On Wednesday the 16th of March 2011 I attended the 4th Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Midsummer Common.
- The manager of the Fort St. George Public House attended and argued he, and his staff ought be allowed to continue to park on the common. Many of those present disagreed.
- It was revealed that Cambridge City Council run the £10/day car park on the common during the Midsummer Fair.
- A preview of the upcoming Strawberry Fair was presented.
- The possibility of moving the market stalls element of Midsummer Fair down to Stourbridge Common; which is also within the historic fair site, was raised.
About 20-30 people attended the meeting; plus 5-6 members of the Friends’ committee, three councillors, three council officers, two representatives of Strawberry Fair and two members of the Showman’s Guild.
Ward councillors Dixon and Bick were present, Cllr Rosensteil was not, but his wife ex Cllr Rosensteil was. The Cambridge City Council Executive Councillor with responsibility for green spaces, Cllr Rod Cantrill, was not present and his absence was noted.
Chairman of the Friends, Dick Baxter, opened the meeting saying the group had two objectives, the first being to take care of the state of the common and the second being to encourage events while ensuring local residents were not unduly put-out by them.
Mr Baxter said that the worst event of the previous year had been the City Council run bonfire. The bad weather had caused vehicles to become stuck in the common and the council had not ensured due-care was taken while extracting them resulting in damage to the grass. (It was later reported that remnants of the fireworks had not been removed from the common, and generally the council had not shown a good example to others in the way it had left the common after the event it runs).
Mr Baxter said the common was a complex piece of land, noting the developments on its borders, the grazing, its function as a flood plain and the new synagog proposed adjacent to the orchard. He said he had been looking at how other commons in the country were managed, and most commons in the country had a problem, but Midsummer Common appeared to have all problems, with the exception of any American nuclear weapons.
The absurdity of the legal and regulatory position was illustrated by Mr Baxter telling the meeting that those living on North Terrace were permitted to shake their carpets on the common whereas residents of Brunswick Walk could face a twenty shilling fine if they did so. Mr Baxter brandished a document he had obtained from the city council offering the friends indemnity for all the breeches of the bye-laws they had committed such as digging holes in the common to plant trees in the orchard. This indemnity took the form of a contract which the AGM agreed to approve, on Mr Baxter’s recommendation. Mr Baxter queried why the council lawyers had included a clause giving the friends’ permission to carry out “painting and decorating” in the orchard. Mr Baxter asked for ideas as to what might be carried out under this provision; none of the councillors present offered any explanation of what the council was thinking. (At a recent West/Central area committee the friends had complained about another silly contract the council were imposing on them, which would have gaged them from speaking to the press had they accepted it).
It was noted that the dry summer of 2010 had reduced the amount of mowing needed on the common (and also delayed the arrival of the cattle, due to a lack of grass). This had the benefit of allowing council efforts to be re-directed and significant removal of nettles and thistles had been carried out.
The wildflower meadow, which had seen the then executive councillor for green spaces, Cllr Julie Smith, joined in tilling, and planting seeds on, was reported not to have produced any wild flowers. The reason was thought to be the richness of the soil on the common (Something the council ought bear in mind before proposing to spend huge sums on wild flower seeds for the area in the future).
On the trees; the Mr Baxter said the council had in recent years taken “an ultra cautious approach” removing tens of trees on safety grounds. He said Julie Smith had justified this to the friends’ committee by pointing to another council being found guilty for manslaughter after not felling a tree which they suspected wasn’t sound. Mr Baxter noted that four of the proposed trees were still missing. The council published its tree planting plan for the common once almost all the trees had been planted. I have written an article on the one now proposed to stand alone in the middle of the open space, I am not sure where the others are, one might be next to the main path where joins the river, two trees parallel to the path were proposed there; two trees have been planted, but only one in the planned location. Another might be next the the cutter ferry bridge, where a willow is planned for the recently felled lime. Mr Baxter’s report there are four trees left (and my note about the one intended for the middle of the open space, contradicts Cllr Cantrill’s, clearly inaccurate, claims made to the 24th February West Central Area Committee where he stated the tree works were complete.
