On Monday the 20th of September 2010 two groups of residents in Cambridge were meeting and discussing the Liberal Democrat run city council’s proposals to fell or destructively prune five of the substantial London plane trees lining Carlyle Road. Castle Community Action was holding a meeting at the same time as more than twenty residents of the area nearer the trees met at Andy Davey’s home on Victoria Road. I attended the latter gathering which was advertised in the comments on my previous article on these proposed felliings.
- A steering group was formed which will aim to co-ordinate residents’ representations against the felling and destructive pruning proposals. It will try and collate as much information as possible to be used in making the argument against the proposed works.
- A lack of access to key materials, held by the council, needed to mount an effective response to the proposals was a major issue highlighted. It was reported that even the ex. council leader, Liberal Democrat, Ian Nimmo-Smith was surprised at the fact the council had not made key documents available.
- Consideration of these proposals by the planning committee has been deferred until the 20th of October; It is not yet clear if the consultation period has been extended. No new deadline for responses has been published.
Cllr Damien Tunnacliffe
Liberal Democrat City Councillor for West Chesterton, Damien Tunnacliffe was invited and attended. Cllr Tunnacliffe’s presence was welcomed as those present were eager to hear an explanation of events from the councillor who is member of both the ruling group on the council and the planning committee which is due to consider the fate of the trees.
Cllr Tunnacliffe was invited to address the gathering and explain what was happening. He was described as brave for turning up, as he would clearly be in a difficult position if he tried to defend the council which is considering getting rid of the trees in the presence of a group of residents determined to see the trees retained. Rather than support his party colleagues though he began by saying he was a “great supporter” of those seeking to save the trees. He said he had only been become aware of the proposals three days previously, on the 17th of September, he noted this was substantially later than many of those in the room and appeared to be using this as an excuse for his failure to have fully briefed himself on the state of affairs. (My initial article on the proposed fellings was published on the 5th of September).
Cllr Tunnacliffe said that he, and many of his colleagues, had been “somewhat surprised” by the proposals which had been announced. He then went on to paint an astonishing picture of a headless council; he placed the blame for generating the proposals firmly on council officers and tried to distance himself and his party colleagues who are supposed to be running the council from them. I think this is a real problem with the hands-off way the Liberal Democrats approach running Cambridge City Council. I have noted before that Cllr Cantrill’s predecessor instructed officers not to go public with proposals for consultation on tree works unless she had approved doing so. A key outstanding question is if Cllr Cantrill has revoked that direction, or if it is being ignored.
Residents then questioned Cllr Tunnacliffe about the way the decision would be made. Those present appeared understandably confused about the way the planning committee would consider the proposals, but not make a decision. (The decision is to be made by the executive councillor for arts and recreation, Cllr Cantrill). Labour councillor, Mike Todd-Jones, who was present jumped in at this point too, asking Cllr Tunnacliffe to justify the arrangements, many of those present indicated they would prefer a committee to make a decision rather than an individual councillor. Further confusion arose when the point was raised that objectors had been informed earlier that day that a second committee, the Community Services Scrutiny Committee, is scheduled to consider the proposals. Cllr Tunnacliffe was asked why this second committee were to consider the proposals, who they were, and if they would be considering the proposals from a different perspective to the planning committee. Cllr Tunnacliffe responded:
“I’m not clear in my own mind where the scrutiny committee come in”.
Cllr Tunnacliffe was floundering. He explained he had only been a councillor for a few months. When he suggested that the proposals were a planning matter others intervened to explain the situation:
- Liberal Democrats running Cambridge City Council have adopted a system where by power is concentrated in Executive Councillors, and not in committees. As the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation Cllr Cantrill gets to make final decisions relating to the city’s green spaces alone.
- Where tree works on the city’s green spaces are proposed, and there are objections, under the council’s tree works protocol the council’s planning committee is asked to advise the executive councillor. The reason they are asked is that it is the planning committee which has the experience of making decisions relating to trees as it is that committee which decides on applications to work on trees with tree preservation orders
- These trees are not protected by a tree preservation order as the Liberal Democrat City Council has a policy of not protecting trees they consider are under good management. They consider they, as well as other councils and the universities manage their trees well and only a small handful of trees owned by such bodies are protected.
- If Cllr Cantrill is to take a decision which is against the advice of the planning committee under the council’s tree works protocol he is required to ask for guidance from the scrutiny committee which monitors his actions, which is the Community Services Scrutiny Committee.
Some of those present had to seek clarification on points such as if members of the executive were elected councillors or council officers, another asked “are councillors experts”, and the fact the “directors” of the council’s departments were paid professional officials and not elected members had to be made clear. As someone who talks to Cambridge residents about the council a lot I find this lack awareness of the role of elected councillors, and the way the council is run, commonplace.
Cllr Tunnacliffe said he had got to know Cllr Cantrill a little through serving on the council with him over the last few months and said he had gained the impression he was the kind of person who would listen to all representations made to him.
As the gathering drew to a close Cllr Tunnacliffe spoke to me and said:
If you quote me then I might be debarred from [debating and voting on this matter when it comes to] the planning committee. You see my problem?”
