Cambridge City Council makes hire charges for those using the city’s commons and green spaces. It makes these charges even to other public sector organisations, as well as to charity events, non-profit events and events organised by local campaign groups.
A strict interpretation of the council’s current rules means that an individual organising a picnic could find themselves billed for the minimum hire charge, currently £86.10. It is not only the charge itsself which is problematic, council officers also demand risk assessments from those hiring the green spaces.
The Cambridge Cycling Campaign was charged for using Midsummer Common as a meeting up point for its cycle ride to the Reach Fair, and Cambridgeshire Police were charged when they landed their helicopter on Parker’s Piece during their open day.
As the council has started to levy these charges for small events which require no council staff involvement, don’t damage the green spaces in any way, and because currently the decision on if a charge is made or not appears to be made rather haphazardly, I though it would be useful to seek clarification. At the West Central Area Committee on the 26th of August 2010 I used the Open Forum section of the meeting to ask:
What is the threshold at which you make hire charges for the use of the city’s green spaces?
I pointed out to councillors that they even charge other public bodies and community groups and that as their proceedure stands they can charge for people just meeting up. As an example I cited a picnic held by the Friends of Midsummer common the previous weekend, I asked if that would be incurring the £86.10 charge.
Mr Baxter, the chairman of the Friends of Midsummer Common was sitting next to me; he noted that if the group did receive such an invoice it would just be money going round in circles as the council provided the group with funding to cover such costs in any case.
The executive councillor with responsibility for the city’s green spaces, Cllr Cantrill, was unexplainedly absent from the meeting so in his place my question was responded to in the form of a double act from Cllrs Sian Reid and Julie Smith. Cllr Julie Smith playing the role of the ex. executive councillor with responsibility for the green spaces, and Cllr Reid as leader of the City Council.
Cllr Smith claimed that if a charge was levied or not “depends on what people apply to do” and “if they put in an application”. She said that “the council doesn’t go round patrolling”. She then pointed to the range of hire charges the council levies stressing that smaller events incurred reduced charges. Cllr Smith added that the council hires the green spaces out internally too (one part of the council paying another) and appeared to be suggesting that helped justify charging others.
The leader of the council, Cllr Sian Reid said that a small community event, most of the time, would not incur any costs. Both she and Cllr Smith said that council officers had, and should be using, discretion. She said that she didn’t think an informal local picnic should be charged, though “if they didn’t clear up or caused damage there should be some come-back”. Cllr Reid then re-iterated the point made by Cllr Smith, that if a charge is incurred largely depends on if a group applies to the council to use the green space, and confirmed that if no application was made then no charge would be levied.
Cllr Reid asked Mr Baxter if a charge had been made for the Friends’ Picnic; Mr Baxter responded to say that while he had informed the council of the event they had not been charged. In an attempt to reduce the chance of a charge being made, he pointed out to councillors that it had been rather wet on the day of the picnic. (It would be hard for the council to claim they were unaware of the event as the Mayor attended in her official capacity!)
The chairman of the West Central Area committee asked me if I wanted to say anything in response to the reply I had obtained. I said that I had obtained a clear response showing the council was taking a rather ludicrous position and the message from the council leader to groups planning events on the city’s green spaces was not to tell the council about them unless they wanted to incur a charge. Cllr Bick agreed with my summary of the position, but accused me of being “cynical”.
Observing the Decision to Levy These Charges
I observed the Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 15th of January 2009 where the current hire charge policy for the city’s green spaces was determined. Labour Cllr Kevin Blencowe questioned the introduction of a new charge for fun runs under 500 people being held on Cambridge’s parks and open spaces; he said he wasn’t sure it was justified. The council’s charging schedule defines fun runs as “to include fun runs, cycle rides and charity walks”, so the council’s intent to charge events like the Cycling Campaign’s Reach Ride and smaller charity events was clear from the outset.
The Executive Councillor, then Liberal Democrat Cllr Julie Smith, approved the new charge with no lower threshold despite having it drawn to her attention and questioned by opposition members of the committee. (I recall Cllr Walker weighed in a bit too)
So in terms of being a legitimate charge, formally approved by an executive councillor, in public, after hearing representations from other councillors on the scrutiny committee it has all been done properly and democratically.
Council officers responded to Cllr Blencowe’s questions to explain that the point of the charges was to cover costs incurred to the council; examples included staff time to open gates and it was suggested that the council may help with other aspects eg. fencing. The suggestion appeared to be that event organisers were getting a good deal.
The formal minutes record that a member of the committee questioned: “Whether the charge proposed for Fun Runs and Charity Walks fewer than 500 people was reasonable.” but don’t include any further details.
I was also present at the 14th January 2010 meeting where the charges were re-approved for this year – without comment or debate.
The latest charges – as councillors approved them – are in Appendix B of
the report to that meeting
I can see no provision there for any assessment of an event’s alignment to the council’s aims and objectives (as I understand the council have told the Cycling Campaign is a factor in calculating a charge), or any reference to discretion for council officers to waive charges as Cllrs Smith and Reid indicated ought be in place .
The Community Services Scrutiny Committee voted on the “service plans” which included the charging schedules in both January 2009 and January 2010. On both occasions this vote was 5:0 – five Lib Dems voting for the proposals and the opposition members abstaining.
There have been elections since, and in which the Liberal Democrats have won the majority of the seats and the councillor leading the opposition to these charges Cllr Blencowe has lost his; so while it is impossible to determine exactly why people vote the way they do and it is unlikely this individual decision will be a major factor in anyone’s choice of how to vote there does appear to be public support for what the Liberal Democrats are doing in Cambridge.
What the council did in Jan 09 was remove the threshold of 500 people at which charging would start; it appears to me having a threshold like that was a great idea to avoid charges for very small events and should be restored.
If council officers are going to be given the flexibility not to apply charges, then the document outlining the hire rates needs to include a framework, and examples, showing where charges may be expected to be waived.
Currently there is no logic behind the charges levied; the city council charged itsself £83.00 for holding the November the 5th Bonfire on Midsummer Common, the same minimum charge rate as it charged the Cycling Campaign to meet up.
Cllr Rod Cantrill is now the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation. He needs to be asked to reverse his predecessor’s decisions. I was disappointed that councillors at the West Central Area committee didn’t think this was necessary; but hope that perhaps councillors at upcoming Community Services Scrutiny Committees might take a different view, especially as it will now be possible to highlight the differences between what the council leader and Cllr Smith have said they think ought to be the case and what is actually happening.
Where charges are made internally within the council, or to other public sector organisations, it appears this is just irrational moving of money round in circles to keep the legions of administrators in each organisation busy and ought to be stopped.
The present situation where the council could try and impose charges on those organising games of football or volleyball – or even a picnic – is not in my view something which should continue.