Vehicles on the Common
Mr Baxter noted that Cllr Tim Bick had stood on a manifesto stating that he would make tackling the use of vehicles on the common his top priority. As the problem had not been solved Mr Baxter offered Cllr Bick the opportunity to address the meeting and explain why not.
Cllr Bick said the friends were the problem as they hadn’t agreed with the council’s proposed solutions, and the council didn’t want to act without support from residents. The friends’ committee members explained they had tried to deter the council from spending huge sums of public money on a project which would not actually address problems such as relying on delivery drivers to stop and close the gate behind them.
Cllr Bick said he was “all set to advocate” once the differences of opinion on what should be done had been settled.
Mr Baxter proposed a “rising curb” barrier in the road, positioned a vehicle length into the common. Vandalism is a key problem; and he suggested these were robust, and noted they avoid the problem of needing drivers to stop and close the gate.
The problems getting power to the site were mentioned as was the possibility of using solar power. Those present noted that the same discussion was being had as occured at the AGM last year but the council, and councillors had not taken any action.
At the West/Central area committee on the 24th of February Cllr Cantrill had talked tough, saying he would consider banning the pub and restaurant from having any vehicular access to their premises. (I’m pretty sure that’s not within his power!)
Council officer Sarah Tovell took a very different line from the councillor, from whom she surely ought be taking direction, she told the AGM that the council’s priority was to avoid any impact on the businesses.
Officer Tovell suggested a new combination lock. She also reported that the council was actively seeking compensation from 3663 after one of its lorries got stuck in the mud on the common. Asked if the council would pursue others damaging the common, she said yes, the 3663 van was one of two current cases. She said she would welcome members of the public sending her photographic evidence of damage being caused.
The manager of the Fort St. George, Peter, introduced himself to the meeting. He said he’d been in his role since Christmas; and said a lot of the traffic and been in relation to the renovation of the living quarters in the pub so wouldn’t be ongoing.
He argued that he and his staff ought be allowed to park on the common. He confirmed he and his staff do park on the common. He said the pub had a pregnant assistant manager, and said it was unreasonable for her to be expected to walk across the common after work. He said that he had an eight month old baby and needed access to a car so that he could get it to hospital if required. He complained people who had taken it upon themselves to secure the gate with cable ties; saying this had caused him a delay, having to return to the pub for tools, when he was trying to get his baby to hospital. He urged those present to remember people lived on the common.
Asked to clarify the situation with respect to staff parking; he confirmed that his staff did park on the common. He stated: “the days of people walking to work have gone”, arguing it was unsafe for people finishing work late at night, or in the early hours, to do anything other than drive.
The public at the meeting expressed their opposition to the parking on the common.
Mr Baxter explained that there would be little opposition to him parking his own car within the pub, on the pub’s own land, but that parking on the common land, by him and in particular his staff, was what people were objecting to. Mr Baxter said he had been having lunch in the pub when customers drove in too.
The manager said he didn’t have a view of the common from where he and his staff worked, but if they were aware of customers driving in they would inform them it wasn’t allowed. Responding to the emotion of the meeting he said he didn’t have to come, and pointed out he wasn’t the freeholder of the pub, wasn’t a legal expert, didn’t know the legal position (but had read about discussions on parking at various past meetings), he explained he was just talking about the practicalities from his point of view. Everyone thanked him from coming and doing that, and for listening to their views.
The manager of the pub went back to his safety argument pointed out there have recently been unsolved rapes in Cambridge, one of which he said had occurred on Midsummer Common. He said he only had six staff, and stressed it was only them, and not his customers, who were parking on the common. He went on to say that if local residents make it difficult to live and work on the common, then it was likely instead of the pub being well run, and an asset, it would deteriorate.
A member of the public said that fisherman had been seen driving onto common; on being challenged they claimed to be unaware of the legal position. The problem that when the gate is open, and lots of cars are inside, others are attracted to park was raised.
Council officers were asked how many prosecutions, or other enforcement actions had been taken. Their waffle in response, suggesting it was a matter for other council departments or the police, suggested the answer was none.
