As Birmingham City Council celebrates its fourth successive gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, sponsored (says the Birmingham Mail) by ‘residents, local businesses and companies with an interest in the city’, it deserves to be congratulated. And the staff praised for their creativity and hard work.
However, and call me a killjoy, but, given the pressure on local authority budgets, is this a correct use of public money? Even if ‘residents’, doesn’t mean council tax payers, the council has still resourced the event through its own workforce and, given the amount of time committed to design and planning (up to a year), that is inevitably a very significant cost. Accommodation in London for the team won’t have been cheap either!
I hesitate to call this a ‘vanity project’, but have other, more locally beneficial, projects suffered as a consequence, lacking the same level of investment in time and money?
I know how my own local authority would be viewed if it had decided to enter the Chelsea fray, despite having some equally talented garden designers, more than capable of challenging for a gold.
As a keen gardener, myself, (more hit and miss than expert, I fear) I was glued to BBC’s coverage of the show, longing to have the space and imagination to create such wonderful inspiring gardens. When I visited the Help for Heroes centre at Colchester barracks a few weeks ago, I was able to enjoy at first hand one of last year’s show treasures, created specifically to support the injured servicemen and women in their recovery there. It was peaceful, allowing one to sit and think, as well as to share with colleagues, family and friends over a drink and bbq. Truly invaluable for their future wellbeing.
It’s said that gardening is a very British thing, and it certainly keeps me sane! There is something magical about the way plants spring up, literally from nothing, as bulbs and seeds sprout. This is why our public spaces are so important; people without the same enthusiasm, time, or space, can share in the magic without having to do anything themselves. And those with merely a balcony or window box can absorb how to create a vibrant display – it is a simple pleasure.
As a child I spent all my holidays and weekends, summer and winter, in the garden square our flat overlooked and in my early teens I was allowed to take a neighbour’s dog (a handsome retriever/red setter cross ,appropriately named Prince) up to Kensington Gardens, where I’d walk for hours, enjoying his company and the smell of flowers and new mown grass. I felt safe, and gained confidence in being independent and feeling ‘grown up’. It also started my passion for gardens as somewhere to be shared.
Nowadays, our public spaces are not just a haven for people, but also for wildlife, which is so threatened in the wider environment. Planting to secure their future is critical and local authorities have a vital role in halting the decline of our birds, bees, butterflies and moths, especially.
Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University says that ‘modern farming leaves little room for wildflowers, so there is far less food for bees’. Pesticides are also taking their toll, especially neonicotinoids, so local authorities have a responsibility to ban them – as I did in my own small patch years ago! If a slug or snail wants to eat something, I’d rather lose a few flowers than poison it when it is, itself, a valuable food resource – now I have toads, a hedgehog and a good complement of bees, as well as a variety of birds. But still not enough.
Gardens, parks and roadside verges are essential habitat for pollinators providing not only forage plants, but wildlife corridors rich in pollen and nectar for insects on the wing. According to recent research, allotments were their most popular habitat, followed by gardens, school grounds, parks and the roadside.
Installing insect houses, planting flowering trees and shrubs, and organic flower bulbs all have key roles in supporting these populations, as well as providing a safe water supply and planting herbs.
Allotments and parks are also social spaces. When loneliness can be so destructive, especially in older age, and amongst those with learning difficulties, local authorities have a key role in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate. More and more families are taking up allotments, but people don’t always want the standard size, so dividing them into smaller areas maximises take-up. Schools and special schools benefit from having an allotment, whilst having raised beds (perhaps covered) enables older and disabled adults to still participate in the social life, when they can no longer do the digging. A chinwag in the community shed over a cup of tea is hugely beneficial when someone would otherwise be totally alone.
Tennis courts, bowls greens, cricket and football pitches, as well as croquet (not as genteel as it’s made out to be!) are equally important to local communities, as are play areas. They encourage fitness from an early age, reducing our obesity epidemic, but also support socialising and fun which, in turn, prevents crime.
With so many people volunteering to coach, there’s no excuse for a lack of engagement – how many local authorities are promoting, for example, the Great British Tennis Weekends on 13-14 June and 1-2 August? Or are aware of Yorkshire Tea’s Great Cricket Tea Challenge, with a £5000 prize to the winning team?
I doubt if many Birmingham City residents could afford to visit the Chelsea Flower Show, even if they could get a ticket, so wouldn’t it be preferable to encourage all those ‘residents and businesses’ to invest in something closer to home with a lifespan of more than just a single week?