I replied to say that whether or not I write about what had been said does not change what had happened. I suggested that it didn’t reflect well on his personal integrity if he was suggesting that his decision to declare an interest, or a previously announced position, depended on if he was likely to get “caught” if he didn’t. I then went on to suggest that as no decision is being made by the planning committee (it is simply providing advice) he might be free to take part in any case and that it would be appropriate to seek the view of the council’s legal officer if he wasn’t sure.
Cllr Tunnacliffe has had a very low profile to-date. He has not yet made a substantive contribution to any council committee meeting which I have observed. I mentioned the fact Cllr Tunnacliffee was taking an interest in the trees to my local county councillor, Rupert Moss-Eccardt. Cllr Moss-Eccardt, who is one of Cllr Tunnacliffe’s party colleagues, and serves with him on the North Area Committee, replied: “Who? I didn’t think we had any councillors called Damien.”
Decision Deferred but Consultation Period Not Extended
It was noted that while the planning committee date has been put back to the 20th of October no new deadline for objections has been publicised. As it stands the consultation period is now closed. Given the lack of access to key documents during the initial consultation period those present felt the consultation period ought be extended.
The major complaint of those at the meeting appeared to be the secrecy surrounding the decision. A number of people complained the council were not providing them information they had requested. Many reported they had been denied information, including the independent report on which the council has based its proposals, on the basis it amounted to personal information protected under the data protection act.
One resident said he had taken this to Cllr Nimmo-Smith, (Liberal Democrat, West Chesterton) who reportedly responded to say he: “can’t understand who all these documents were not made available straight away”. Cllr Nimmo-Smith was the leader of the council until a couple of months ago, he now appears to be willing to take a position at odds with his party colleagues who have succeeded him. One can only hope he is still able to influence them and prompt a more open approach.
I have made a FOI request for the correspondence with the householder of the property it is alleged is being damaged and the material on which the council has based its published assertion that the trees are causing structural damage.
Resident Peter Sparks reported he too has made a formal request for information; he said his request also sought minutes of meetings already held to discuss these trees; eg. meetings between the council and the insurers.
Now the decision has been deferred, there will presumably be information relating to that decision to defer which the council could be asked to disclose.
All of those present were keen to seek Cllr Tunnacliffe’s views on the importance of the financial aspect of the decision. Those planning to make further representations wanted to know if factors such as the council’s valuation of the amenity value of the trees would be a major consideration. He was also asked to what extent the council would be looking at this primarily from the point of view of a financial risk. Despite being asked a number of times Cllr Tunnacliffee refused to be drawn on this point.
The group was told that in about 2000 one of the London Plane trees, which had been at the bottom of Alexandra Gardens (towards the river), right alongside the first house there had been removed. The effect of that removal had been significant heave (expansion of the ground underneath the building) which had resulted in the lifting of the substantial three story property. It was suggested that reports relating to those events might be useful to consult in relation to the current proposals.
Other Noteworthy Points
One of those present reported they had received an email from Cllr Ward (Liberal Democrat, Arbury) in which in response to their call to delay the decision Cllr Ward had written: “A delay would cost the council lots of money”.
A number of those present were particularly critical of the council’s principal tree officer, Diana Oviatt-Ham, being so categoric in her statements that the trees were causing structural damage. The general feeling in the group was that it would be difficult to separate out the effects of the trees from the natural, tree independent, movement of the clay.
A door to door survey of properties in the area which are not near trees, to get an impression of how many of those have suffered movement was suggested as a possible source of evidence which could be presented to councillors.
A suggestion was made that groups keen on protecting urban trees, and with expertise in protecting trees eg. the Woodland Trust, the National Trust, could be approached to ask for their assistance. Seeking to raise money to pay off the householder(s) (or their insurers) was suggested.
Someone present reported that they had received an email from Cllr Cantrill in which he had made a vague statement that he was exploring “other options” – Perhaps might be suggesting settling the matter in the next month before it reaches he planning committee?
It was reported that insurance company covering 13 Holland Street has placed sensors on the wall of the property’s garage for two years, and these have detected movement.
Underpinning one property in a terrace might not be a very good idea, as then there can be stresses created between that property and its neighbours, ie. the problem is transmitted down the terrace.
Some of those present said they felt a “scrutiny” committee sounded sinister; others noted we were lucky it was pre-scrutiny rather than “oversight”.
The value of a local campaign was questioned, with one person saying she felt those lobbying against the demolition of 13 Chesterton Road had been ignored. She questioned how people could better get their points across to councillors making decisions; indicating a lack of confidence in officers’ reports in fully presenting local feeling. Cllr Mike-Todd Jones (Labour, Arbury) was sympathetic and suggested writing directly to executive councillors, and committee members, and not relying on the formal consultation process. When his views on petitions and form letters Cllr Todd-Jones said he thought they had their place too and would influence councillors.
It was reported that the council’s tree officers have obtained an extra staff member from elsewhere in the council to assist them in dealing with the response to the consultation. Those present were unimpressed at the lack of communication from the council’s tree officers, and astonished at the fact that even those representations which had been sent to the council in advance of a deadline for comments to be included in a written report to the planning committee had not been commented on in the report (the relevant headings were present in the report, but there was no content under them).