PCSO David Jackson told the inaugural Open Meeting of the Friends of Midsummer Common held on 24 January 2007 he had the power to confiscate and crush vehicles being used in an anti-social manner. He promised to use this power on any vehicles being used on the common. This was clearly hyperbole (or a mis-understanding of his powers) but it is clear that actions promised have not happened.
Some of those present asked for some example enforcement actions to be taken. The manager of the pub suggested that fining a pregnant woman wouldn’t be right. Cllr Bick also spoke against enforcement, saying he wanted to see the problem tackled at the source, by preventing access.
After the meeting I asked the boater’s representative on the committee about access for boaters – there is with reasonable regularity a vehicle parked up near one of the residential boats. I suggested that if the gate was more effectively locked some system for gaining access for them, on rare occasions, would be needed. I also questioned who would have the motivation to vandalise the gate.
Justin Argent, chairman of the Strawberry Fair committee, addressed the group. He said the lack of a fair in 2010 had allowed the committee time for a re-think and a re-shaping of the fair. He noted that there had been big changes in the last five years of the fair, such as moving from £300 being spent on toilets to £10,000. He said that letters sent to shops selling alcohol in the city, threatening licence reviews if sales were irresponsible, had helped make the event less alcohol intense in 2009.
He presented a plan of the proposed 2011 site; which is to include a new feature, a “village green” on which there will be jousting and other more modern events. He said the bars will be changed, so they won’t just be bars but bars with events in them too, such as debates and poetry readings.
A promise to keep the fencing a long the south side of the common was made.
There will be three stewarded entrances to the common. Access will be free, but there will be “spotters” posted looking at those coming in (he didn’t say exactly what they would be spotting). The possibility of closing the Fort St. George bridge, in response to residents from the streets north of the river complaining about their streets being used to access the common was being considered. The need for good signage if the bridge was to be closed was raised.
The number of fast food outlets is to be dropped; from 50ish to 30ish, with a focus on more “crafty and interesting” offerings. The total amount of food expected to be served will remain the same.
Toilet locations are to be reviewed with local residents.
Mr Baxter said the Friends of Midsummer Common supported the Strawberry Fair, this comment got an enthusiastic round of applause. He noted that the bad elements were just as much of a problem for the organisers as local residents.
Showman John Thurston spoke to the group. He said the funfair had been on Midsummer Common as part of the Midsummer Fair since 1886. The fair itsself is having its 800 year anniversary this year.
He pointed out the “bad press” associated with the Midsummer Fair was due to “itinerant travellers” turning up for the event and not members of the Showman’s Guild who he represents. He explained that the guild had sought an Act of Parliament to allow the fair to open on a Sunday. (I can’t find a reference for this).
Mr Thurston said Cambridge City Council actually run the event.
He explained his members run free rides at various points, and invite school children down. He complained quite a lot about council “health and safety” requirements; which he blamed for some damage to the grass. He said health and safety requirements meant they had to set up further from the paths. He also complained about health and safety rules affecting opening times.
In relation to damage to the grass he said he operated in Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, and in Cambridge Colleges with gardeners looking over him and that they have winches and boards to get vehicles out with care if there is mud. (He appeared to be suggesting he and his members were better than the council had been after their fireworks event). He gave an assurance that great care was taken with respect to trees and their roots. He suggested that the narrow paths caused problems; and suggested grass strengthening adjacent to the paths (something I agree with and think would be a good idea on Jesus Green in places too)
He said on Monday during the event all rides were to be £1 and finished his remarks saying a high rent was paid to the council to allow the fair to use the common.
I asked about the car parking on the common during the fair. (This looks to me like a big money spinner). I was shocked to learn that it isn’t operated by the showmen, but by Cambridge City Council! A scrappy wooden board with the price painted on it is used to indicate it’s opening, and there’s no indication its run by the council. Mr Thurston complained about the £10 daily charge; and noted that most of the itinerant travellers had disabled blue badges which got them free parking. He said the council as well as controlling the car park also controlled access to the common and appeared to be suggesting they could do better. MR Thurston questioned the need for the city council to run a car park on the common, saying that thousands attend the fireworks and get there without cars. Mr Lawton spoke in favour of this idea, both on the grounds of damage to the grass, and the traffic chaos caused in Cambridge by the operation of the car park.
