On the 22nd of September 2010 I observed, and filmed, Cambridge City Council’s planning committee as they discussed the proposed felling of a healthy western red cedar tree and two holly trees in Holy Trinity Churchyard in the City Centre. This was the first City Council deliberation ever to have been filmed, the council only having adopted a policy of allowing such filming, with permission, this summer.
Felling the tree is being considered as the full council have decided to renovate the war memorial (which takes the form of a wooden shelter) that the red cedar tree is growing right next to. The tree’s roots run under the memorial, and branches are in contact with the roof.
The planning committee was not making a decision, but just advising the Executive Councillor Rodrick Cantrill, who will have the final say on what to do with the trees.
While they clearly agreed to fell the holly trees (only Cllr Hipkin abstained), the planning committee were evenly split on the proposal to fell the red cedar with Cllr Hipkin, Blair, Stuart and Dixon voting for the felling and Cllrs Wright, Nimmo-Smith, Znajek and Tunnacliffe voting to retain the tree. Cllr Dixon stated that he had no choice but use his casting vote in the same way as he had used his initial vote so the overall advice from the planning committee to Cllr Cantrill was that the tree ought be felled. (Often those using a casting vote consider they should use it to keep the status quo rather than to prompt action).
Cllr Cantrill was not present to hear the committee’s deliberations in person; and he had not publicly set any timetable for him to make his final decision. Decisions by executive councillors are often made in public, straight after they have had advice from the relevant committee, but in this case nothing is known about when Cllr Cantrill plans to make the decision or if he plans to communicate what he has decided, and his reasons, to the public.
During a break in the meeting Cllr Clare Blair approached council officers and asked them to note in the minutes that Cllr Cantrill had planned to attend the meeting, but had not made it for the item which had been brought to the beginning of the agenda due to the presence of a public speaker. The meeting’s chair Cllr Dixon stated that Cllr Cantrill had not made him aware of his intention to attend. After the end of the meeting Cllr Blair asked committee officers to prepare summary of the debate, and a notice of the position reached, for Cllr Cantrill. Cllr Blair regularly seeks to personally direct officers in this manner rather than working through the committee.
Public Speaker – Rosemary Jones
The reason the fellings were being considered by the committee, and Cllr Cantrill, is that an objection to the proposed felling had been received from a resident Rosemary Jones (there may have been other objections, the report was unclear on that point). Without this objection unelected and unaccountable council officers would have taken the decision themselves. Rosemary Jones did not allow permission for her statement to the committee to be filmed; she said: “I have enough trouble speaking”. She began her contribution by saying this was the first time she had spoken in public for a long time. She said that the area had changed a lot since the memorial had been constructed and claimed it pre-dated the nearby telephone boxes, taxi-rank and members of the public sitting about chatting. Councillors were urged “to show sympathy and respect for both what the memorial stands for and for what the natural environment stands for”. Rosemary Jones suggested re-building the memorial back from the road, something she said had occurred at St. Andrew’s church. She then suggested to councillors that moving the taxi rank or phone boxes would be just as expensive (I don’t understand the relevance of that point at all).
Rosemary Jones then complained about the bad state of repair of the memorial and asked councillors to ensure elements of it were kept, especially the names. She suggested the council ought ask the army to help and urged that: “everyone should be consulted”. She said there had been no effective consultation on the council’s proposals to fell the trees as the consultation period was in August when “everyone is on holiday”. She said councillors needed to consult with the church, “as the memorial is on consecrated ground”. Rosemary Jones then asked councillors to consider “Christ’s teaching” asking them to ask themselves; “What would he have done?” She then claimed the tree was “one of the most remarkable trees on the planet” saying it had medicinal properties. Her remarks concluded with her saying to councillors that they had a particular duty to act responsibly as many students come to learn in Cambridge and she asked councillors to consider what they would be teaching those students if they agreed to fell the tree; she suggested they would take what they learnt in Cambridge all over the world and said councillors ought send a signal: “Don’t cut down healthy trees”.
Public speakers at council meetings are often interesting characters.
The meeting was opened by Cllr Dixon and this item was taken first. Cllr Dryden queried if he ought declare an interest as it had been him who has been lobbying for the council to renovate the memorial. This was slightly naughty as he really should have taken advice from the council’s legal officer before the meeting. Cllr Dryden received advice from a council officer, decided he did have a prejudicial interest, and left the room for while the matter was discussed.
I was asked to stop filming when the public speaker approached the committee table, but was then told I could film again while the council’s principal tree officer and historic environment manager introduced the proposals, this occurred before the public speaking slot.
I was not allowed to move the camera at any point during the meeting.
Key points from the debate:
- Cllr Tunnacliffee suggested revisiting the idea of refurbishing the memorial, he suggested replacing it with “an elegantly carved stone”. He questioned if a structure akin to a village bus shelter ought be kept in the modern city. He was told this was outside the scope of what the meeting had been asked to consider.
- Cllr Stuart asked for more details of the replacement tree proposed; she was told it would be a “scholar’s tree” planted as a sapling, about 3m high. It would grow out over the pavement, make a substantial contribution to the street, and would have leaves which light would come through.
- Cllr Blair asked for photos of examples of mature specimens of proposed replacement trees to be provided to future committee meetings.
- Ian Nimmo-Smith and Cllr Wright pursued details of pruning options, given they voted to retain the tree it appears they may have been persuaded that removing some of the lower branches would be a practical option.
- It was revealed that one reason for removing the tree was to allow scaffolding to be used to access the roof of the memorial for repairs.
- Cllr Dixon said it was a good tree in the wrong place.
- Cllr Nimmo-Smith said he thought it was a tree of an appropriate scale for its location.
- Moving the memorial was thought not to be an attractive option as the council has secured funds from English Heritage to restore it in-situ.
- Cllr Hipkin said the council had a duty to spend funds wisely, and suggested refurbishing the memorial with this tree growing so close to it and potentially damaging it in the future would be irresponsible.
- Cllr Tunnacliffe said he thought the fact the replacement tree would not be evergreen meant something would be lost; Cllr Dixon said he thought opening the area up would be a good thing
- Cllr Roman Znajek suggested a better form of consultation than notices on the trees in this case would have been stopping passers by in the street.
I think this is a difficult decision, as shown by the result of the vote at the planning committee.
I think it would have been more useful if the planning committee had addressed the question of if the tree had a Tree Preservation Order on it and had it required conservation area consent to before works what, if any, works would the planning committee approve. I suspect this was what many councillors were doing, but some were introducing wider considerations. In that situation I would have voted to allow pruning of the first 3m or so, leaving the tops unaffected. I think the tree, as one of the very few trees in that area, is of immense value.
I think that while the planning committee deliberated primarily only on the single issue of the tree; the next steps have to involve a more holistic view of the plot of land, the memorial and the tree. I would need a lot more information, on the land ownership in the area and the views of those proposing restoring the memorial to exactly as it was (despite the world changing around it) before coming to a decision on the overall question myself. I think the area ought be brought back into every-day use and think it has the potential to offer a small tranquil area just out of the path of the busy areas it is surrounded by which I would suspect would be well used. I think adapting, moving, re-factoring the memorial within the immediate space should not be ruled out.