On Tuesday the 24th of February 2009 I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Midsummer Common. About eighty people were present, including city councillors Bick and Blair. A number of council officers attended: Debbie Kaye, Cambridge City Council’s Active Communities Manager, Green Space Officer Sarah Tovell and Green Space Manager Alistair Wilson. The police sent a civilian staff member.
Prior to the meeting starting Cllr Blair told anyone who would listen that: “Julie should be here”, referring to Julie Smith the executive councillor for Arts and Recreation with responsibility for many aspects of the common. Cllr Blair appeared worried she would be asked to answer questions on behalf of councillors, particularly on the subject of Strawberry Fair and for some reason the Jesus Green Lottery Bid. Cllr Smith did not attend, and at some point towards the end of the meeting Cllr Bick gave her apologies. In the event Cllr Blair stayed silent throughout the meeting itsself. Other notable absences included ward councillors Colin Rosenstiel and Dixon (though Colin Rosensteil’s wife was present), no representatives from Midsummer House Restaurant or the Fort St. George Pub attended and neither did Angelika von Heimendahl, the owner of the cattle which grazed on the common in 2007 and 2008.
City Council Green Spaces Manager
The meeting started with a brief statement from Alistair Wilson, the council’s green spaces manager. He said that a management plan for the site had been prepared by the wildlife trust. He reported the plan was due to be signed off by streetscene (I have no idea what that means), and said it includes voluntary opportunities and an events framework. The chair and secretary of the Friends of Midsummer Common had a draft of the document with them, though neither they, or the council have as far as I am aware made it available on their websites yet. Alistair Wilson gave an update on the pinder, he said that pinder had retired and some of his tasks were being carried out by the “old assistant pinder” and others had been shared out elsewhere. He said the pinder’s role included rescuing cattle from the river when they fell in. Mr Wilson said that in the recent bad weather that had been further sinkage along the lines of the trenches sunk by EDF electricity to lay the high voltage cable about two years ago, he said that the council would be repairing this and continuing to remove bark which had been placed in these areas. Mr Wilson indicated that the council had previously accepted EDF’s efforts at restoring the grass as satisfactory but commented that inspection of such work was very difficult. On the access gate Mr Wilson said that prices had been obtained for a controlled gate, and council officers were currently indifferent on the question of if it would be a workable solution or not. He finished by drawing attention to the greenstat website which the council subscribes to, saying that twenty six people had made comments on midsummer common using that site.
City Council Tree Officer
Kenny McGregor, Cambridge City Council Tree Officer, made an excellent presentation to the meeting which was appreciated by everyone present. Pointing to a large map of midsummer common he spoke about the health of the trees on the common, specifically the seven the council are currently proposing to fell. He told the meeting about his personal background, he had been a tree surgeon / climbing arboriculturist for seventeen years since the age of sixteen and had spent the last seven years within local authorities. He had previously worked in Peterborough.
Starting with the Butt Green Elms (The large trees near Maids Causeway near the crossing to Fair Street) he said they had no signs of disease. He said there was some “summer branch drop” which was not a cause for concern but entirely normal and natural. He said that the lime trees planted in that area had the potential to grow to thirty meters in height, he appeared quite excited about the impact they would have on the future appearance of the area. He pointed to the long term nature of what was being done by planting those trees by saying that he “imagines how the landscape will look when I’m not here”.
He moved on to the large Horse Chestnut tree, due for felling, at the corner of Brunswick Walk, he said it was dying at the base (the diseased bark is obvious) and was being removed for safety reasons. It was to be replaced by a Princeton Elm which Mr McGregor told the group was resistant to Dutch Elm disease, he said the city had lost a lot of Elms in the 1960s and he would like to see some return. Mr McGregor said that the tree was losing a vast amount of bark due to the pathogen P. syringae and an agressive fungus, he said these would kill the tree and and it was loosing its canopy.
The chestunts planted down Victoria Avenue were discussed next. We were told that these are 120 year old trees which were suffering from various decays. He said he would like to look at planting a new avenue behind the existing trees. He was questioned on this point and asked if the spacing was such that it would enable new trees to be planted between the existing trees and be able to reach a substantial height before the existing trees die. Mr McGregor said that while there was some room, he thought it was better that they be set back, but accepted that you would not then get the effect we have now – if the new avenue was wider the effect from the road would not be as impressive.
Another question was asked about the “miner moth”, Mr McGregor was asked if they can be taken away with fallen leaves, he confirmed they could. The questioner said that the MP, David Howarth (Liberal) had written to the City Council (Liberal) asking the council to take away the leaves last year but they did not. Mr McGregor said that the council could do it, but to have a real effect everyone with a Horse Chestnut would have to do it, a point the questioner didn’t think ought preclude the council from making an effort. Another questioner asked if the moth damage was climate change related, and if the latest cold spells would have an impact. Mr McGregor could only say “who knows”, but appeared genuinely interested himself in the answer and said he would be out looking for signs of the problem creature in the spring.
Mr McGregor said that one of the chestnuts had fallen across the road last January, and that the one which it was proposed to fell had a snapped root (This is at ground level and easy to see), he thought this had occurred in high winds. Someone asked if there was any chance the tree would react and recover from the snapped root, and suggested it be given another year to see what happened. I agree with this point of view, I’d like to err on the side of maintaining the trees as long as possible. I believe if this tree did fall it would fall away from the road (it is on a slight slope away from the road and the broken root is on the road side) so is not a major safety hazard.
The plans to fell one plane tree had resulted in lots of comments reported Mr McGregor. This is the tree on the riverside four upstream from the cutter ferry bridge, the sign on it states it is being felled due to a poorly formed primary branch, and someone has written over it in black marker: “Why?”. The group was told this tree is susceptible to “included bark forms” which were prone to break apart. He said the tree was about 30 years old. He described it as a “70s clone”, suggesting the method of propagating it might have introduced defects. One questioner asked if it could be braced, and was told this was possible, there is a braced tree on the common, but this is expensive, risky and has to be reviewed annually. Also on this tree I drew attention to the fact that the notice said that it was just the primary branch which was the problem and questioned why this single branch could not just be removed. I was told that there were other problems beyond this primary branch, in the crown of the tree which were not mentioned in the notice. Clearly many people have commented on this tree, and the mood in the room appeared to be that there was not a general acceptance of the need to fell this tree. Mr McGregor pointed to the very dense nature of the plane wood saying it would do damage if it fell, and noting there were often boats moored under it. Someone said that: “many people know these trees intimately”, something which is certainly true.
The lime tree on the junction of paths upstream of the cutter ferry bridge was discussed next. We were told it was decayed at the base and in danger of toppling. This tree is to be replaced with a black poplar.
Mr McGregor was asked how much care the council’s trees got, the answer was essentially very little due to budgets; though for young street trees they do use “tree gaters” which are an irrigation system which can hold twenty gallons of water. When asked how much a “tree gater” cost the group was told £20, so clearly that’s not the expensive item. The officer supported efforts to weed out the bases of trees, inside the protective cages used to separate them from the cattle. A number of people suggested the council could do more in terms of care of the trees, rather than let them get to the point where they had to be felled. The meeting’s chair Mr Baxter said that having walked around with Mr McGregor he knew that there were management plans and actions being taken with respect to other trees.
One person suggested a forest ought be planted on the common to make an effort to balance our carbon emissions. The tree officer said for that every individual with a car we would need to plant a hectare of trees, and balancing CO2 and that wasn’t a realistic possibility for the City of Cambridge. Having made the forest suggestion which didn’t go down well, she turned to fruit trees and suggested community orchard, something members of the Friends of Midsummer Common have been looking into – located near the allotments.
The question of replacing trees which are removed was raised, the fact the Friends of Midsummer Common had had to pay for previous replacement trees was raised. Mr McGregor said the budget for street trees was good, but not for trees on green spaces. Council officer Debbie Kaye said that the council will be replacing the trees which are being removed. She said that there was lots of “S106″ money for formal green space and welcomed ideas for how it could be used. Mr McGregor, also a council officer, said that there was no shortage of ideas from within the tree team. Tree prices were discussed, a tree in an 85L container was quoted as £150-200, with a smaller one £30-50. If funds were a problem people appeared willing to contribute (as the FoMC have already) suggesting a sponsor a tree scheme. Mr Baxter said it was ridiculous that the Friends of Midsummer Common had had to have a whip-round to raise money for new trees. The fact that there are many people in Cambridge who care about the trees was pointed out and Mr McGregor agreed, comparing Cambridge to his experience in Peterborough where people were less interested and new planting was more likely to get vandalised.
Cllr Bick spoke to say: “Schemes for tree planting can and do happen. We need to match up pots of money with ideas for schemes”.
See also: Trees to be felled on Midsummer Common
The group had raised £1400 for trees which had been paid to the city council, leaving it with about £400. It was considering requesting a grant from the city council for tools to be used by volunteers on the common. The FoMC needed an equal opportunities policy before it could apply for the grant, so the AGM was asked to adopt a one sentence policy of:
“It is the policy of FoMC to welcome and treat all members and volunteers fairly and equally regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, marital status, race, colour, ethnic or national origin, religion, age or disability”
This was agreed by all members present.
Luther Phillips of Camboaters was voted in as a member of the committee.
The chairman, Dick Baxter, spoke to his report which is available via the FoMC website. He told the group there had been a vote in Parliament in the 1800s considering selling off the common for development; the common had been saved by a close and poorly attended vote of 11 to 10. He had also found documents where the council were apologising for the state of the common in the 1840s, suggesting little had changed. He drew attention to the fact that other areas had more up-to-date byelaws for their commons. Cambridge City Council’s legal officer agrees there is an opportunity for improvement but there are other priorities on his time. The FoMC have drafted their proposed new byelaws and these are available on their website.
Other items referred to included the management plan, and mowing, on mowing he pointed to the importance of mowing before the nettles and thistles flower, something which was promised but didn’t happen this year.
A brief comment on Strawberry fair was made, saying that an agreement to fence off the common from residents of Brunswick had been agreed, but they were still pushing for the police to control access to the roads down to the common.
Mr Baxter noted there were now relatively few events on the common compared to the number which had occurred historically.
On the subject of bonfires, which there have been a few of recently Mr Baxter said he had called 999 once, and the fire brigade attended but did nothing because the fire was well away from the buildings. He has spoken to a city ranger who says part of his job is stopping people from using the wrong type of BBQ on the common, he reported that the police say it is OK to have fires and BBQs.
Mr Baxter reported that there were mixed opinions coming to him from members on the subject of the Midsummer House restaurant cutting the grass on the common infront of their building.
Mr Baxter briefly reported on the footpath being replaced between Auckland Road and Parsonage Street. He reported on councillor’s inexplicable decision to go for a non-asphalt surface and residents’ vote to go for a like for like replacement with concrete.
On the Berkeley Homes development site – currently the regional college site which adjoins the common the developers are proposing a footpath which will lead onto the common, which will create a new desire line leading to a question for the future – should this be mettled?
Cllr Bick was asked to comment on the proposals for the controlled gate. He said that he had been told by officers that FoMC were against it so didn’t pursue it.
The FoMC position was clarified, it was not opposition, just a need for convincing the any new solution would improve matters and would be good value for money.
People asked why parking tickets could not be issued, or clamps used. (PCSO David Jackson told the inaugural Open Meeting of the Friends of Midsummer Common held on 24 January 2007 that he had the power to confiscate and crush vehicles being used in an anti-social manner.) Debbie Kaye said the council had no authority to issue parking tickets on the common.
Discussion appeared to reach a consensus that one of the big problems was the current gate wasn’t self closing; and any self-closing option however it was opened would be a great improvement. Debbie Kaye offered to arrange a meeting with “Chris Robinson” (a retired council officer?) and it was suggested the two businesses on the common be invited too to save discussions being held twice. It was also suggested the Brunswick and North Kite residents association might want input too.
It was pointed out that the council, when they empty the bins, are one of the groups who leave the gate open.
Taxi companies had previously been asked not to pick up from the pub / restaurant by driving across the common (unless they had disabled passengers), it was suggest that this, like mowing the common, needs to be done regularly.
Ex. Councillor Joye Rosenstiel said that in the past the city council had encouraged the taking of registration numbers of cars on the common, saying the council’s “legal services” team had been keen to prosecute.
Alistair Wilson was asked to reinstate the no-entry sign to the gate, which it was reported he had in the back of his car since the Strawberry Fair. He agreed he had the sign and said he would put it back.
Grass In-Front of the Restaurant
Discussion returned to this point which had been raised in the chair’s report. Some in the room felt strongly that the restaurant should not take ownership of the land (and encroach on the compound). During an event it was reported the head waiter was outside keeping people off “the restaurant’s” bit of grass, but this was resisted by one of those present at the meeting. The compound belongs to the council, and is very valuable land which ought be retained for the benefit of the people of Cambridge, the importance of keeping this was stressed by many.
