On plans to charge for the Botanics in Edinburgh

FOR a blessed half hour this week I sat on a bench at the herbaceous border in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Myriad plants were in bloom below the high hedge marching gracefully above them; their subtle colours soothed the mind and emptied it of care.

I have been coming here, on and off, for most of my life. We played childhood games on the daisy-strewn turf and ran about the magically mysterious rock garden, occasionally to the kindly rebukes of the keepers.

Trees which have grown tall in my lifetime now obscure the townscape, tumbled houses climbing the hill to the craggy skyline punctuated by steeples, domes and spires. From the Viewpoint, perhaps, the poet Lewis Spence wrote The Prows of Reekie:

O wad this braw hie-heapit toun  Sail aff like an enchanted ship

Drift owre the warld’s seas up and doun,

And kiss wi’ Venice lip to lip,

Or anchor into Naples’ Bay

A misty island far astray

Or set her rock to Athens’ wa’.

Pillar to pillar, stane to stane,

The cruikit spell o’ her backbane,

Yon shadow-mile o’ spire and vane,

Wad ding them a’, wad ding them a’!

In adulthood I have often returned to the garden’s well of peace and solace and never found it dry, even when mobbed by visitors and tourists; I have to admit that I have been immune to its high educational content and remain horticulturally illiterate, though I can still find the monkey-puzzle tree that so fascinated us as children.

The Royal Botanic Garden is a highly virtuous example of how dubious is the slavish worship of market principles. This place of beauty was created by a society that placed a high value on education, found the resources to support it and conferred its priceless benefit on the public without entrance charge.

One of the few demands, enforced by the keepers, is that people should conduct themselves with decorum. Among the blessings of the garden is the absence of that most loutish of modern solecisms, the blaring transistor of the yobbish picnicker.

As I sat on my bench I could hear a dog barking somewhere beyond the gates where dogs belong. It might well have been a hound from the Treasury for the sunny security of the garden is now troubled by falling revenue from the state. Though it still gets most of its income from the Scottish Office, its value is constantly being eroded by inflation.

The trustees, to whom stewardship of the garden was passed by the Government in 1986, must now supplement their income as best they can, and among their initiatives is a shop selling plants, garden pots, honey, cards and so on. Even on a quiet morning in July it was being well patronised.

When I first heard that the trustees might have to contemplate charging for admission, I experienced a sense of loss and even of betrayal. Free access to the Botanics has been so much part of my own life that I felt it to be a universal benefit to be prized almost as much as the health service.

The regius keeper, Professor David Ingram, is an academic with the ethical outlook of the dedicated public servant, and I imagine he will resist imposing charges for as long as he can. He has shown great energy in finding new sources of income.

As the Government struggles with the public finances and the electorate’s resistance to paying higher taxes, the pressure on him will become intense. Even if he finds new revenues at the gate the Treasury will be tempted, eventually, to cut the central subvention and he will find himself on a treadmill.

In the world beyond the garden we seem in any case to be moving towards the principle of hypothecated taxation. Motorists will pay tolls to use roads or enter town centres and patients will have to stump up fees if they want superior treatment.

Hypothecated taxation is regressive, for by charging at the point of use it discriminates against the less well off. The fairest form of tax, income tax, can be progressive, and have the opposite impact. Yet it is the most deeply unpopular tax and, if its levels rise too high, encourages avoidance and evasion (or ”avoision” as the professionals call it). Direct taxation is more politically acceptable but it too is regressive.

The case for charging for entrance to the garden comes not only from the lamentable state of the public purse. A friend who walks there more often than I reports it is used almost exclusively by prosperous middle-class visitors who could well afford to pay an admission fee.

Then there is the hidden price of its success, the enormous pressure on it from the numbers visiting it — not far short of a million every year. Even decorous visitors cause erosion and damage, and one argument for introducing charges is to limit the otherwise apparently infinite demand for access.

The garden, I have to admit, is not a park. It is a place of peace and beauty, certainly, but also of scholarship and living education. The maintenance of its standards must take precedence over all other considerations.

And yet. I do not think I am parsimonious. But if I ever have to pay for admission to this beloved place, I shall do so with a heavy heart and find in the charge a sign of a failing civilisation