On Thursday the 1st of July 2010 I attended a seminar and workshop on new tree planting for Jesus Green and Midsummer Common. The fact the meeting had been scheduled was only revealed in public following a question I asked at the West Central Area committee on the 24th of June. At the time of West Central Area Committee the meeting was reported to be invite-only. I made my opposition to this clear but the executive councillor responsible, Cllr Cantrill, said he was not opening up the meeting to everyone.
During the afternoon of Tuesday the 29th of June, with just one clear day left before the meeting, the decision to hold the session in private was reversed and the meeting was opened up to all who expressed an interest. This U-Turn was announced in a city council press release. I was sent a copy of the press release by email, though at the time I wasn’t aware it was a public press release and not a personal email to me offering me the opportunity to register to attend. Even as people were walking into the building some of those attending were unsure of if it was open to the public or not.
@RTaylorUK JG resident here, would have come had I; 1) Not thought that it was ‘private’ 2) Knew when and where it was.
Cambridge CC fulfilling ‘openness’ pledge by running an open meeting but neglecting to tell anyone about it. #CambridgeCityCouncil
I suspect Mr O’Donovan was not alone. Open meetings of the Jesus Green Association (JGA) and Friends of Midsummer Common (FoMC) can each attract around a hundred people, with relatively little overlap between the two groups yet I think only four members of the public, including me, attended the event. We were joined by representatives of Jesus College, the JGA, FoMC, Brunswick and North Kite Residents Association, Cambridge Past Present and Future and an ex. council tree officer. The eight to ten attendees were almost outnumbered by councillors and council officers. Roderick Cantrill the executive councillor for Arts and Recreation (an area which includes responsibility for the city’s green spaces) was present from the start and he was joined later by East Chesterton Councillor Clare Blair and Market Ward Councillor Tim Bick. Despite Midsummer Common and Jesus Green being in their ward the other representatives of Market Ward, Cllrs Rosenstiel and Dixon, were not present, and it wasn’t clear if they had been invited. A large contingent of city council officers were present including:
- Director of Environment and Planning – Simon Payne
- Principal Arboricultural Officer – Diana Oviatt-Ham
- Head of Active Communities – Debbie Kaye
- Principal Landscape Architect – Dinah Foley-Norman
- Tree Officer – Kenny McGregor
- Historic Environment Manager – John Preston
- Green Space Manager – Alistair Wilson
I hope they weren’t all on overtime.
Cllr Cantrill’s Introduction
Mr Payne introduced Cllr Cantrill, making clear he had only recently taken on responsibility for the Arts and Recreation portfolio.
Cllr Cantrill began rather abstractly by saying Midsummer Common had evolved over time and told those present that five hundred years ago there had been no crossings over the river and now there were two. He eventually moved onto the purpose of the meeting, which he said was “speaking to you the residents” and talked about the responsibility our generation has to leave the common in a condition so that future generations can enjoy it.
Cantrill admitted that there had been a “rocky journey over the last few years” with respect to tree planting on the Midsummer Common and Jesus Green. He said: “on behalf of the City Council – we would like to have done things better”. Cantrill outlined his timetable for the future and said: “the journey will deliver planting in the autumn”.
He then made the astoundingly unqualified statement that:
This public event is the first part of the public consultation process.
He made no mention of the fact it was Thursday afternoon and the meeting had only become “Public” on the Tuesday afternoon (though still apparently required registration). Cllr Cantrill has form for doing this when he, as Executive Councillor for Customer Services and Resources he was a member of the Love Cambridge board. There a members meeting was only opened to the public at the last moment and afterwards cited as being public.
John Preston – The Wider Context
Mr Preston said that the tree planting plans should be looked at in the context of Cambridge and with particular regard to Jesus Green and Midsummer Common’s place in a line of green spaces from the “Mays course”, by which I think he means Ditton Fields, through Stourbridge Common, and the green areas along the river on the other side of the city. He said these were a “sequence of historic spaces” and showed an image of Cambridge from before Midsummer Common and Jesus Green were split in the mid 1800s.
Mr Preston said that large stature trees were an important part of the character of the spaces.
Mr Preston also told the group about what Trinity College were doing at their avenue of trees between the college and the backs, they’ve planted new trees on either side to create the avenue of the future.
We were also told about the council’s plans to review its Arboricultural Strategy. (I have previously made an FOI request for the council’s current Arboricultural Strategy, but a year after it was made the request has yet to be fulfilled Discussion FOI correspondence)
Maps were shown of the various conservation areas, in areas surrounding the commons. Victoria Avenue is the border of the the central conservation area.
