The play-area for younger children on Jesus Green is rather desolate at the moment as a number of pieces of play equipment have been removed.
At last week’s Jesus Green Association AGM Cambridge City Council’s position was reported to be:
- The play-area cannot be refurbished this winter in-time for spring-summer 2010; due to the council’s long drawn out consultation procedures.
- Any work is likely to be done in the winter of 2010/11.
- The council have made an offer of temporary play equipment, but this had not been confirmed
Members of the association committee were able to report the above council stance it had been revealed at meetings of the “Jesus Green Working Group”. The working group appears to be a City Council run body, it is chaired by Cllr Julie Smith, the Liberal Democrat Executive Councilor for Arts and Recreation. Meetings of the “Jesus Working Group” are held in secret, in that they are not open to the public, their times, locations and agendas are not published by the council and no minutes are released afterwards.
To try and break through the council’s veil of secrecy and get some key information about the current state of proposed works on Jesus Green into the public domain I decided to use the pubic open-forum section of the West Central Area Committee on the 10th of December to ask councillors :
- To speed up the proposed work on the playground and get it done in time for next spring (2010 rather than 2011).
- To repeat the offer of temporary play equipment, in public; and to confirm that will be deployed if the refurbishment is delayed.
- To clarify the current state of consultation on:
- The play area
- The proposed multi-use games area, hard court tennis court, skate park extension and “natural play” (highwire) zones. (funding for some of these items was approved by councillors in January 2009)
- To make public key elements of what has been discussed in the Jesus Green Working group meetings.
I pointed out that had the working group met in public, and and had their papers been published online by the council I wouldn’t have had to ask my question. I also drew attention to the fact there was some degree of confusion among those who attended the Jesus Green Association AGM about the consultation process, eg. who had been consulted and if the consultations were over or ongoing. This state of affairs could have been avoided had there been more openness from the council.
Councillor Julie Smith responded. Initially she said there was no secret meeting; before admitting the existence of the Jesus Green working group. She said the group included the “Jesus Less Green” campaign, council officers, the Jesus Green Association, the Cam Conservators and others. She confirmed there is “not an open invitation to the meetings” but did not defend or explain the secrecy.
With respect to the playground Cllr Smith said that she was not prepared to commit to the provision of temporary play equipment for next year should refurbishment be delayed. She suggested I attend the Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 14th of January 2010 and put my questions there. It costs Cambridge City Council at least £114,300 a year hold area committees, I wonder what the point is if those asking questions such as mine are asked to attend central scrutiny meetings instead.
She said that the process of consulting and seeking advice took a long time. Cllr Smith said the consultations with respect to the playground and other items was not over, but that consultation happened in “various stages”. Cllr Smith did not appear aware of the specific details of what consultation had occurred, if the public had been consulted – or just the selected groups. She made some comment about a consultation being put online and an opportunity to respond being given. She said there had been consultation particularly via the councils’ Chypps team (Cambridge City Council’s Children and Young People’s Participation Service).
- See the City Council’s Jesus Green consultations webpage and judge the quality of open and transparent engagement with the public yourself. (At the time of writing the page refers to two questionnaires which are not linked and says “The final plan will be publicised here when it is ready.”)
Cllr Smith was flailing. She was saying things like: “Consultation has not begun and ended” which doesn’t help clarify what’s going on at all.
Returning to the play area specifically; Cllr Smith said there were some suggestions the play area ought expand and the Jesus Green Association was to look at where it ought be located, she said she was not currently aware of any support for moving it and stated that either expansion or moving would require planning permission. The implication of the latter point being that the planning process will involve yet more delay and “consultation”.
Lack of Clarity
One person present at the Jesus Green Association AGM said that she had been told the consultation period had closed on the 20th of November 2009. This is the closing date on the questionnaire for users of the skatepark. Cllr Smith’s response did not provide the clarity I was seeking about the current position of the consultations and any proposed timetable for the future.
Belinda Brooks-Gordon’s Interjection
Cllr Brooks-Gordon very rarely says anything at area committee meetings but she did make a rather odd contribution to this discussion. She made the suggestion that the council ought write to me and tell me how I can become involved in one of the “Stakeholder groups” and so attend the “Jesus Green Working Group” and have a route for my views on Jesus Green to be heard.
Her fellow councillors groaned at this comment presumably as it clearly illustrates the problem with the Liberal Democrat’s view of how local decision making should not be democratic open and inclusive but delegated to those few people who are members of residents associations and other similar groups.
Cllr Julie Smith Under Pressure
A number of councillors, including Cllr Reid, began whispering to Cllr Smith. I think they were aware that there ought to be more openness and clarity with respect to the proposals for Jesus Green and had been as unimpressed by her answers as I ad been. Reluctantly, under pressure from her party colleagues, Cllr Smith spoke again to say:
“We do make notes of the meetings and I see no reason why they can’t be made public”.
A success; which I have followed up with a freedom of information request.
Had Cllr Smith been able to explain the position clearly at the West / Central area committee there would not have been any need to make the FOI request.
The Jesus Green Working Group
The existence of the Jesus Green Working Group has been revealed previously as it was mentioned at the Jesus Green Association EGM where the JGA chairman Peter Constable expressed his opposition to the council setting up a group which apparently duplicating the aims of the JGA and Jordan Collins published his invitation to the first meeting of the group in March 2009 on facebook. That invitation reveals the participants to be representatives from;;
- Jesus Green Association
- Friends of Jesus Green Pool
- Save our open Spaces
- Jesus Less green
- Conservators of the Cam
- Cam boaters
- Students Union
- Cambridge Preservation Society
- Park St Association
- Skateboard group
Anthony Bowen’s Bizarre Attempt to Discredit Me
Anthony Bowen, the representative of Jesus College and Park Street School on the Jesus Green Association, spoke after Julie Smith had responded. He said : “I was at the Jesus Green association meeting and Richard Taylor’s interpretation of it baffles me”. That was all he said.
I felt he implied that I had misled the West/Central area committee so when he left the meeting I went out with him to ask him what he felt I had said which was inaccurate. I put it to him that the only points I had made directly arising from the meeting were an accurate reflection of what had been said. There had been confusion among attendees about the if the consultation had finished or not, the committee had reported the council’s intention not to replace the playground this winter and it was reported an offer of temporary play equipment had been made.
Mr Bowen said he wasn’t arguing that I had misrepresented what was said at the JGA meeting, but that he felt I was “silly” to have described the “Jesus Green Working Group” as “secret”. He claimed that I could have found out about the meetings. I think Mr Bowen was wrong to attempt to discredit what everything I had said, rather than focusing on his specific disagreement.
Mr Bowen is an ex. Liberal Democrat County Councillor.
While there are still those who believe that it is acceptable to conduct public affairs behind closed doors I am sure that openness and transparency in public decision making is worth campaigning for.
Months, and even years of unfocused, non-inclusive, consultation is unacceptably slow progress. It should be much easier than it is to find out about the council’s plans for Jesus Green.
Liberal Democrats stand on a platform of localism; but I don’t think what we’ve seen them implement in Cambridge is remotely democratic, open or inclusive.