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Big Society: Britain in Bloom

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011


Asked by Baroness Gardner of Parkes

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the role played by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Britain in Bloom campaign, and similar schemes in communities, in their Big Society agenda.

My Lords, in asking the Question, I declare an interest as I have a daughter who is a council member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, I commend the Royal Horticultural Society for its Britain-in-bloom campaign. I know that the campaign inspires an enormous number of people to act as volunteers and to get involved in caring for and improving their neighbourhoods for the enjoyment of everyone who lives in them. It brings communities under the horticultural banner and brings local people into a new sphere.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. This is a long-standing scheme. At the present time, when lots of people face major difficulties, it is particularly important for people to feel a sense of achievement in what they are doing and a sense of community. Local authorities should be asked or encouraged to help this to continue. As I understand it, they are not asked to contribute financially. Can the Minister comment on that?

My Lords, as I understand it, the Royal Horticultural Society is very generous in supporting local authorities and people within them who want to take part in the competition. I have absolutely no doubt that all noble Lords would agree that the work that is done and what is produced as a result of the competition makes London and local authorities look much better. I have no difficulty at all in agreeing with the noble Baroness or in again congratulating the Royal Horticultural Society on what it does in this initiative.

My Lords, I am sure it is right to congratulate the Royal Horticultural Society, but is there not a wider point about local authorities and support for voluntary organisations? What does the Minister say to Birmingham City Council—a Lib Dem-Tory council—which is withdrawing all funds from the citizens advice bureaux? How on earth can that support the big society?

My Lords, that is a bit off the Question, which is about flowers and gardens. I thought that such matters might come up under the next Question, so I do not know whether the noble Lord will want to ask it again. The straight answer is that Birmingham City Council, like other councils, has to make its own decisions on its expenditure. There has been and will continue to be considerable pressure on councils to ensure that the voluntary sector is protected from such reductions. If I may bring the noble Lord back to the Question, there is no doubt that people will make a plea to ensure that they can plant their gardens and have them competitively looked at.

My Lords, may I bring the Minister back to the original Question by asking whether she believes that colourful flower displays have a good-feel factor for people and they should be encouraged? Will she deprecate the fact that in so many areas of public life flower-beds are being replaced by shrubs? I am not against shrubs, but colourful flowers do produce a good-feel factor. Would the Minister like to comment?

Well, my Lords, we all like flowers and we like to see them in public places. It gives life to areas if there are planted flowers rather than bushes, which can be rather drab. I agree very much with that and with any other schemes that are taking place. Indeed, as I am sure noble Lords know, local authorities run their own schemes. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is my borough, runs Kensington and Chelsea in bloom and has its own competitions, there is the wider London in Bloom competition, and there is the green flag award, which is run for public open spaces and provides an incentive for people to beautify the areas.

What will the Government do about those councils that are slashing their budgets and their expenditure on plants and flower displays?

My Lords, as I said in response to a previous question, that issue perhaps moves us on to the next Question. It is entirely up to each local authority to make its own decisions. If a council decides that it wants its borough or council area not to look very prepossessing and very nicely flowered and bushed, that is up to that council.

My Lords, has my noble friend the Minister heard of the seed exchange scheme? This is happening in very small communities throughout as part of the big society on a small society level. People do not have to spend money on plants and flowers because those who have seeds left over from the previous year give them to others. The results are amazing and competitive and look fantastic.

Yes, my Lords, you can do that with plants as well, if you are clever enough and can work out how to make them grow. Anything that improves and makes places look beautiful is to be greatly encouraged. A seed takes a little longer to grow than a plant, so perhaps a plant is more effective.

Although this Question is about flowers, will the noble Baroness not agree that there are beautiful trees, and their foliage is equally beautiful and changes with the seasons as well? Therefore, they should be encouraged as well as flowers.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware of the excellent work done by the Royal Horticultural Society and others in education and schools. Does she agree that, for example, the value of learning about the connection between what we eat and how it is produced is extremely important in the way in which children are educated? Will she pass on to her colleagues in the Department for Education my hope—which I hope is shared by other Members of this House—that any reorganisation and cuts in education will not fail to take account of the importance of that work?

My Lords, I am willing for messages to be heard and I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Education will hear what has been said. However, I do agree that the training schemes that help people into jobs around horticulture are to be encouraged.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the fact that, given the differential depth of the cuts for the north of England, many local authorities will not be able to take on trainee young people in their parks departments? Would the Minister, who has a fine record in local government, please resist the pressure that is put on Ministers opposite to say on every question that it is purely a matter for local authorities? The Government have stolen the flexibility with the differential cuts.

My Lords, this Question has really strayed very far from where it started. If I may, I shall leave that to be asked, if necessary, under the next Question.