Peter Constable – Chairman of the JGA
Mr Constable addressed the meeting saying he felt he was in the presence of people who loved Cambridge’s green spaces even more than he did. He said the members of the JGA looked on the green as their garden. He said that the layout of the green at the moment is “excellent and historic” and he didn’t think that would want altering at all. He said the JGA’s would like to see the area conserved, preserved, maintained and enhanced. He said he was in favour of re-planting for the long-term and said we ought be planning now, in the current exercise, to replace trees which are expected to need to be felled in the next 10-20 years.
Principal Arboricultural Officer – Diana Oviatt-Ham on “Issues, Principles and Choices”
The officer started by saying: “In the past we had not involved you very much, but we have changed and are trying to now”. I thought that was quite an ironic way to start given the small number of people who she was addressing. She showed a photograph of officer Kenny McGregor talking to a group of people about the trees on Lammas Land to illustrate the concept of tree officers engaging with the public.
Diana Oviatt-Ham then told us all how trees were good for people’s physical and mental health and said they made places attractive both for residents as well as tourists and those seeking to hold events on the green spaces. She asserted that trees “reduce pollution”, and said that temperatures in the shade of a tree can be up to 10˚C cooler than in direct sunlight. Turning to noise, we were told that in fact trees did not have any effect on noise levels but that people had an impression that they did and Diana Oviatt-Ham claimed that “a calming effect exists”. I felt this passage had more than a hint of new-age mumbo jumbo to it.
We were next told that most of the trees in the city had been deliberately planted; with the exception of some trees in back gardens. In the 1800s people from the university and colleges had planted many of the city’s green spaces.
We were also told that the substantial trees had a life-span of 100-200 years and were interspersed with trees which lasted about 50-70 years which, on Jesus Green had already been replaced once or twice. Diana Oviatt-Ham said that the Plane Tree Avenue on Jesus Green had 100 years or so left.
Diana Oviatt-Ham then drew attention to the damming statements on the health of the trees in the 2001 Midsummer Common Conservation plan which says:
With a few notable exceptions the condition of the trees on the common is generally poor.
Victoria Avenue was highlighted as an area needing work to protect, and the irrational replacement of a failed horse chestnut with a rowan was given as an example of haphazard management without a clear plan.
Diana Oviatt-Ham expressed her opinion that having eleven different species of tree along the riverside of Midsummer Common resulted in the area “losing coherence”, she also talked about the need to remove leylandii from the swimming pool screen to protect the row of limes within them was also mentioned. She also suggested that Midsummer Common and Jesus Green were currently a gap in the line of willows seen down the hailingway on one side and out to Granchester in the other.
The need to consider the soil, amount of water available and other factors before deciding which tree to plant in a particular location was mentioned by the senior tree officer. She also listed a few of the constraints to planting including recreational use, events, cattle, electricity and other utilities. She suggested trees could be used to focus the eye and mask traffic routes as well as mark the line of the river so it can be seen from further away. The suggestion that trees could be used to hide the Elizabeth Way bridge was also made. Suggestions were also made that the camber of the bank on Midsummer Common could be reflected in the tree planting and that the views of the trees on the green spaces should be considered from different perspectives, both within and outside of the green spaces.
Diana Oviatt-Ham expressed her view that planting ought be kept simple, saying “we’re not planting an Arboretum”.
We were told that the principal tree officer had produced her own, very draft, proposals for a planting scheme, but these were not revealed at any point during the event.
She said the aim of the workshop sessions would be to produce ideas and proposals which could be turned into plans which could be consulted on.
Questioned on the future of the Horse Chestnut avenue on Victoria Avenue Diana Oviatt-Ham explained that trees had recently been lost, and two more on the Jesus Green side were likely to be lost in the near future due to them having “structural problems”. She described these as those trees with the helical trunks. I don’t know if these were being condemned because of their helical trunks or if that was mentioned simply to identify them. While saying she felt there was need for “succession planting” now, there was not a threat that the miner moths which had evaded the trees would kill them.
Anthony Bowen Cambridge, Orator of the University of Cambridge, an ex. Liberal Democrat Councillor, and Liberal Democrat supporter who attempted to discredit me at the December 2009 West Central Area Committee spoke next. Mr Bowen introduced himself as a fellow of Jesus College, and a member of the garden committee there. He reported that the college loses one or two chestnuts every year. He said the leaf miner moth weakens the tree and “the canker gets it”. He said he was more pessimistic about the future of the avenue of chestnuts on Victoria Avenue than the tree officer, he said action ought be taken now in respect of the avenue as he didn’t see why there would be any different future for the trees on the avenue than there had been for those in the college.
