An open meeting of the Jesus Green Association (JGA) was held on the 2nd of December 2008, the main agenda item was discussion of Cambridge City Council’s bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £4.4 million of work on Jesus Green. The chair estimated that about one hundred people were present. The overwhelming mood of the meeting was opposition to the council’s “grandiose” plans for the green and a wish to conserve the green space. Only one person spoke in favour of the current plans.
The City Council sent a team of senior people to defend the bid; officers included Sarah Tovell, City Council Green Space Officer, Debbie Kaye the Head of Active Communities and Alistair Wilson the council’s Green Spaces Manager. Liberal councillors present included the leader of the council Ian Nimmo-Smith, Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation Julie Smith, Clare Blair the chair of the Community Services Scrutiny Committee and Cllr Tim Bick.
- The Jesus Green Association is not supporting the lottery bid.
- Councillor Julie Smith withdrew comments she had made in a letter to the Cambridge Evening News in which she had stated all the fifty-nine trees to be felled were “old and frail, poorly formed or diseased”. She said she had been misled by council staff, and had wrongly assumed that these trees had been identified by the council’s own tree officers as needing to be felled.
- Councillor Blair explained why she had not read the bid document despite being one of the councillors asked to approve it immediately prior to submission, saying: “it is a large document and I cannot be expected to read every page”.
- The membership of the Friends of Jesus Green Pool, pool users, and the membership of the Jesus Green Association (prior to this meting) have not been consulted on the plans, consultation has only been at committee level. This has left many feeling they ought to have been consulted earlier.
- The council’s tree officers were not involved in drawing up the plans.
- Public involvement and consultation has been promised in the forthcoming stages.
In his opening remarks Mr Cooper, the chair of the JGA, acknowledged that it was a bit late for the JGA to be holding this open meeting given the bid has now been submitted and it could have usefully have been held earlier in the process.
I used my opportunity to speak to say:
Firstly I would like to congratulate Mr Cooper and the Jesus Green Association for holding an open meeting. I have been present at a number of occasions when Mr Cooper has presented the views of the association to the council and have seen him struggle to get what he has to say given due weight when compared for example with the opinions of those young people who the council paid for their opinions. I hope this new openness leads to the JGA gaining legitimacy and becoming more effective as a lobbying organisation.
The Jesus Green association has received grants from the council to improve its communications, these could be used to increase the organisation’s inclusiveness, perhaps partly by establishing a web presence, I think that would strengthen the association.
I would like to point out some flaws with the consultation process. I believe it has been too focused on interest groups such as the JGA, the Friends of the Jesus Green Pool and paid youths. I do not think there has been enough involvement from local councillors. There were elements of the plans missing from the public consultation including the entrance piazza, the fifty nine trees to be felled and the hydroelectric scheme. It has been left to the Cambridge Evening News and local residents to publicise these elements of the plans.
The council’s response to the consultation has also been flawed, they highlight the new cycle bridge as something which has been removed following comments, but it was never a possibility in any case as it is outside the terms of the lottery grant being applied for.
I want to turn to trees, and address Cllr Julie Smith’s recent letter in the Cambridge Evening News in which she stated all the fifty-nine trees to be felled were “old and frail, poorly formed or diseased”. Many of these trees have recently been planted by the council’s own tree officers who were, according to Bronwyn Hipkin’s investigations, completely sidelined during the preparation of the current proposals in favour of external consultants. Does one arm of the council knew what the other is doing? One particular tree under threat is a youthful oak which appears to me to be successfully establishing itself.
We are not, in these plans, being as visionary as those who in 1890 planted the London Plane Avenue. Why can’t we be the generation which plants an avenue of Oaks which lasts a thousand years?
Lastly I want to comment on what could be done without the lottery money. A condition of the £4.4 million bid is that the City Council put up a quarter of the money, £1.1 million pounds. In cash terms that is made up of half a million pounds of “S.106″ money from developers building in the city, and and additional £218K promised by the council. Much of that money will surely be available without the lottery grant, and to me appears more than enough to improve the fabric of and facilities on the green.
I do not believe the council should be looking to the lottery for funds for maintenance.
Councillor Julie Smith addressed the question of why the “S.106″ money could not be spent now, and why the green was suffering from a lack of maintenance. She said the funds had to be held back until the lottery had made a decision on the bid as they would be required to release the lottery money. She said that if the Heritage Lottery Fund did decide not to fund the project then the “S.106″ money could be used, and the council would look again at smaller projects. City Council Officer Debbie Kaye interjected to say that some “S.106″ money was available now, and the rest would become available over the next few years.