I also asked about the problems, crime and disorder related, which happen in the days running up to the fair; and questioned who it was on the site from the weekend before. Mr Thurston said this wasn’t his members. Council officer Frances Alderton explained it was the council who opened up the common on the weekend before.
Mr Thurston made some wrapping up comments, suggesting to the pub manager that if the council go too far in their efforts to regulate parking he should try citing “custom and practice law” and interference with a “way of life” as he does when fighting councils trying to shut down fairs. He also said the Showmans’ Guild highly regulated its members, who could be subjected to fines of up to £5,000 by the organisation for things causing disorder or damage. He added that the site would have ten stewards for the duration of the fair.
Mr Thurston raised the possibility of moving the market element of the fair to Stourbridge Common; this is also within the historic fair site, and sounds potentially like a good idea to me, especially as the population of the city shifts in that direction in future years. Council officers appeared aware of these suggestions.
Friends of Midsummer Common Committee
The meeting was asked to re-appoint Dick Baxter, Chair; Barry Higgs, Secretary, and Susan Stobbs Treasurer.
Two further committee vacancies were reported. Mr Baxter said three people’s names had been put up. Inauspiciously two of those individuals had not made it to the meeting. The first, Anna-Louise Lawrence, a teacher at Milton Road school who had brought children from the school to the orchard had been approached by Mr Higgs and had agreed to serve if elected. She was voted into office by the meeting on the strength of Mr Higgs’ recommendation.
Simon Bragg was the next nominee, Mr Baxter introduced him as someone who’d been critical about the way the organisation was working and who the membership might like to see “pissing from the inside”. Mr Bragg addressed the AGM suggesting the committee ought contact its membership more; he suggested RSS feeds and a comments system for the group’s website, proposing moving it to WordPress. He wanted to see more use of technology. Treasurer Susan Stobbs neatly illustrated the group’s current problem by asking: “What’s an RSS feed?” and looking baffled. Mr Bragg’s appointment to the committee was proposed by Mr Baxter and seconded by an attendee; while no members voted against his appointment there wasn’t a huge amount of enthusiasm. Mr Higgs noted that the turnout at the AGM was quite poor, and something needed to be done; he said the group did email its members a lot, and people appeared generally happy with what the group was doing and welcomed Mr Higgs, his enthusiasm and his ideas.
No nominations were called for from the floor, and we never found out who the third person who’d offered to serve but hadn’t turned up was.
Mr Bragg’s presentation, and appointment, prompted some discussion. Mr Lawton queried if the organisation ought be reaching out to the general public, as Mr Bragg, was suggesting, or focusing on its members – which it already contacted via email (and a couple of hand posted notes to those one or two not who don’t do email). Another person spoke against greater consultation with the membership, saying that the committee members, and the chair ought be left to speak on behalf of the membership without reference to the membership – given they might have to respond quickly, perhaps sometimes within a meeting.
A discussion about having some notice on the common drawing attention to the existence of the friends was raised; there didn’t appear to be support for a notice board. but I think the consensus was something more akin to a plaque / simple notice perhaps including contact details for key officers. Susan Stobbs, of stated that names and contact details for officers should not be published on security grounds (her name and address is freely available online, both in conjunction with Friends of Midsummer Common work, and as a company director).
The manager of the Fort St. George, Peter, offered to put a notice about the friends in the pub.
Ex. Friends of Midsummer Common Committee member Rosemary Davidson noted the Green Party had circulated a leaflet on the Oak Tree the council had felled. The council’s position was explained as being councillors wanted the riverside trees to all be willows.
The suggestion that next time, when the council makes a decision, it should act on it quickly before campaigns by the Green Party and others get underway, was made. Councillors looked as if they agreed.