Someone suggested we ought be talking about planting and not felling, and someone else asked the principal tree officer what the council’s policies were on when a tree was felled. Simon Payne stepped in to intercept that question and said the council intends to do a separate session on that in the future. Cllr Cantrill stood up to confirm that event would be held in the near future and would explain “the present approach we take on trees in the city”.
Those present then split into four groups of four, and marked their thoughts on maps of Jesus Green and Midsummer Common.
During the discussion Diana Oviatt-Ham revealed that one of the plane trees on the avenue in Jesus Green was being considered for felling. When looking towards Jesus Lock the tree is on the right, two up towards the lock from the large gap/path in the middle of the avenue.
Diana Oviatt-Ham also raised for discussion the possibility of “clear felling” and replanting with a new avenue of trees along the line described as “the cycle path” from Park Street to Victoria Avenue. I heard no enthusiasm for this proposal. I think this was largely because everyone present primarily wanted the council to get on and plant some trees given the amount it has been felling, and didn’t want to see any immediate proposals start with felling.
I discussed the proposals with a group comprising Martin Thompson of the Jesus Green Association, Barry Higgs of the Friends of Midsummer Common, and a resident from the Manhattan Drive area on the opposite bank of the river. Simon Payne, Diana Oviatt-Ham, Kenny McGregor and Dinah Foley-Norman were also on-hand.
- Replanting in the gaps, and gaps which emerge, in the Plane Tree Avenue on Jesus Green was worth doing, as the avenue as the initial trees have an expected life time of another century and new trees reach a reasonable size to contribute to the avenue in 20-30 years. (There are three replacement trees in the avenue already which are of that kind of age.) We said we’d hope the avenue could be managed indefinitely in that manner but Diana Oviatt-Ham gave her opinion that wasn’t practical because she thought at some point many of the original trees would fail in one go.
- Maintaining the existing clear space in the middle of Midsummer Common, including the triangle of clear space down to the cutter ferry bridge. To maintain the open spaces on Jesus Green where the Beer Festival has recently been held, and on the other side of the plane tree avenue.
- New planting of trees, especially willows, including tall willows, and other native riverside trees such as black poplar along the riverside of both Midsummer Common and Jesus Green. On Midsummer Common we wanted clumps of trees and in places not a single line. The aim would be to make the riverside path a mix of shaded and open.
- Retaining all the existing trees along the river of both Midsummer Common and Jesus Green.
- A substantial, long lived, tree to replace the recently felled Lime by the Cutter Ferry bridge
- Taller trees between the common and the new development on the Cambridge Regional College site, with the aim of them providing some shielding of the view of the new, tall, development from the common
- Succession planting of oak or elm on both sides of Victoria Avenue, Midsummer Common Jesus Green and outside Jesus College. Spacing the trees in between the existing and setting them back a couple of metres to get them as close to the road as possible while allowing them to thrive and grow straight.
- Felling the conifer screen around the swimming pool and the conifers by the boardwalk on Jesus Green
- Planting to hide the Elizabeth Way Bridge, but keeping the area between that bridge and the cutter ferry bridge open in the middle.
- Planting of various spaced out new, substantial, long living, trees in a scattered fashion down the south side of the common in front of North Terrace and down towards the Cutter Ferry Bridge.
- More trees like the one existing English Oak to be included in any new scattered planting on Jesus Green.
- The cherry trees avenue on Jesus Green – from Jesus Lock to Park Parade is appropriately scaled, future planting on that axis should be essentially the same again when those trees get past their best and stop producing such impressive blossom.
- Planting to screen the armidilloos (This was one element I was less keen on – but there are ideas for how it could be done to screen from some directions, and to not create a place to hide)
There was a lot of agreement between the four groups which had been discussing independently.
A second group including Cllr Clare Blair and Alistair Wilson proposed replacing the Victoria Avenue trees directly in between the existing trees and no further out; the aim of this specifically being to preclude and prevent any future road widening “by the county council”. They also marked the path between Jesus Lock and Park Street as a “possible new avenue”.
A third group’s suggestions, presented by Caroline, the representative of CPPF, started with their proposal for the Horse Chestnuts along Victoria Avenue. They suggested removing them all within the next 5-15 years. They said we should now plant a new row of shorter lived trees outside of them (ignoring the scrappy planting on Jesus Green) to act as an avenue while the inner trees were replaced. They suggested replacement with planes or oaks.
The third group also suggested a “false edge” for Jesus Green – planting in line with the back edge of the swimming pool creating a new and separate space between the river and the green in which the pool, skate park, play area, and all other recreational facilities which might be desired over the next century could be located without impinging on the green itself. This group felt that shade along the tow-path was a bad thing (as do the city council tree officers who think shading watercourses, even the flowing Cam, is bad for biodiversity). For that reason they were proposing clumps of riverside trees rather than a line following the river. They too suggested willow/black poplar. The group also suggested tree planting to integrate the pub and Midsummer House better into the common.
