I attended Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 13th of November where the decision taken by Executive Councillor Julie Smith to submit a bid for £4.4 million worth of work on Jesus Green was on the agenda.
The decision to submit the bid had already been taken, but was being reviewed by the scrutiny committee, however because there were no recommendations and no need for a vote no councillors were inclined to discuss Jesus Green. The only exchange was that prompted by members of the public raising questions on the bid. Anne Garvey, a Mrs Hipkin (no relation to the councillor) and I had asked to speak. The meeting started at 14.30, members of the public enquiring about the Jesus Green and Strawberry fair items had been told not to expect them to be taken before 16.30, though many arrived when the meeting opened. The items were taken around 17.30, with the meeting not concluding until 19.45. One possible reason they could not be brought forward despite nine members of the public wanting to speak on one or other item was that Executive Councillor Julie Smith did not turn up until almost 17.00. Only six of the nine who wanted to speak were present when they were called. Given the press and public interest in these two items I think they could have been handled better.
I spoke to say:
- I want to comment on the fact the content of the bid document has not yet been made available despite assurances that it would be. My Freedom of Information Act request has not been fulfilled, and the council say it will take a further two weeks to get the document online. This is not acceptable and has resulted in many of those commenting on this bid doing so in relative ignorance. I have been to see the document myself, and appreciate it is large and includes plans, however I believe it could be put online fairly straightforwardly as collection of ten or so PDF documents.
- I want to question the input my local councillors have been able to have in the process of the final acceptance of the bid; specifically asking what representations the Executive Councillor received during the decision making process from the North and West/Central area committees. At the West/Central area committee she reeled off quite a list of councillors she planned to consult before agreeing the bid. I want to find out if these consultations happened, which other councillors actually saw the bid document before it was approved?
- I would like to draw attention to the fact a new area of grass to be lost appears to have been introduced which was not shown on the plans during the consultation period. This is the area surrounding the proposed statue and entrance near the riverside boardwalk. I also noticed from reading the bid as submitted that fifty-nine existing trees are to be removed and a hydroelectric power plant, able to supply only sixteen homes, is to be built, neither of these items made the consultation either.
- Why does the report to this meeting says the new bridge was removed from the bid in response to consultation comments, whereas the West Central Area Committee was told that the bridge always was outside the scope of funds which were being bid for. This appears to me to be a deliberate attempt to make the council look as though they are responding to people’s views as expressed during the consultation when in fact they’re not. The report is not clear on if the new bridge was in fact not supported by consultees. The summary says it was not supported, but the body of the report says respondents were equally split, and that’s not commenting on any bridge, but the specific ludicrous quarter circle, half bridge proposals.
- How did the total project cost has rise so dramatically in the days preceding the submission of the bid. Particularly I want to ask about the council’s contribution. According to the bid document the council has promised to commit £218K of cash over and above the “S.106″ £500K, I think this could have been made much clearer in the record of the decision.
- Why there was a need for an outside consultant to provide the consultation summary? I suggest this has duplicated work conducted internally by the council and has detracted from the process by delaying the publication of a written summary of responses until well after the bid’s submission.
First to respond was Alistair Wilson, the council officer responsible for green spaces. He turned to his fellow officer – Sarah Tovell and said: “it is online isn’t it?”, she told him it wasn’t, and following that last second briefing he reported to the committee that a number of the component items were online. All that is online are those elements which were included in the papers for this meeting, which include the external consultant’s summary of consultation responses and one of the plans. The many other elements which make up the bid document, and are are listed in my article on the Jesus Green lottery bid document are not. Mr Wilson told the committee it was “not easy” to put the document online, but confirmed there was a plan to make it available.
Councillor Julie Smith responded next, starting with the increase in the total project costs from £2m to £4.4m, she stated this increase had been entirely due to accurate costings of the proposals having be carried out. Moving to the question of items not being consulted on Cllr Smith stated that “everything is still up for discussion nothing is set in stone”.
At this point I had a chance to speak again. I pointed out my questions relating to the bridge, and the use of the external consultant had not yet been addressed and clarified them. Cllr Smith had reeled off the ways councillors had been involved in the process of putting together the bid. I noted my question specifically referred to the final stages of making the decision.
On the subject of the bridge, defending the council’s decision to consult on something which could never have been included in the bid Cllr Smith said the aim had been to try and get people’s opinions on as wide a range of options as possible. Cllr Smith denied, and appeared affronted by my suggestion that the council were pretending to have removed the bridge in response to comments from city residents, and accused me of being cynical. She provided no explanation for the fact the council had not consulted on the principle of improving the river crossing for cyclists or that the summary of the consultation responses appeared to inaccurately reflect the views expressed and described in the body of the report.
Cllr Smith assured me that the problems arising from using the external consultant Phil Back would be reviewed and necessary changes made in respect of future consultations.
Cllr Smith confirmed that while her record of decision stated the Chair and Spokesperson of the Community Services Scrutiny Committee had been consulted prior to the action being authorised neither had actually taken her up on her invitation to review the bid. Representatives of the North and West Central Area committee had also declined the invitation. At this point opposition councillors queried whether they had in-fact received such an invitation, they appeared confused as to who was the relevant opposition spokesperson. Perhaps there are different spokespeople for the different executive councillors whose decisions are scrutinised at this meeting and that is how the confusion arose? Cllr Smith confirmed that she had been the only elected councillor to review the final bid document before approving it. This follows assurances given by Cllr Smith to the West/Central area committee that this would not be the case.
Cllr Smith finally advertised the Jesus Green Association meeting on the 2nd of December at 8.00pm in the Octagon room of Wesley Methodist Church noting that it is going to focus on the progress of these proposals.
Local resident Ann Garvey spoke next. She told the committee that there were very many people with a long and passionate association with Jesus Green who opposed these plans, she said she was making a plea for the council to: “Leave Jesus Green alone”, she said: “It’s not a park, and we don’t want it as a theme park”. She said that those using the green “aren’t looking for something to do”, she explained that all most users wanted was the open space which they could do what they wanted with, be it picnic, play football, la-cross, volleyball or anything else. She described the green using the latin phrase: “rus in urbe”, which means “country in the city” and said she wanted it to stay that way.
Mrs Garvey said that many improvements could be made to the green, she pointed to the run-down lavatories and suggested there could be improvements in the way tennis court usage was managed (relating her personal experience of turning up to be told by those already on the court they planned to stay their for at least two hours more). With respect to the toilets and other areas, she said: “they have been run down, they could be run up again”, and suggested the council should be doing such maintenance as a matter of course. Anne Garvey then quoted Shakespeare:
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess…
This proposed work was she said just that – wasteful and ridiculous excess.
Mrs Garvey commented on the way the process of reviewing the decision at this meeting was called “scrutiny” and pointed out it was a bit irrelevant now as it was being done after the fact. She finished by holding up a placard saying :
Don’t make it Jesus less Green
Cllr Blair, the meeting’s chair then said: “well there doesn’t appear to be a question in there” and asked Executive Cllr Julie Smith to respond explaining why the bid was being submitted.
Cllr Smith replied saying she felt Mrs Garvey’s contribution was inconsistent as on one hand she was opposing the proposed work but on the other she was pointing out things which needed to be improved. Cllr Smith I believe intentionally misrepresented what Mrs Garvey had been saying.
Councillors then moved on to the next agenda item which was the decision to allow, or not, Strawberry Fair to go ahead in 2009, I have dealt with that in a dedicated post and have written a further post on the other items discussed.