Editorial: Eden began to struggle when the going got tough

The recent change in leadership marks a new phase for the iconic charity-owned project, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The Eden Project, owned by the Eden Trust charity, has made a huge impact, not least on the economy of Cornwall. Since the attraction opened in 2001, more than 14 million people have visited it and everyone has heard of it. Its spectacular biomes are famous around the world.

But its fame and success have not protected it from financial problems, as a result of which it has now made extensive changes to its board and management and implemented measures to cut costs by £4m a year - see our analysis on the subject.

One of its joint interim executive directors ascribes the crisis that came to a head last year to matters outside Eden's control - a "perfect storm" of recession, falling visitor numbers in Cornwall, the rival attraction of the Olympics and terrible weather in the summer and winter of 2012.

But surely some measure of responsibility must also lie with those in charge of the project as the difficulties mounted. Eden has absorbed more than £130m of public money, but has evidently not developed the resilience to see it through tough times. Nearly all its income is from visitors, and ideas for significant supporting revenue failed to get off the ground while the going was good.

In this context, the two dominant figures in the Eden story so far, Sir Tim Smit and his partner Gaynor Coley, have moved to fresh roles. Smit, co-founder of the project, now runs a subsidiary firm developing new ideas, and Coley, its former executive director, has taken a job at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

These changes will be welcomed by those, including some close to the project who have talked to Third Sector, who feel that Smit is more of a visionary than a manager and that it was difficult to challenge the way he and Coley ran things. There has been a high turnover of senior staff, including eight who left in the past five years under agreements binding them to confidentiality.

Was there an element of founder's syndrome here? Whatever the answer, it looks as if Eden has now devised a management formula that will stand it in good stead for its recovery and development.

- Read the latest news on the Eden Trust's accounts

- For more on the tough decisions being faced by the project's management, see our analysis

- Read what people connected with the Eden project and its leaders say about its management

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