Julie Smith also addressed the question of the fifty-nine trees which she had described in a letter to the Cambridge Evening News as: “old and frail, poorly formed or diseased”. She said she had been misled by council staff, and had wrongly assumed that these trees had been identified by the council’s own tree officers as needing to be felled. Cllr Smith stated there had been “no intention to mislead”. She had confused the current proposals with a survey of trees which had been carried out by council staff. I hope that she will be issuing her retraction in the letters page of the Cambridge Evening News.
Cllr Julie Smith denied signing off on the bid document alone, slimily noting that a council officer had authorised it too. I thought this was a very bizarre thing for her to say given that she was the executive councillor who made the decision to submit the bid in its final form; the council officer was simply enacting her decision. Cllr Smith confirmed that she had been the only elected councillor to review the final bid document before approving it at Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 13th of November.
Cllr Julie Smith made an offer to me, and others, to meet on the green and look at some of the trees which she is proposing to fell.
Cllr Smith also pointed to the planning process as another opportunity those opposed to elements of the plans can raise their objections.
Council officer Sarah Tovell was invited to comment on the consultation process, she again tried to extrapolate from fact there had been seven thousand “hits” on the consultation webpages to seven thousand people having viewed them.
Anne Garvey introduced herself as representing the “Don’t make Jesus Green Less Green” campaign and held up a placard as she spoke. She reported that her campaign had around two hundred members, one hundred and sixty-four of whom had registered their objection to the proposals with the Heritage Lottery Fund. She stated her, and her group’s aims were to preserve and conserve the green. (More of Anne Garvey’s Comments on Jesus Green can be found here)
Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner was present and spoke briefly. He said he lived by Jesus Green – on Victoria Road. He was the first of many to use the word “grandiose” saying:
“The scheme proposed is grandiose and out of all proportion to what is needed”.
He said he wanted to see a proper plan to plant new trees down Victoria Avenue. He also asked what the current use of the lock keepers’ cottage was, and Mr Cooper informed him it was owned by the Conservators of the Cam and rented to students. The leader of Cambridge City Council, Ian Nimmo-Smith nodded in agreement, this was his only active contribution to the meeting, though I presume he was listening.
Mr Cooper told the meeting that as chair of the JGA he had been asked to provide a letter in support of the bid to be sent with it to the Heritage Lottery Fund. He reported that he had drafted a letter saying that he and the JGA approved of some elements of the proposed work but not others. When he put his draft letter to his other committee members they instructed him not to send it, as they did not want to support the bid at all. The letter was not sent.
Cllr Blair addressed the meeting, initially she spoke from a position, and in a manner meaning she could not be heard, she then moved to the front of the room, and spoke more loudly, saying: “I apologise if I put on my “playground voice” to address you, but I am a mother*“. Adopting a lecturing tone she tried to defend her role in the process of approving the bid. Cllr Smith had told the meeting that Cllr Blair had been consulted on content of the final bid document. Cllr Smith had told the community services scrutiny committee that neither Cllr Blair or the opposition spokesperson had taken her up on her invitation to review the final document. Cllr Blair told this JGA open meeting that she had not taken up invitation to review the final bid document as: “it is a large document and I cannot be expected to read every page”.
Cllr Tim Bick said that he was present at the meeting primarily to listen, and that he considered this meeting to be part of the ongoing consultation and he suggested that he would be taking what he was hearing on board. He stressed that the engagement with the public over the Jesus Green proposals had not stopped. He described the Jesus Green as the “live and let live Green”, he said he was passionate about the uniqueness of the green and thought it had a diversity of appeal. Cllr Bick ended by saying he considered the lottery funding as an opportunity which we should use well.
Independent councillor, John Hipkin was present and spoke to the meeting. He summarised what he thought was the approach being taken by the City Council as being to: “put in for more than you need, then scale it down”. He said he didn’t think this was a bad strategy. He also said that “if trees are in a state of decay then there is no problem removing them”. Having made those comments he went on to say that he felt it was important to leave the green as open space. After the meeting Mr Hipkin told me he was considering asking an oral question to Cllr Julie Smith at Thursday’s Full Council meeting, perhaps asking her what she took away from tonight.
Andy Smart, a previous committee member of the Jesus Green Association spoke scathingly about the City Council’s consultation process, describing it as a scam. He said it had not involved the necessary dialogue and instead appeared to have been designed primarily to enable the council to tick a box on the lottery funding application form confirming consultation had been carried out. In terms of the future of the green itsself he said he did want to see it evolve, but clearly only following the involvement of residents and others in developing the plans.
