A number of items of proposed work on Jesus Green were taken to Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 15th of January 2009 for approval. These are all to be funded by “section 106” money which comes from payments developers make to the city council in lieu of providing community, social and recreational facilities within new developments.
Approval from councillors was sought for:
- Natural Play Zone – Jesus Green’ Natural play zone, introducing high wire zones & awareness of bio diversity
- Additional Hard tennis Courts on Jesus Green
- Expansion/Extension of Skate Park – Jesus Green
It was reported that the following items were on hold, pending the Lottery Bid:
- Informal Games Area. £74,500
- Refurbish play area – £137,850
Two additional items were listed as items which are going to included in a new procurement process:
- Jesus Green Multi Use Games Area (MUGA) – £95,000
- Jesus Green Play Area – £185,000
Most of these items involve the proposed loss of more green space on Jesus Green, particularly the Hard Tennis Court, the MUGA and the expanded skate park.
Two representatives of the Jesus Green Association attended the meeting making use of the opportunity available to all members of the public to address council meetings. They expressed concern that these items were being brought to the committee for approval without prior extensive consultation with the Jesus Green Association and others. Details of the projects were asked for, questions included what a “Natural Play Zone” was, what a “High Wire Zone” was and how awareness of biodiversity be achieved. On the additional hard tennis court, they asked if this would be on a new area of the common or if an existing grass court was to be converted. They also asked what was envisaged by the expansion of the skate park. The pair suggested that councillors be clear what they were doing, the recommendations asked councillors to approve the projects, the association wanted clarity over the fact councillors were not giving the final go-ahead at that meeting.
The Executive Councillor responsible, Cllr Julie Smith was not present at the beginning of the meeting, so the only response received was from officers.
Debbie Kaye, Head of Active Communities at Cambridge City Council responded first; saying that the concerns appeared to relate to communication in relation to the process. As the Jesus Green Association representatives were aware, she explained this was not the final stage of the process. The problem was that this meeting was being asked to approve the spending, but this was happening before there had been consultation.
Another council “Active Communities” officer, Ian Ross also gave an answer, he said that what councillors were being asked to do was give their go-ahead for consultations on the projects to start. He also said it was important to consider schemes against the criteria for s106 funding to ensure ineligible schemes were not listed. Outside the meeting Debbie Kaye spoke of how it was important that officers got a democratic mandate from councillors before doing too much preparatory work on projects.
As for what the Natural Play Zone is to comprise, Ian Ross said it was to involve natural grass earth mounds (Teletubby style?) and logs which would provide a “natural play structure”. On the High Wire Zone, he said this involved “climbing cables”, he said it was nothing like “go ape”, wasn’t extremely hefty, and didn’t involve cables being strung between trees. On the tennis courts, he said this was just a “concept idea”.
Usually, according to the council’s rules on public speaking, members of the public are given three minutes per speaker or questioner, with a further two minutes for a supplementary question or response. Cllr Blair who was chairing the meeting denied the representatives of the Jesus Green Association the opportunity to respond to the officers comments (she curtailed all public questioning at the meeting in the same manner).
Quite a few hours after the Jesus Green Association’s questions at the beginning of the meeting, the agenda got to the point of councillors discussing the item.
Jesus Green Association representatives at the meeting did not bring the multi-use games area up separately. Councillor Knightly queried this, and expressed his surprise, saying “they didn’t kick up a fuss about this”. Officers did not correct him and point out they were one and the same so I now presume they are different projects which will each replace grass with an area of hard surfacing, though there was no clarity on this crucial point from officers. All officers did was again explain what the MUGA was, this time going slightly further saying it would be available for use by Park Street School.
Councillors had quite an argument with their officers over the wording of what they were doing. They wanted to make it clear that their approval of these schemes was not prejudicial to the consultations. Cllr Blair, the meeting’s chair, suggested wording of; “approval subject to further investigation and consultation”. Liz Bisset. Director of Community Services intervened indicating that was not acceptable to officers, and suggested that the scheme be approved, but delivery be subject to consultation. The problem was that officers were seeking approval, they said that without approval they could not put these projects on the council’s “capital plan”.
Councillors and officers did not agree any wording on which to vote. They took a vote, which was unanimously in favour, and left it to the chair and opposition spokesperson to agree the wording of what had actually been voted upon, with that wording reflecting what councillors had said at the meeting they wanted to make clear – that the decision was still open to consultation.
The reports to the meeting noted that some schemes, specifically the Multi Use Games Area would require planning permission, so that provides another democratic check, and an opportunity for comments to be made.
Outside the meeting I asked council officer Debbie Kaye if given the overlap with the lottery bid if these items might form some of the council’s £1.1m contribution to the £4.4m total project, but she didn’t know the answer. The overlap with the lottery bid proposals appears almost co-incidental there appears to be a lack of a co-ordinated plan. Debbie Kaye said that these proposals could also be seen as a backup plan, in-case the lottery bid was unsuccessful.
The executive councillor responsible, Julie Smith, said nothing during the discussion the Jesus Green proposals, and they were not subject to any in-depth scrutiny and discussion by councillors.