique to this town. If a handful of people want to be photographed collecting the Preece Cup or whatever it is called, let them fund this obsession with their own money.

This town used to have a unique selling point. Late in the day, 5000 has been found. Probably too little, too late to influence the basic infrastructure of folk week, which should be centred very much in the town itself. I can tell you that few folk festivals can offer such an in-town experience.

I would suggest that Sidmouth take the lead in pruning back expenditure on sterile mono-cultures to around 1000 per year, just enough to provide a bit of colour. It is the competitive nonsense that has gone too far. Should not any remaining money be devoted to resurrecting and supporting the folk festival which was Sidmouth's principal claim to fame, and not only in the UK?

Once the new folk festival becomes self-financing (if indeed it does) perhaps we can look forward to a reduction in Council Tax. After all, both Britain in Bloom and the festival are minority interests.

Response from Town Council Chairman, Tony Reed.

(A newspaper article summarised Councillor Reed's outburst.)


Some of Tony Reed's political colleagues are bright enough to recognise that he adopted a 'shoot the messenger' response - always a sign of weakness. He also ensured a substantial amount of publicity for my views - all of which I am (as always) happy to defend in rational and calm debate. He spoke thus:

"I have prepared a response, and I see no reason to deviate from it.

Dr Wozniak's indulgence in the derogatory knows no limits, be it local authorities, the library, the traffic lights or Sidmouth and Britain in Bloom. His arrogant observations are negative and destructive. He repeated his advice in the Sidmouth Herald recently (letters 28 Jan 2005) saying "don't re-elect those you criticise". The learned doctor is very fond of his phrase 'chequebook gardening' and he has been pushing it for many years.

Despite his ranting, he seems unable to accept that there is no local support for his point of view. Britain in Bloom is here to stay in Sidmouth. The total floral contribution in our town from the local authorities as well as private gardens makes Sidmouth a popular venue and brings in tourists all year round.

The council makes no apology on spending 10,000 to support Sidmouth's floral aspirations - there is great pride in both our public and private gardens. We have many flower shows and the reception evening for Britain in Bloom winners is always an oversubscribed event at the Knowle.

The doctor's analysis that the council should be more supportive of the folk festival and less of Britain in Bloom portrays a naive ignorance which is surprising coming from such an arch critic of how local councils manage their spending. Strangely, he says he supports the folk festival. The festival last year had many events but found itself with dire prospects six months ago. I can say now with some confidence that the folk festival lives on and the local community will have the opportunity to hear about progress and to comment.

For the learned doctor to suggest that this council should have risked public money provide up-front funding is naive. The town council has always emphasised support for youth events and our support of 5000 is substantial for a one week event.

As Chairman of this 'Quality Council' I have confidence that our elected members serve the best interests of Sidmouth. Dr Wozniak reminds me of Kipling's Camel - or rather of its hump - and unpleasant protuberance....

Councillor Reed then quoted at length from the poem. He ended his tirade by suggesting that a little digging "should not be too tough an assignment for Sidford's master gardener".

The above may be inaccurate in a few details. The Town Council have been asked to supply a full transcript of their Chairman's prepared speech. A letter critical of Councillor Reed was published in the next edition of the local newspaper.

Analysis.

Tony Reed was born locally and into farming money. He also married money - and reputedly sold some land to the local Donkey Sanctuary for over 1 million some years ago. He is one of the 'gentlemen farmer' class of councillors who appear to believe that just because they were born and raised in an area they have an automatic right to control everything that happens in it. When he loses a point in Council or on a matter of policy he is prone to outbursts. However, there are several points of interest in what he had to say:

1. Britain in Bloom is a minority interest in Sidmouth as elsewhere. It seems to appeal in the main to people who have too much time on their hands and cannot find anything better to do with surplus money. Most expenditure on gardening in the UK (as elsewhere) can be classed as environmentally neutral or damaging. Expenditure in the UK runs at around 4000 million annually - around 200 per garden whilst money given to the whole range of environmental charities averages about 2 per person or only 120 million annually. Many people see expenditure on gardening as being sympathetic to nature when (for much of the time) it is quite the opposite.

2. I have never objected to a few flowers to brighten up surroundings (I have some wild ones in my garden) and I suggested that the council spend a maximum of 1000 in future years to provide some colour in the town centre. What I object to is the gross excess of expenditure just to try and 'out-do' other towns where the councillors are equally besotted with winning a Britain in Bloom award.

3. Britain in Bloom does not attract visitors to Sidmouth "all year round". The competition lasts only for a brief period during the summer and, in any case, Sidmouth in winter is almost completely devoid of visitors. These displays can be seen in dozens of towns and cities - no-one would visit Sidmouth just because they were here too.

4. Contrary to what Councillor Reed asserted, there is a substantial and growing body of support for 'my views' on gardening. The process of education is often slow and many vested interests have to be overcome. However, I shall be surprised if in 10 years time we still have the absurd excesses of 'chequebook gardening' as a central feature of Britain in Bloom - if indeed we still have the competition at all. The ecological and economic benefits of a more natural approach to gardening may be more widely recognised.

5. Finally, the most obvious and glaring absurdity in what Councillor Reed had to say was that he was singling me out for criticism for having chided councils over expenditure and some of their 'failed' projects - despite the local newspaper having been full of criticism of EDDC for many weeks over its proposals to close most public toilets in the area to save money. Strangely, there has been no discussion of pruning EDDC's 50,000 + annual budget for planting ecologically useless flowers.

6. Councillor Reed omitted to mention that the traffic lights at Sidford were the subject of protest by hundreds of local people and over a sustained period. My concern over the operation of public libraries led recently to an approach from a Select Committee.


newspaper article based on Councillor Reed's outburst

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