Peter Constable spoke describing himself as a resident of Park Parade and a founding member of the Jesus Green association and Save our Green Spaces. He opposed the scale of the current bid, and questioned the huge increase in the cost of the proposed work from £2.4 to £4.4 million. He also questioned the lack of maintenance of the green and the need for lottery money, asking if there would be lottery bids put in for other green spaces in the city, midsummer common for example, where local people were currently raising money themselves to fund tree planting. I think it may have been Mr Constable who drew the meeting’s attention to the fact that the Cambridge bid was seeking a very high proportion (17%) of the total Parks for People budget.
Rupert Morgan, introduced himself as a skater, he said he had come to the meeting to defend the skate park. He drew attention to problems with it; he said it had not been constructed very well and was subsiding. Cllr Smith took his name and contact details.
A member of the public suggested that heating the pool would be a worthwhile addition to the bid, and would increase the number of people who would use it. Others expanded on how this would be of benefit to all by pointing out increased usage would be expected to lead to improved facilities and a removal of restricted opening – closing some lanes of the pool.
Bronwyn Hipkin spoke about the three wonderful facilities on Jesus Green: the Pool, the Skate Park and the Tennis Courts. She also told the meeting how she had spoken to the city council’s tree officer and found they had not been involved at all in working up the plans. She described the City Council’s tree department as excellent and wondered why outside consultants had been used in preference.
Boni Sones spoke primarily to show the potential of the Jesus Green pool by comparing it to the London Lidos. Boni Sones was also critical of the meeting’s chair, suggesting that he ought to have taken a series of indicative votes to see, for example, how many of those attending were in favour of the lottery bid in the form in which it had been submitted. Her request was denied by the chair.
A resident spoke to comment on the increased commercialisation of the Green, asking who would move into the new two story cafe. She pointed to the existence of the family run La Mimosa on the edge of the Green and questioned the desirability for something else along those lines.
Many who spoke described how much they appreciated Cambridge’s green areas, particularly Jesus Green. One of the most memorable came from a lady who lives in a one-bed flat near the Grafton Centre who said how much she loved the green and the fact she could go out there and kick leaves.
- A resident of Herbert Street commended on the seats, she said that she needed to sit down often when she was out, and found many of the seats to be in a poor state of repair.
- One resident commented on the city council’s play boat, referring to it, perhaps accidently, as “pirate ship”. (Unless there is a pirate ship in the plans somewhere I’ve missed?)
- A resident of Searle Street directly asked Cllr Julie Smith what the proposed “Performance Area” was actually going to consist of, “What is it?” he asked. Cllr Smith did not reply.
- Another person addressed the meeting saying they felt the path along the river was dangerous in its current state and they would like to see it improved.
- Another speaker said Jesus Green compared favorably to parks in Brighton, saying that Jesus Green was rare tranquil city centre park, she did not want to see any new piazzas and her overwhelming message was: “Leave it alone”.
Towards the end discussion thoughts turned to what will happen next. Council representatives were asked: “Will the council commit to putting details of the on-going consultation on their website; perhaps including their summary of this evening’s meeting.” The officers didn’t reply, but appeared to me to indicate assent. A number of other people suggested that the council ought to work harder to make the on-going consultation process which was being promised “more visible”, using the City Council’s website. Specifically requests were made for the council to highlight changes which were being made in response to public demand, with one person summing up what was being requested by saying: “The council needs to reassure Cambridge residents that we matter”.
Mr Cooper summed up saying that the JGA did not support the lottery bid, because of the reasons which had been expressed at this meeting.
Afterwards I met someone who had not spoken, but was in favour of the plans. He was involved in the Beer Festival and felt that he had been consulted properly in May 2007 and the current plans reflected what had been discussed at that time. He thought that putting in a massively over priced and over ambitious bid was reasonable, given the assumption that it would be pared down considerably by the lottery.
Also speaking to me afterwards, John Lawton, of Save our Green Spaces said that he felt campaign groups and residents associations were most important when the democratic structures weren’t working. He accepted that the ideal would be for councillors to represent their constituents, but the question was what should happen when they do not.
Two Police Community Support Officers sat through the whole meeting.
This article reflects my recollection of the meeting, I am happy to take any comments or corrections. I realise I have not covered all the views expressed in detail, do use the comments section if you would like to note what you said to the meeting or make any other comment.
(Thanks to Lucy for the fudge, and Peter Constable for the pint of London Pride which sustained me though this evening. The meeting’s chair let me know someone had commented on the fact I had taken the above photo, I showed Mr Cooper the images I had and offered to delete them however having reviewed them he did not consider that necessary.)