At the North Area Committee on the 12th of November 2009 Cambridge City Councillors agreed to spend an incredible £4,750 on replacing plants on a tiny plot of land in-front of the shops on Akeman Street.
Councillors were told that plants the council had previously planted in the area had been stolen. There is currently a bare patch of earth in front of the shops. While councillors agreed they couldn’t keep replacing the plants indefinitely they decided to try again. Given the size of the area I think the sum of money involved is astronomical. I wonder if any of the councillors would spend £4,750 on a similar area of their own gardens? It appears to me as if sometimes they completely lose any grasp of the value of money they might have had when it comes to spending public money on our behalf.
Cambridge has a small but active “Guerrilla Gardening” community who maintain municipal flower beds which the councils have neglected. I’m not a fan of such anarchism but did, once, go along with a group tending planting beds in Abbey earlier in the year. We collected a couple of bags of litter from planters and planted up a prominent planter which had been empty for years. (The plants had been donated by an established Cambridge organisation on condition their name not be associated with the illicit activity they were sponsoring). While when I was present no damage was done I’m aware that sometimes, elements of the movement, with good intentions, do criminally damage public planting. What they do is not malicious it is either through mistakenly assuming plants are dead or failing to appreciate that planting they consider not to be pretty, appropriate or well kempt has actually been carefully chosen to be cost effective and resilient by the council.
I have tried to encourage those committed to direct action to engage with the democratic process and contact councillors. However even councillors in Cambridge appear unaware of, and not in control of, how council improvement projects can be instigated. The huge amount of time it takes to see any action, often many years, is another great incentive for a small group of individuals to act alone rather than working together with all other residents with the blessing of the councils.
With the notable exception of the Cam Cleanup the only way I’m aware of that Cambridge residents can get involved in improving their public spaces, with official approval, is to commit a crime and be sentenced to community service. Often people doing “community payback” can be seen on Sunday mornings sitting in the sun on Midsummer Common. I made a freedom of information request to find out exactly what support the council is giving those people and what they are having them do though the response made no mention of work on the city’s green spaces. When watching a well equipped line of people sentenced to community payback standing shoulder to shoulder each painting one narrow strip of a wooden wall I wondered how much more effective it would be if the enthusiasm of local residents, as well as those working involuntarily, could be put to use. I think proposals by the friends of Midsummer Common to do more ought be welcomed by the city council.
£5,000 on Hanging Baskets Too
The North Area committee also agreed to spend £5K on hanging baskets for Chesterton High Street next year. Kings Hedges Councillors, and Arbury’s Mike Todd-Jones argued against this saying that Environmental Improvements money ought be spent on things which last, not things which only last a couple of months. Cllr Blair went wild at the suggestions that the baskets were not an appropriate way to spend money, saying many people in her ward, and particularly the Old Chesterton Residents Association really liked having them. She was adamant that funding the baskets was within the criteria for spending money from the environmental improvements budget, despite them being a temporary feature. Councillors said this would certainly be the last time public money was spent on the hanging baskets as they are scrapping the environmental improvements fund next year (presumably due to the fact they’ve been so incompetently slow at spending the money they’ve allocated to projects over the last few years and this is causing them to be critised in audits).