Cow Escape Ramp
I noted the Friends of Midsummer Common had supported the council’s plans to rip up some of the new concrete river bank edgings they’ve just installed at great public cost and install a ramp for cows to get out of the river if they fall in; along with associated railings and a gate. I support the idea of a ramp (as I don’t want to see the fire service tied up rescuing cows), back in 2007 I suggested that a way for the cows to get out ought be a pre-requsite of returning the cows to the common – I envisaged simply some maintenance/renewal of the gravel bank by the bridge not a major engineering project, but even so this prompted an angry response from both Angelika von Heimendahl the owner of the cows, and the then chair of the friends, Geoffrey King.
At the March 2011 meeting I asked if the friends had obtained any assurance from the council that the new railings and gates would be in-keeping with the common; ie. probably black rather than say red and white to match the bridge. The chair referred my question to council officer, Green Spaces manager, Alistair Wilson who was not able to give any assurance and simply referred those interested in the plans to the planning papers. The application notes the railing associated with the structure will have a non-minimal visual impact on views across the common and its open nature. The railing design does look broadly
The Conservators of the River Cam have commented on the application. They have said:
The applicant’s design to install the ramp within the area of the Common, without encroachment upon the navigation channel, is essential. The purpose of the ramp is to eliminate the historic and illegal act of dumping spoil into the river to create a temporary ramp for the recovery of cattle from the river. The new ramp will be of benefit and convenience to the graziers and to users of the adjacent navigation. It may also serve to enhance local biodiversity by acting as an ingress/egress point for wildfowl.
It is notable they say the ramp will also be useful to users of the river. I wonder how much the council wants a slip-way on the common, which it controls, to make it easer for people to get boats etc. onto the river). The application states the gates will be locked and only the pinders (council staff employed to look after residents’ cattle on the common) will have the keys.
The council’s efforts to contact Pembroke College and Emmanuel College appear to have failed, as their consultation letters have been posted on the council’s planning public access system marked “returned mail”. In a further farce, the design and access statement for the project has been produced by one part of the council, sent the planning department which has literally rubber stamped it, and the rubber stamped version has been scanned and placed online rather than version with the text in an accessible format.
The deadline for comments expired on the 14th of February 2011, for some reason the council continues to advertise the proposals after that, and the determination deadline is the 24th of March 2011.
The AGM was told by council officer Mr Wilson that the ramp was to be paid for by an EU “Single Farm Subsidy” payment.
The question of what will happen to the gravel ramp installed under the Victoria Avenue bridge in May 2010 was neither asked, nor addressed.
Amusingly the application notes: “this structure will not effect the movement of rowers along this stretch”. (They will still have to row!)
(On a related point the council have recently bought a cattle trailer for moving the cows).
A brief treasurer’s report was given. The main thing the friends has spent money on is the orchard; it’s funded mainly by the city council.
The AGM, on the treasure’s advice, decided not to levy a membership fee, but noted one might be needed in the future if public funding from the council dried up.
A picnic, which won’t be an “event”, because that would incur costs and bureaucracy from the council, is to be held by the Friends of Midsummer Common in June.
Mr Higgs promised not to take his barbecue this time. (Fires are not permitted on the common!)
A member of the public argued for preservation of the bramble bank below the orchard. He said there was a nightingale nesting there. Mr Baxter said that the Wildlife Trust had recommended removal of the brambles; they said the removal would increase biodiversity. He said that when this was underway Tony Juniper of Greenpeace had asked them to stop as a “whitethroat” was nesting there and they did stop.
Another member of the public suggested it would be good to have blackberries to go with apples from the orchard and asked for the brambles to be kept too.
The AGM expressed unanimous support for the brambles, dismissing the recommendation of the Wildlife Trust.
The Friends of Midsummer Common will probably, as in previous years, publish their chairman’s report and the meeting’s minutes (a short single page summary focusing on decision) on their website.
I attended the meeting after having had dinner at the Free Press; fittingly I had a CamCattle steak, which may well have been grazed on the common. The meat is amazing as it is entirely grass fed. The younger cows are raised on Grantchester Meadows and are moved to the city’s central commons as they get older and calmer. (All beef sold at A Waller & Son. butchers on Victoria Avenue, Cambridge is also CamCattle)
I have attended previous AGMs of the Friends of Midsummer Common and have written the following articles: