On March the 14th 2012 I attended the Friends of Midsummer Common’s Annual General Meeting. I am not a member of the group, but the meeting was open to the public. It was advertised in the Cambridge News and via notices on the common as well as via a number of local email lists. I’d also tweeted about it.
- Some present complained about inconsiderate cyclists. Newly elected chairman of the friends, Barry Higgs, spoke positively about possibility of the segregation of cyclists and pedestrians, saying he was keen to look at the idea. I was alarmed by this.
My view on such segregation has been developed from my own personal experience and from discussions with members of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign who have vast relevant experience. In places like Midsummer Common segregation can increase conflict as people become less tolerant to those who stray into the others’ space. I have personally experienced a torrent of angry abuse from a cyclist for walking on the wrong side of the path on the common near Fair Street, the one area where there currently is such segregation, albeit poorly marked.
My view is that to improve the situation for cyclists there is a need for a slight widening of a couple of paths, particularly the one from North Terrace to the Cutter Ferry Bridge. Extra sets of cattle grids so one can be used in each direction would be useful in a number of locations too.
This subject highlights a wider problem with Cambridge’s friends groups, residents associations and similar, they are not democratic and not representative. Nervous elderly pedestrians appear over-represented. I have recently argued for cycling related improvements relating to the Jesus Lock bridge, while I was almost a lone voice at a recent Jesus Green Association meeting I suspect had the matter been put to a vote of elected representatives at the local West Central Area Committee there would have been support from councillors.
Another area where a similar situation is seen is lighting of green spaces. As someone who used to commute daily, often in the dark, over Jesus Green, this has been a subject I’ve lobbied on for quite some time, pushing for better lighting. Here too the views of a minority who live adjacent to the green spaces, who generally oppose improved lighting, tend to have more impact than those of others. It’s another subject on which I’ve been a lone voice at public meetings. I think its really important that decisions about public spaces are taken by democratically elected councillors, and the views of groups such as the Friends of Midsummer Common, or others such neighbouring residents, are not given too much weight.
- The meeting was told that following an error made in 1968 three areas of the common are not currently properly registered as common land, these are:
- The allotments
- The synagogue site on Auckland Road
- Jesus Green (Jesus Green was originally part of Midsummer Common and remains common land, though it is managed in a different manner to Midsummer Common)
Outgoing chairman Dick Baxter told the meeting that this could be corrected, by Cambridgeshire County Council, when the Commons Act 2006 comes into force in Cambridgeshire (it is already in force in neighbouring counties!).
- A presentation was given by Pip Noon, who is employed by the Cam Conservators essentially as their Chief Executive, though she has the job title: “River Manager”. Noon defended what she saw as an impression the conservators were “fat cats” pointing out they were volunteers. She appears to have misunderstood recent criticism of the conservators, which isn’t aimed at the individuals personally but at the profligacy of the organisation which employees five full time staff and holds extensive assets and investments making the river the most expensive piece of waterway in the country to run.
The meeting was held in Christ Church, Newmarket Road. 30-40 people attended, just over half of whom appeared to be voting members of the Friends. Others in attendance included City Councillors Rosenstiel, Reiner and Bick along with County Councillor Manning. The councillors, all Liberal Democrats, sat together. Cambridge City Council officers Alistair Wilson the Green Space Manager at Cambridge and Sarah Tovell were present, as was Angelika von Heimendahl, who grazes cows on the common.
River Manager Pip Noon started by introducing herself, she told us she had done climate change research and had MSc in Water Management before working as an Environment Agency enforcement officer and then getting the job of River Manager in 2006. She said she was not from Cambridge and has never personally seen the river in flood.
Noon talked about the recent press coverage of the conservators. Her interpretation of this as an attack on individual conservators as being fat cats was in my view utterly bizarre. She presented a slide, headed “Fat Cats” and defended the conservators who are a mixture of individuals appointed by Cambridge University and the City and County councils saying they were not paid for their roles as conservators. If she really thinks the recent comments on the way the conservancy has been run were targeted at the individual conservators personally then she has failed to grasp the arguments being made. Recent proposals to increase charges, and ideas to levy new ones including event charges and even tolls led to greater public scrutiny of the conservators’ finances. Questions were raised, not about conservators benefiting personally, but about the level of spending incurred by the conservators in maintaining the short stretch of river they are responsible for.
Other interesting points made by Pip Noon included:
- The upper river is a privately owned permissive navigation; the Conservators have no duty to maintain it to a navigable standard.
