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
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
Verbal presentation to the Council - 2
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
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
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
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
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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