Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beware the Council juggernaut

The paving on St John Street, except for the final central section, is all but complete - that is, with the exception of an irregularly shaped space adjacent to the post box which has been tarmacked over since the surrounding area was completed. Today, a large hole was excavated there, ready to receive a tree. An English plane tree. Like the ones next to the Old Library on the Hayes. Trees that can grow to a hundred feet high with a canopy of equal width, as indeed they have done in that space around the Hayes Island snack bar, during the late 20th century, largely hiding the fine Victorian facade of the building. St John Street is just about to acquire such a tree, located only 25 feet from the corner of the church.

I took photographs and voiced my concern to the guys doing the excavation, whose attitude was - don't worry we'll all be dead before that tree becomes a problem - fine, said I, but what about sustainability, what about not leaving a mess for our descendants to deal with? They took the point and admitted that maybe the tree pit was a bit close to the church. But, they had their orders and that was that. No questions asked.

When I saw the artists impression of St John Street 'improvements' some five years ago, it never occurred to me that anyone in their right mind would risk placing a tree with such growth potential so close to a Grade One Listed Building. I don't recall seeing more than an artist's impression, though no doubt there were endless plans available for anyone with time, and far sighted enough, to trawl through on display in City Hall. Tree roots could one day undermine boundary and building, walls. Leaves will overwhelm the gutters on the roof and the ground, once it grows really big, a generation or so from now. It will cause extra maintenance problems on the 'non-public realm' side of the fence, i.e. in the churchyard, imposing an additional financial burden upon the church.

I don't suppose it occurred to anyone enthused of this plan that in an area where most of the rainwater will run away from the roots, in gutters to drains, that the only ground soaking up rainwater within the vicinity of the tree will be a strip of adjacent churchyard. That same churchyard from which, four years ago we had to remove a flowering cherry tree large enough to give us problems with gutter clearance and water ingress. Time will tell what the tree roots make of the proposed barrier to be installed on the church side to prevent damage to retaining wall and foundations. Leaves blocking drains will be with us again sooner rather than later. I'm not confident that we can expect any sympathy or help from the council, to cope with a burden their plans impose upon us.

It was only a fortnight ago that I became curious about the tarmac patch, and queried it with the city project engineers, to discover what was planned. They regarded it as unquestionable, a fait accompli in the timetable of 'task and finish'. I took up the issue with the city planners and project leadership, asking if it would be possible to move the tree location by another fifteen feet in order to minimise the impact on their building. My concerns were dismissed as if trifling, with the assertion that it's too late now, why didn't you spot this when it was all first proposed five years ago?

Well, I didn't know as much then as I know now, about planning and development processes. That's something I've had to learn on the job. I've spent much of the past five years trying to rouse church people out of apathy and despair at ever getting a decent amount of attention and concern from city planners and bureaucrats on many issues of concern. It's half the reason why I maintain this blog.

Five years ago, church attention was taken up with getting city bureaucrats to resolve outstanding problems to enable the granting of a lease for a new south churchyard path, then ensuring that they got the Faculty they needed to do the job. Nobody else was scrutinising detailed plans with the church's interests in mind. So we've lost out, in a situation where there shouldn't be any winners or losers among contributors to the common good of the city.

It is a fact of recent history, as I mentioned in my post of 7th August, that religious communities have been ignored and devalued by local government in their vision of the city. It's why I took on and saw through the Spiritual Capital research project to highlight this problem. Such attitudes make this 'their city', not 'our city' in the broadest sense, and how many of them live their everyday lives away from work with the results of their decision making?

It makes a joke of the creation of a 'Faith Focus Group' as part of the Countdown 2009 effort to get the city full open on track, if the one modest intervention to be volunteered from a member of the group on an issue that might have an unforeseen impact is dismissed out of hand. As another city centre worker commented on the redevelopment game : "It's, yet again, another incorrect decision. When all have left, the problems will begin".

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