High refurbishment bill sees college shut its training garden

AN AGRICULTURAL college is set to lose its specialist training garden, one of the country's only such sites, after being faced with a £750,000 bill to bring it up to scratch.

Oatridge College in West Lothian has been responsible for the upkeep of the Suntrap Garden at Gogarbank – which has offered courses for people with severe learning difficulties and classes for amateur gardeners for more than 25 years – but will be forced to abandon it after receiving the huge repair bill.

Losing the facility also throws the future of the Scottish National Bonsai Collection, which is kept there, into question.

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The Suntrap Garden was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland and the old Edinburgh Corporation in 1972 by philanthropist George Boyd Anderson.

In 1984, upkeep of the three-acre site was handed over to Oatridge College and it became a Centre for Lifelong Learning in 2001, specialising in "horticultural therapy" for people with learning difficulties and offering a range of short evening courses designed for amateur gardeners.

Local councils and special schools throughout Edinburgh and the Lothians are being warned that courses for people with complex learning difficulties are likely to stop from the end of July.

Within the three-acre site there is a house, greenhouses, outbuildings and offices which require refurbishment. Roofs, electrics, plumbing and windows all need replaced.

An independent survey carried out in 2009 found that work to make them fit for purpose would cost in the region of 750,000.

The college says that because of severe financial constraints as a result of the economic downturn it cannot continue to invest money in the Suntrap Garden.

David James, principal of Oatridge, said: "The college and its partners have been custodians of the Suntrap Garden for over quarter of a century and have sought to use the garden for the benefit the community.

"Working with our board of management, the senior management here has tried unsuccessfully for many years to find the necessary income and funding streams.

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"In the current economic climate we have had to conclude, sadly, that the situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is with deep regret that we have been forced to make this decision and we are aware that it will impact upon a number of our learners."

Oatridge has already launched a consultation exercise with the affected members of staff – one full-time employee and three who work part-time – and talks are ongoing to transfer the assets of the garden to the National Trust for Scotland.

Mark Batho, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, which funds further education provision at the college, said: "The board has had to make a very difficult decision to safeguard the college's wider financial health and to ensure it can continue to excel in its main role as one of Scotland's three specialist land-based colleges."