- 400 boats from outside Cambridge visit the Cam each year. (Personally I think we could do a lot more for visitors to the city by boat, when the council was spending money on the Fen Road / Water Street car park I suggested a visitor mooring with signs directing visitors nearby facilities – Tesco, takeaways etc. )
- We were shown a photo of a car in the river on a scaffolding pole. It was on the college backs, I think near Trinity College. Phil Rodgers has reported this was from 1987 and engineering students were involved.
- The conservators have authorised swimming (at your own risk) in the upper river. There is no discretion to allow the river manager to formally permit swimming elsewhere and she has had to turn down a request from an olympic swimmer. (People do swim the backs in the summer, I’ve seen it on a couple of occasions)
- The River Manager said the Conservators, with five full time staff, are “a lean beast” those present were apparently too polite to laugh.
- Talking about the future Noon said the Conservators “might look like the National Trust”, she said they wanted to be independent of external public funding.
- Noon suggested the probability of the proposed 2K rowing lake at Milton actually happening was quite high but subject to the University of Cambridge deciding to support it.
- The CamToo project was also mentioned, with the suggestion that the potential to extend the guided bus following the construction of Chesterton Station, made this not utterly fanciful either.
- The prospect of closing the river completely for events due to misbehaving motor-boaters seeking to disrupt rowing events was raised. Currently motorboats can pass the event during gaps between divisions.
- All Cam Conservators staff are chainsaw trained
- The conservators occasionally call the police when mini-motos and quad bikes cause a problem on the hailingway.
- We were told the Conservators can charge for things like pontoons in the river, and putting up scaffolding to build and maintain bridges, and this is seen as a source of income.
- The new rules on commercial punts were explained (which requires all commercial punts to be run from a regulated punt station).
- Noon suggested that the predicted summer drought could lead to fish killings and the silting up of the river, although she said there was “no crisis yet”.
- We were told that the trees on the nature reserve opposite Riverside could not be cut by the conservators due to restrictions, and that the new conservation areas would also caused problems for the conservators.
- Notably the swan, Mr Asbo, wasn’t mentioned in the presentation.
A couple of questions were taken from those present. One was on the ownership of Riverside. The questioner asked why the owners of the adjacent houses didn’t own the bank (actually this is the position the council’s lawyers originally said was the case). Noon said as Riverside was built up and the land created in 1947 there was an argument it ought not belong to the home owners and the council’s claim was therefore successful. It was suggested the council’s claim was successful simply because there was no other claim, Noon indicated that too could also be true.
Other questions were on material which had been covered in the presentation, asking about how much land the Conservators owned next to the river (they own fields from Chesterton to Baits Bite, but most of the adjacent land is privately owned, or owned by colleges etc.).
A questioner asked if the conservators had the power to prevent building on the flood plain. They don’t. (They have limited powers to authorise, or not, construction on or next to the bank only).
Someone asked for the list of approved punt stations to be listed. Cllr Rosenstiel complained when Noon listed the quayside punt stations as one. Noon defended her stance saying as they were now under the same ownership they could be considered as one.
I didn’t get a chance to ask my questions to Pip Noon. Had I been able to I would have:
- Expressed my view Noon has misunderstood the recent critisism of the Cam Conservators, with critics targeting the organisation and not individual conservators.
- Asked about the current role of the Cam Commissioners (as opposed to the conservators)
- Noted the campaign to get the Cam Conservators made subject to FOI, and the recent commitment by the Minister, and ask for the Conservators to voluntarily comply. I would have noted one thing I would like to be able to find out is the dates the Conservators are in the Magistrate’s court. I understand they are a prosecuting authority and have a court session from time to time, I’d like to observe one of these sessions, but they’re essentially secret at the moment with neither the courts or conservators giving public notice of them.
- Asked if the conservators believe all boats with city council mooring licences are really occupied year round as the primary residence of their occupants. There have been suggestions this is not the case.
We were told of two forthcoming public meetings, one of the “Cam Valley Forum” on the 29th of March, and the next meeting of the Cam Conservators, on the 19th of April. (This isn’t listed on the conservator’s meetings webpage)
The Friends have subscribed to BTCV which gives them insurance covering their conservation activities.
As a result of this subscription the Friends have been sent two packets of beetroot seeds. It appeared the treasurer considered keeping these for herself, but decided there was not enough room in her garden for them, so offered them to the members present.
Mr Baxter said that at the inaugural meeting in 2007 council officer Alistair Wilson had outlined what he’d like to see the the friends do, roughly work out what the council should do on the common and lobby them to do it, and Mr Baxter said he thought this had been achieved.
Mr Baxter said Friends had come into existence as the council had a conservation plan for the common which it wasn’t acting on. He brandished this, along with the newer document, the management plan (both available from http://www.midsummercommon.org.uk/) and said progress was now being made. He listed tree planting and railings being painted as improvements which had occurred.
Mr Baxter spoke about the importance of preserving the common and keeping an eye on the formal protection it benefits from as he explained the 1968 error in drafting which led to an incorrect registration which cannot yet be corrected.
The inconsistency of the by-laws was raised, with Mr Baxter pointing out some adjoining residents could beat carpets on the common and others could not. It was suggested this could have been a factor in one of the city’s executive councillors recently moving into a property where beating is permitted. He noted the council was intending to review, and modernise the by-laws. Mr Baxter said Cllr Reiner was a lawyer from Wisconsin, a US state a by-law makes it illegal to enter with a chicken on your head and invited Cllr Reiner to explain this; she indicated she would do so later, but never addressed the question and made no substantive contribution to the meeting.
Mr Baxter said the new gate for controlling access to the common appeared to be working, after the initial problems.
Mr Baxter stepped down and his long-term sidekick Mr Higgs was introduced as the committee’s preferred candidate as his replacement. Mr Higgs was duly elected unopposed. He said he would do as Mr Baxter had told him.
The meeting was told that Strawberry Fair would run this year to the same plan as last. The only change Mr Higgs is seeking is for the toilets to be positioned further away from people’s houses.
Public Questions and Comments
Angelika von Heimendahl expressed concern about the events getting in the way of grazing; though she noted the council have now bought a cattle trailer so they can quickly get the cows on and off (if she puts them on). She said the grass was good, and suggested there ought be a 4 week period coming up between events when she can get cows on the common. I find it quite astonishing that the council has bought a cattle trailer (and employs a “pinder” to look after the cattle).
One individual questioned the location of the toilet tents, and tents in general, for this event, suggesting they ought not have been in the middle of the common. There wasn’t any support for this objection (I think moving the location of events around the common where appropriate is excellent) though a number of people complained about the number of people urinating on the common during the event. Cllr Bick reported that Cllr Cantrill, who ran in the race, was not one of those who had urinated on the common and that Cllr Cantrill had done quite well in the race. This was Cllr Bick’s only contribution to the meeting. Mr Baxter reported that no members of the Friends of Midsummer Common committee had competed.
As mentioned at the top of the article, the behaviour of cyclists was a subject which prompted passionate contributions from a number of people present. It was suggested there had once been a ban on cyclists on the common, while even the most passionate speaker didn’t want to return to that, some did want segregated cycle paths. People complained about cyclists riding very fast and inconsiderately. A suggestion of a sign asking cyclists to cycle considerately was made. I think extra signs would be a bad idea, it’s a classic case of “something must be done, this is something, lets do it”, those who cycle inconsiderately are unlikely to be swayed to change by a sign.
Cllr Rosenstiel spoke in defence of cyclists. He said restricting bikes was:
A loony suggestion
Some pushed their suggestions and Rosensteil made clear he strongly opposed them. He said he would support calls for more considerate behaviour, but pointed out inconsiderate behaviour came from all quarters including pedestrians.
One specific complaint was that in the recent cold weather cyclists had monopolised the areas of paths cleared of ice and snow forcing pedestrians onto the icy bits.
Newly elected chair of the Friends, Barry Higgs, said he wanted to look at segregated cycle and pedestrian paths.
My view on this is we have strong pro-cycling councillors and the situation for cyclists is unlikely to change for the worse, but this is worth watching as the Liberal Democrats often mistake the views of residents associations and similar for the views of residents and the council leader has been known to explicitly conflate the two.
Barclay Homes Development
Mr Baxter reported the first residents will move into the new development, off Newmarket Road and neighbouring the common, in the next few weeks. He urged the council to spend some of the development taxes it will raise from the scheme, the first tranche of which it will he says be paid very soon, on improving the paths, and perhaps providing BBQs, in the area near the development. Mr Baxter noted the new open, online, system for monitoring so called S106 taxes and how they were spent announced at the recent West/Central area committee and expressed a hope this would result in the money being spent more appropriately.
Someone noted a clash between the Strawberry Fair and the Jubliee, asking for the Strawberry Fair clean up to be considerate of Jubliee street parties. I have no idea where the potential conflict is envisaged.
I have attended previous AGMs of the Friends of Midsummer Common and have written the following articles:
- Friends of Midsummer Common 2011 AGM
- Friends of Midsummer Common 2010 AGM
- Friends of Midsummer Common 2009 AGM
- My comments following the Friends of Midsummer Common’s 2007 Open Meeting.
Corrections, additions, etc. are welcome either in the comments, or directly to me as considered appropriate.