City manager defends officials after garden row

CORK’S city manager launched a defence of his officials last night after criticism from celebrity garden designer Diarmuid Gavin about how they handled his “flying garden” project.

Tim Lucey accepted that issues had arisen between Cork City Council and Gavin over payments to fund the construction of his Avatar-inspired garden, which won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.

But he said his officials’ primary concern was to ensure accountability in relation to the spending of public money.

It is understood that despite the fact that the project has been in the pipeline for almost 18 months, the garden designer only signed a contract in recent weeks.

It is understood the council refused to pay out public money until that contract was in place.

And it is also understood that Gavin agreed to sign that contract only after the council threatened to pull the plug on the project.

Mr Gavin, who has not commented on the row to date, could not be contacted last night.

And it also emerged last night that Gavin’s €2.3 million garden, which it is hoped will become one of Cork’s top tourist attractions, could be in storage for up to nine months while plans to put it on display in a new city park are finalised.

It was reported at the weekend that Gavin complained of a “calamitous situation” with the council over funding for the garden.

There were reports that just three weeks before the event, Gavin pleaded with former PD minister Liz O’Donnell to intervene with the council to secure funding.

He complained of “non-communication and the rudeness and the lack of funds” on the council’s part.

He also said he was personally liable for hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs and that his reputation at Chelsea would be “gone forever” if the garden did not materialise.

Ms O’Donnell contacted Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, which resulted in the intervention of Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar.

But Mr Lucey said the newspaper report had blown the issue “entirely out of proportion” and contained a “significant amount of gross exaggeration”.

He said Fáilte Ireland has agreed to cover 83% of the cost of the garden — capped at a little more than €2.3m — using a fund that supports the development of iconic tourism products deemed to be of national significance.

The garden was to be delivered in two phases. The first was its display in Chelsea and its transportation to Cork, and then its incorporation into a new park in the Mardyke area of the city.

The city council agreed to provide 17% of the funding — about €400,000.

Mr Lucey accepted there were issues with the garden designer around payment.

“Clearly there was a level of frustration when the public procurement process was indicated to the garden designer. But that had to be done to ensure that the project was on a sound financial footing from a public accountability point of view. There is no issue regarding funding going forward.”

He said the council’s funding contribution will be included in a capital spending programme due before councillors next month.

The garden is being dismantled and is to be transported to Cork within days.

Mr Lucey said Gavin’s gold medal win was a “magnificent achievement”.

“It comes at a time when Cork is right up there on the radar in tourism. It can only be good for the city,” he said.

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