I wrote a post a few weeks ago on public art in Cambridge, prompted by the proposal to create a 50m ‘gold edge’ to the river in Newnham. Additional funding for that proposal was considered at a meeting of the Environment and Community Scrutiny Committee on Thursday this week, as part of a larger agenda item looking at the funding situation and the results of a consultation on the purpose of public art.
At this point, it’s probably worth a small aside to explain Scrutiny Committees.
Cambridge City Council has four: Environment and Community, Planning and Transport, Housing, and Strategy and Resources. They each comprise 10 councillors (six for Strategy & Resources) distributed in proportion with party representation across the council. At the moment, that typically means six Labour members, three from the Lib Dems, and one from the Green and Independent group, apart from Strategy and Resources which is split 4/2 with no Green or Independent representative. The Executive Councillors are of course all drawn from the dominant party, as are the Chairs of the Scrutiny Committees.
This all makes the role of the Committee – to ‘scrutinise’ the decisions of the Executive Councillor(s) whose portfolio(s) fall within the remit of that Committee – quite readily compromised.
After I was elected last year, I completed the training offered by the Local Government Association on the functioning of scrutiny, and that was quite clear that you should leave your party affiliations outside the committee room door. But of course there’s always a risk of acquiescence by the councillors from the lead group, or partiality from the Chair, distorting that process. And although questions and feedback can prompt officers to do more research, voting invariably happens along party lines, which tends to make the whole thing seem farcical.
So, bearing all of that in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the request for the additional funding was approved.
But the interesting part for me was the language used to attempt to stifle the expressions of concern from opposition councillors and members of the public who attended to ask questions. It’s been written up in this Cambridge Independent article entitled “‘White, middle class’ critics of River Cam public art that could cost £150,000 should consider views of working classes, says Cambridge city councillor” – the councillor in question being the Chair of the meeting.
This is an interesting line to take. For a start, being the Chair of Scrutiny Committee places you in a position of considerable privilege compared to any member of the public (white, middle class or otherwise), who is allocated three minutes in which to make their point.
Moreover there has been specific pushback against Cllr Healy’s trenchant comments, for example pointing out that they fail to acknowledge the many spaces in which art is already freely accessible in Cambridge (the Fitzwilliam, Kettle’s Yard, ARU’s Ruskin Gallery among many others, indoors and outside); that if the Council wants to make public art accessible to a non-traditional demographic, then maybe Newnham isn’t the best location; and that it is simply premature to defend this proposal because the results of the public consultation on this public art project aren’t yet known.
But I think there’s a bigger problem too. The City Council has recently embarked on a ‘transformation’ programme, Our Cambridge. As a result of a decade of reduced funding from central government, it urgently needs to make substantial savings and is reviewing all of its operations and assets. One key theme of ‘Our Cambridge’ is working more closely with residents:
I simply don’t see how this aspiration can be achieved if swathes of active and engaged residents are told to butt out of the city’s democratic life. And ‘reflecting on privilege’ doesn’t magically turn bad art – or bad process – into something better.