One excellent contribution articulated a lot of what I had been thinking while listening to Kenny McGregor’s presentation when he kept saying how decisions on tree felling were down to him. There was a question of where accountability lay: “where were the councillors?”, the point was made that there was “no chain of authority” and officers were being left to answer questions which ought be addressed by councillors. The questioner actually asked if there was a nominated councillor responsible, to be told that there was in Cllr Julie Smith. Hopefully Cllr Smith will have her mind focused on trees by those petitioning the Full Council meeting on Thursday the 26th of February with respect to trees off Brooklands Avenue. The questioner asked where there was a forum for discussion about the council tree officer’s decisions. Joye Rosenstiel suggested that a development control forum could be prompted in respect of a tree felling order, I think that might be worthwhile in the case of the riverside plane tree. The suggestion was made that the council had neglected the trees on the common and there was a policy of managed decline.
Cllr Bick responded to say that he felt councillors needed to focus on strategy and said that: “it wasn’t appropriate to gather councillors together every time a tree needs attention”.
To me that had echos of Cllr Blair’s comments on her role in overseeing the Jesus Green Lottery bid where despite being asked to review it on behalf of residents in the North of the City and in her role as Chair of the Community Services Committee she admitted to not having read the document, saying her role was to take a high level overview not to look at the detail. I think when we are considering removing a 120 year oak, or 30 year old riverside plane these are important decisions which ought be considered by councillors particularly when they are not clear cut and there is significant resident opposition to officer’s proposals.
Boats in Bloom
Luther Phillips talked about boats in bloom, and said there was consideration of placing some hanging baskets on the tree-guards by the river, and planting bulbs inside the guards around the trees.
Ruts In-front of the Pub
Sarah Tovell suggested some temporary fencing could be used to try and encourage traffic to stay on the hard standing, especially while repairs were carried out.
Involvement of the Membership
There was a call for the committee to make more use of the membership’s time, skills and passion – especially given the quality of the discussion and the size of the turnout at this meeting. There was an agreement that the more people engaged the better, but it was pointed out that what FoMC was doing was “more intelligent than campaigning by numbers”, it wasn’t about getting hundreds of people to write to councillors and council officers themselves but using the organisation to put that point across. There was some discussion about when mass involvement was needed, or could be used.
Mr Baxter said he would copy anyone who was interested in on the committee’s correspondence with the council as a way for members to be more closely involved.
Strawberry Fair Consultation
I drew attention to the fact that the FoMC and Ward Councillors had not been invited to the Strawberry Fair 2009 – Police Meeting – January 2009 which was held to to address community response issues and was supposed to involve all “stakeholders”. Mr Baxter said FoMC had not been involved in the way they were expected, but there was communication.
I also drew attention to objective four of the FoMC constitution, which states an object as being to “ensure that events have minimal impact and cause no nuisance to local residents”. I noted that under its current leadership the FoMC was quite moderate and suggested the no nuisance be changed to minimal nuisance. This may, I felt, have encouraged a wider group of people, involved in events, to participate in the FoMC. My suggestion was not taken up by members.
The pinder was discussed again (it had been raised in the Chairman’s report), there was concern that the retirement might result in the cattle not returning. Debbie Kaye said that there was to be no reduction in service. Mr Baxter asked me to comment on this, and I asked Debbie Kaye about the proposal to cut funding for the out of hours pinder service I had seen councillors agree this on the 19th of January. Debbie Kaye reported that this decision had now been reversed. I am left wondering when councillors have had the opportunity to do this, or if officers are meddling with budgets between the committee stage and the full council. If such changes have been made I’m left wondering what else is in flux.
Consideration of Adjacent Trees
One of the last points was the excellent point that the trees on the side of the Victoria Avenue by Jesus College need to be considered along with those on Midsummer Common and managed together as they form part of the avenue. Cllr Bick agreed with this point, and said it should be done if it wasn’t already.
Mr Baxter rounded off the meeting by jokingly suggesting there ought be another walnut tree so everyone collecting walnuts didn’t do so right outside his house when they were in season.
- At one point I made a note in the margin commenting that someone sounded as if they had gone to sleep during Kenny McGregor’s presentation; they hadn’t it was an otherwise very well behaved snoring dog.
- Before the meeting Cllr Blair had been telling everyone about her trip to London with her constituent, Lill Speed, for a neighbourhood crime fighting conference. She said she was reluctant to go, but went because Lill Speed had pestered her. Cllr Blair described community crime fighting as “like batman and robin”, she didn’t say which role she took and which she left to Lill Speed.
- Cllr Blair suggested to me after the meeting that my website is sexist, claiming I am critical of more women than men. I am sure this is nonsense.