In April 2009 I was present at a West/Central area committee where Julie Smith, Cambridge City Council’s Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation (a portfolio which includes the city’s green spaces) gave clear instructions to the council’s tree officers requiring them to obtain her approval before publishing plans for major tree works.
Recently officers released plans to fell eighteen trees on Lammas Land in Cllr Smith’s Newnham constituency. At the West Central Area Committee on the 20th of August I asked if, in light of her previous instructions, it could be assumed Cllr Smith had approved the Lammas Land proposals. I asked if she had managed to bring the city council’s chainsaws under democratic control.
Cllr Smith’s reply was shocking; she appeared exasperated that the council’s officers were still ignoring her, and told the meeting that she had not approved the proposals for Lammas Land. She said that she was trying to strengthen the council’s procedures for developing tree works proposals and had now asked that when the council’s team of tree officers came up with proposals affecting the council’s green spaces they should first consult the “Active Communities” officers in the council, and then if they too think the proposals ought go ahead they ought be presented to her as Executive Councillor. Again, as she did in April, Cllr Smith made clear that proposals ought not be made public until she had approved them, she specifically clarified that they shouldn’t even go out to ward councillors until she had approved them.
In relation to the Lammas Land trees I also asked why the consultation period had finished before the proposed meeting / walkround to present the proposals had occurred. Cllr Smith did not comment directly on that point, but did outline what was to happen next. She said that the walk around was planned for the 3rd of September, meeting at the swimming pool at 17.30 – she said this meeting was open to anyone who is interested. Cllr Smith said she understood that many people would have learnt about the plans after the consultation period was over, and so would be asking that notice of the walk around be posted on all the trees to be felled. She also said that the proposals would be considered at the city council’s central planning committee’s meeting on the 16th of September. This highlights another major problem with openness and transparency at the council, the Liberal Democrats often know what is coming to future meetings way in advance of the public and non-Lib-Dem councillors.
Cllr Smith did not extend the consultation period for the Lammas Land fellings, this closed on the 10th of August.
Anthony Bowen, a resident of New Square followed up my question by saying he had received a consultation document relating to proposals for tree works on Jesus Green which had a closing date of the 21st of August. He suggested that any consultation with a closing date in August ought have its consultation period doubled to allow for the holiday period. Cllr Smith did not agree to that, but said that consultation deadlines could be made flexible. Mr Bowen pointed out that having a flexible deadline wasn’t much use unless people knew representations sent in after the date quoted might still be read, he suggested most people on seeing the date for responses had past think their opportunity to comment had been and gone.
Cllr Smith blamed “late elections” and the “committee cycle” for the problems consulting residents on tree works.
The Council’s Tree Strategy
While at the August 2009 West Central Area Committee I also asked what had happened to the council’s proposals for tree works, including new planting, on New Square, Midsummer Common, and Jesus Green. Councillors had rejected one set of proposals earlier in the year and after the rejection Cllr Smith promised: “a large tree seminar in July”. This didn’t happen, so I asked what the council now intended to do.
Cllr Smith responded to say that the plans for these areas had been kicked firmly into the long grass – due to the way they were going to be funded. I believe she was suggesting that while the West/Central area committee had approved some money for planting, a bid for some of the council’s central funds to be put towards tree planting in these areas would be sought for next year. This probably means that the Liberal Democrats plan to announce a new pot of money dedicated for trees just before next year’s elections, and the trees might get in the ground towards the end of 2010. As for deciding the details of what to do, Cllr Smith promised full consultation. She said there will be a meeting, before the consultation, to discuss the general principles and approaches to the council’s tree planting, the meeting was told this would be at 18.00 on the 1st of October (Location to be decided). Cllr Smith said that items for discussion included questions such as if the council should plant non-native trees such as weeping willows and sycamores.