Cambridge Backs Committee


Monday, April 18th, 2011. 3:29pm


There is a proposal to reduce the Yew Trees, to the right of the Garret Hostel Lane path to 4m high this winter.

There is a proposal to reduce the yew trees to the right of the Garret Hostel Lane path to 4m high this winter.

Last week, in response to a Freedom of Information request to Clare College, the papers for meetings of the Cambridge Backs Committee since 2007 were released.

Background to the Backs Committee

The committee is formed by representatives from Clare, Trinity, Trinity Hall, St John’s, Kings’ and Queens’ Colleges along with Cambridge City Council officers. Its terms of reference state its role as being:

  • a)to exercise a general oversight of landscape issues on the Backs on understanding that each College retains cole responsibility for its own grounds;
  • b)to obtain expert advice on best practice relating to the landscape of the Backs
  • c)to provide a forum for Colleges to share their experience and to indicate their future plans relating to the landscape.

The backs committee was formed in 1979 in response to Dutch Elm Disease, it ceased meeting in 1994. Following an “ad-hoc” meeting of college representatives on the 26th of October 2007, at which a plan for the backs prepared by Robert Myres Associates was considered, it was reconvened. Since then it has met annually in May or June.

Cambridge City Council Delegation

Cambridge City Council representatives at the 2010 meeting of the Backs Committee were:

  • Mr Malcolm Oviatt-Ham (Apparently a planning officer working on trees)
  • Ms Dinah Foley-Norman (The Council’s Principal Landscape Architect)
  • Mrs Diana Oviatt-Ham (The Council’s Principal Arboricultural Officer)

It is notable that while the colleges typically send both a college fellow and a gardner the council only send officers and not elected members. I would like to see an elected councillor present at the next meeting representing the residents of the city.

Yew Trees on Garret Hostel Lane

The minutes of the 2010 meeting show that Clare College is considering applying for permission to reduce the height of the line of yew trees which line one side of the Garret Hostel lane path (between the University Library and the City Centre) to four meters. The work is being considered for the upcoming winter, 2011-12.

The minutes note that the city council officers present expressed support for these plans. I have not seen any discussion with elected members about this at either the relevant area committee, or the relevant scrutiny committee, or full council so question on what basis the officers felt able to offer support.

The minutes state:

The yews had grown to a size where they obscure the views across the Backs and had become over-dominant, resulting in a somewhat menacing effect on pedestrians using Garret Hostel Lane.

Council officers are recorded as saying the proposal would:

…be likely to require sensitive handling with the local community since the impact on the landscape would be substantial.

The minutes state:

There was a case for drastic rejuvenation since yews respond better to brutal treatment than to intermediate pruning. This would need to be balanced against the risk of the north side not rejuvenating as strongly as the south side; the impact on community relations of a brutal approach would have to be considered.

The plans to reduce these yews was published in the Robert Myres Associates report, what’s new here is the date of the proposed works and the detail.

My View on the Yews

I used to walk down the Garret Hostel Lane path on an almost daily basis, at all hours of the day. It is a very well used route, particularly by students.

I agree that the yew trees have become overbearing. I think it would be positive if there was more light on the path to:

  • Create a feeling of the path being safer, though it being lighter and more open.
  • Allow better views, for residents and tourists; perhaps helping visitors orientate themselves.
  • Reduce the barrier between the college and the public space.

A reduction to four meters would presumably still hide the buildings in the Clare College gardens, and wouldn’t give a view of the gardens from the path (there is a wall behind the trees). The view of the Clare gardens, across to Kings’ field from the top of the Garret Hostel Lane bridge would presumably be opened up significantly; as would the views from Clare Bridge.

It is not only reduction in height which is needed; the trees are also encroaching towards the path. I would have thought trimming them back would help open up the path.

There appears to be a risk here that following drastic pruning the trees might not fully recover and green up again, and it sounds as if as they’ve become trees there is little chance a yew hedge being created. Bordering the drainage ditch though, it wouldn’t be a practical place for a hedge which needed regular clipping. I’d be interested in knowing about experiences from elsewhere.

City Council Consultation Responses

The backs committee has responded to a number of recent Cambridge City Council consultations, including on tree works, and on the West Cambridge Conservation area extension. The papers released reveal:

  • The committee itself had not met to approve these consultation responses.
  • City council officers sit on the Backs Committee, so when the committee writes to support council officer’s proposals views it is to an extent the council officers writing in support of their own views.
  • The Backs Committee has no procedure for developing consultation responses. I’m concerned that they may be the views of an individual, rather than the body as a whole.
  • There is no evidence of consultation responses made between meetings of the committee being reported back to the committee. There is a need for a “Chair’s Actions” item on the agenda.

I have personally found the committee chairman’s speech at the special West/Central area committee bizarre; Cambridge was compared to city where there had been no tree planting or felling for 150 years – something which is clearly not the case.

Press Coverage

The minutes of the October 2007 meeting state: “Ms Ursula Buchan, a leading horticultural journalist, would be prepared to write a piece for the national and horticultural press”. I think this provides an interesting context for the resulting article which doesn’t contain any reference to her contact with the committee, and what appears to me to be an implication that she was being used as part of a considered public relations plan devised by the committee to help sell the proposals to the public.

FOI Geek Notes

The backs committee itsself is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act due to a loophole which means organisations wholly owned by a single public body are subject to the act, but those owned by two or more are not. This something I, through the WhatDoTheyKnow team am lobbying to change.

It is interesting, and positive, that Clare College accepted it held copies of the papers for the Backs Committee. Previously, in the case of the Cambridge University Bursars’ committee colleges have considered individuals attending such inter-college meetings have been doing so on their own behalf as individuals not as formal college representatives, and so the papers have been beyond the reach of FOI. This is a similar position to that found where police forces have refused to release information they claim is only held by their senior officers as individuals in relation to their roles within the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Clare College initially sought to provide the meeting papers by post, rather than electronically as requested. Once it was pointed out the Clare College owns a scanner their position changed. The documents released did not contain digital versions of the text of the minutes, but instead images of the text. This makes it harder for the documents to be indexed by search engines, and it makes them harder for people to work with as it is not possible to copy and paste sections from them. Despite this the college are seeking an apology for my description of Cambridge Colleges as “archaic”. The correspondence leading to the FOI release includes an interesting exchange relating to the means by which the documents were released.

The committee does not currently pro-activly publish its meeting papers, nor does it meet in public, so future FOI requests will be required to find out what it is up to.

Next Meeting

The next meeting is to be held at 11am on Friday the 10th of June 2011. The location has not yet been determined, but previous meetings have all been in the Latimer Room at Clare College.

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