Sam Davies

All that Glitters …part 2

I don’t see how the City Council’s aspiration of working more closely with residents can be achieved if swathes of active and engaged residents are told to butt out of the city’s democratic life.

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.

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Sam Davies

9 comments

  • Save time, effort and money on this unnecessary proposal of so-called “public art”. When finances are so stretched as they are now, do we really have to spend resources here? – look around folks – there is quite a lot of “public art” already masquerading outdoors in Cambridge . . . I think the city council has more important efforts to pursue.

  • Is there anything we (the general public) can still do to oppose this? Seeing as replying to the consultation wasn’t enough… any members we can write to or anything?

  • Privilege has nothing at all to do with public art but taste does.
    At a time like this when money is tight we should be concentrating public expenditure on things that really matter in our environment. I suggest that landscaping is public art. Maintenance of our environment and planting many more trees would be a great contribution to this lovely city.
    Encouraging people not to leave litter by the river and elsewhere is far more important than a ‘gold wave’ .
    Thank you Sam for raising this.

  • When did it happen that being “white and middle class” became some sort of crime? It’s weird that those who fling this phrase around as if it was some sort of accusation are generally “white and middle class” themselves – as are the majority of people in the UK. It’s a very dodgy idea that your views are worthless because of your ethnicity and culture. As another commentator observes, what matters in so-called public art is taste. What if the citizens of Cambridge were polled on the idea of spending megabucks on defacing the environment? If we had a democratic vote, I’m willing to bet that the average person wouldn’t want their money spent in that way. It’s the councillors who are being elitist – but then they’re not paying for it, are they?

    • If there was a public vote on much of what our council spends our money on – if it was a binding vote ( which of course it wouldn’t be), then many a blight, expensive white elephants and a multitude of ridiculous schemes would never have seen the light of day.

  • A silly idea and a waste of money.
    Work to a hard river edge should facilitate amphibians transfering in and out of the water.
    As a little child I would be fascinated and want to walk along the edge or lean over until I fell in the water.
    Will the art be punt and undergraduate proof?
    I even prefered the plastic cows even if they were short lived.
    In our difficult financial times a permanent use should be found for the money which benefits people. Perhaps an artistic representation of a food bank outside the station which would take electronic donations.

Sam Davies

Sam Davies was elected to Cambridge City Council in May 2021 as a representative for the Queen Edith's ward, and is the city's only independent councillor.
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