At the Cutter Ferry bridge this third group wanted to use tree planting to better define the directions of the various paths and to reduce the encroachment of tarmac. They also wanted the path junctions elsewhere to be marked by trees. They too wanted some tree planting around the toilets. The final, non-tree related, but evidently strongly held view by the group was that the CCTV which has become a permanent feature on a lamppost in the middle of teh common was “not appropriate” and should be removed. I completely agree and think that the CCTV, especially in that semi-covert format – a device that doesn’t look like a camera and in an area which isn’t signed ought not be there – I hope Cllr Cantrill was listening – and remembered he stood on a Liberal Democrat and not a New Labour manifesto.
The final group’s suggestions including considering non-native trees on the grounds of offering more varied appearance and potential to resist climate change. On Victoria Avenue they proposed interspersing new planting and setting them back, on the south side of the common they called for trees which could be looked around so the houses retained their vistas. They also requested Walnut Trees on Walnut Tree Avenue. On the riverbank they suggested that formality in the planting wasn’t necessary.
High resolution photos of the plans, click to download: (1.3MB JPG).
- Group One : Midsummer Common Jesus Green
- Group Two : Midsummer Common Jesus Green
- Group Three : Midsummer Common
- Group Four : Midsummer Common
Cllr Cantrill and officers suggested that what they would primarily be looking for was a proposal to spend the 50K already allocated by the West/Central Area Committee.
The CPPF representative suggested it would be easy to raise money to buy trees, and sell off wood from felled trees and the public money ought go into other things such as tree guards. The friends of Midsummer Common who have already raised money for a lot of planting on the common argued against this, and it was pointed out the money was for tree guards and maintenance and not just trees. (Previous City Council fellings have come with assurances the wood will go to good use eg. burrs from Lammas Land going to local artists and Midsummer Common wood being made available for boaters to burn, but I’ve not seen any evidence these assurances have been kept and the wood isn’t seen as an extra bonus for those employed to fell the trees).
Cllr Tim Bick, who angrily opposed residents, including me, when we successfully fought off the Liberal Democrat’s plans to fell fifty nine trees on Jesus Green as part of a lottery bid which involved paving over lots of grass spoke to say he would like to see some significant planting come out of the 50K as: “we might not have the same size of pot in the future”.
Cllr Cantrill indicated that he was open to the idea of felling the leylandii and working on Victoria Avenue. He repeated his intent to hold further public consultation; he said those who attended the workshop could see the proposals which would be worked up by the tree officers prior to them going out to public consultation – which he thought would be possible in August. To allow for the fact many people are away in August Cllr Cantrill said that the decision would be taken at a West Central Area Committee later in the year – possibly a special one just to discuss the tree planting plans, to be held in September.
Cllr Clare Blair, a Liberal Democrat who stood for election on a manifesto including the current area committee system, spoke to complain about the fact the decision was being taken by the West Central Area Committee despite many people from across the city having an interest in, and regularly using the open spaces – for example by regularly travelling through them.
Cllr Cantill said he agreed, but appeared to be saying he too was constrained by the Lib Dems’ excessive drives for inappropriate localism as he responded: “It is a West/Central EIP (Environmental Improvement Project)”.
A couple of final questions were raised. Mr Higgs wanted an assurance that the trees’ running costs would be covered and they would be looked after. He was so assured that the council was able to look after the trees it was to plant.
Cllr Bick noted that the council had already got a fund to replace the trees it had recently felled; and the 50K should be used for new planting over and above what the council had recently removed.
Council Officer Debbie Kaye essentially said she agreed in principle, but wasn’t sure the council’s tree replacement fund actually had much money in it. Cllr Cantrill said he wasn’t sure what the position was (this is astonishing as Cllr Cantrill has been present at many West/Central Area committees where members of the public have raised questions about replanting on Midsummer Common and have been assured by the council that funds have been set aside for replacing the felled trees). Mr Lawton – who regularly attends – and pays attention to – the West Central Area Committees assured Cllr Cantrill that what Cllr Bick had said was accurate and that prior to the approval of the 50K there were already funds committed to replanting. Cllr Cantrill reminded everyone he was new to this portfolio of responsibility and appeared to promise to get a grip saying he would do all he could to get as much money as he could for the trees. He then thanked the officers for the work they had done in preparing for the discussion and promised he was committed to getting some significant new planting done, particularly in light of the fact such funds might not be available in future years.