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Row over £150,000 River Cam public art intensifies

A public art sculpture costing up to £150,000 on the banks of the River Cam will be “about as far away as it could be” from communities which could benefit from extra funding, critics have said.

The concept for the ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the River Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency
The concept for the ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the River Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency

A row over the ‘golden wave’ sculpture intensified this week after funding was approved during a meeting at which Cllr Mairéad Healy (Lab, Romsey) suggested those criticising it are predominantly “white, middle class people” who should consider the opinions of the working classes more.

Labour councillors voted in favour of committing £80,000 to £150,000 of developer contributions – which must be spent on public art – at the council’s environment and community scrutiny committee. But Green and Liberal Democrat members had urged them to await the results of a public consultation before committing the funds.

Cllr Hannah Copley (Green, Abbey) presented an amendment that was seconded by Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market) requesting that a decision on the funding be delayed, but it was rejected. Afterwards, she told the Cambridge Independent: “Why would the council not wait for the consultation results before allocating a further £80,000 to £150,000 of funds to the ‘To the River’ project? We need transparency about the consultation results and to make decisions based on evidence. All Labour councillors present voted against my proposal.

“The proposed location – Newnham – is about as far away as it could be from communities, like Abbey, who would benefit the most from this huge amount of funding.

“The numerous residents who raised concerns about this ahead of and during the meeting have had them ignored, when we should be welcoming everyone and their contributions, and making decisions collaboratively.”

Cllr Healy, the committee chair, had told the meeting: “A lot of the things I have seen in the media and a lot of the criticism is predominantly coming from white, middle class people.

“It upsets me a bit because I know that a lot of the people who have been involved with the consultations have been people from working class backgrounds.

“There is a huge theme running through this artwork that the artist has designed around the working classes and it just feels to me a bit that we are not taking their opinions into account. Do we not like their type of art? It just feels to me a bit uncomfortable.”

Wendy Blythe said Cambridge is ‘full of art treasures and it’s all free’ Picture: Keith Heppell
Wendy Blythe said Cambridge is ‘full of art treasures and it’s all free’ Picture: Keith Heppell

But Wendy Blythe, chair of Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (FeCRA), said: “Cambridge is full of art treasures and it’s all free.

“As the landscape architect Tom Turner pointed out, Cambridge’s medieval green spaces, like the river and Sheeps Green, are equivalent to the best art in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Like the indoor art in the Fitz and many other places in the city they are all free – and they do not need to be ‘enhanced’.

“Labour councillors voted en bloc to spend up to a quarter of a million pounds on a piece of gold sculpture in one of the city’s most affluent wards in this most unequal city. It seems bizarre to then call those objecting to it ‘white, middle class’ –especially as they refused to even look at the results of the consultation before making the decision.

“Responses from across the city were overwhelmingly negative, and this refusal to listen reflects how out of touch they are with residents’ concerns.”

Designed by artist Caroline Wright, the concept design is for a permanent piece, coloured gold and called ‘Selvedge’, for the riverbank at Sheep’s Green. The aim is to “celebrate and promote” the story of the Cam in Cambridge as part of the artist residency known as To The River, to which £120,000 has already been allocated.

Results are awaited on the public consultation on the concept after it ended earlier this month.

Susan Buckingham, a founder member of Friends of the Cam, who responded to the consultation, said: “This area of the city does not need ‘beautifying’ –other than fixing the broken and tacky railings which border this part of the sluice, and moving some of the rubbish bins. The river has a self-sufficient beauty, as does the surrounding Fen, meadow and mostly attractive and historical buildings.

“Potentially a quarter of a million pounds is being spent on an area which is already thick with privilege. Meanwhile, communities elsewhere in Cambridge suffer from poverty and ill health, and would benefit from a much better use of Section 106 money – designed, after all, to create reparation for the otherwise unacceptable damage of development.

Council leader Cllr Anna Smith (Lab, Coleridge) stressed at the meeting that councillors were not making a decision on the actual design of the sculpture.

The concept for the ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency
The concept for the ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency

The project is being funded through Section 106 developer contributions – money paid to the city council by developers.

Cllr Smith said she wanted to clarify that the money had to be used for public art and if it was not used then it would have to be returned to the developers.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Healy added: “It is not for me to comment on the current concept proposal for artwork proposed along the river. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the results of the consultation, which only closed a few days ago. This is for the public ultimately to decide, which is exactly the point I made last week.

“What I said in the meeting was that there have been a huge number of local people who have contributed to the development of the concept already, through an array of community engagement events.

“Thousands of people have taken part in these, from all sorts of community groups. We want to make sure important decisions like these include as diverse a range of contributions as possible.

“As a council we want to be ensuring all voices are heard in our community, and that means going beyond, not just the groups who regularly engage. However, most of the events we held were open to all, so there was also no attempt to exclude anyone. As far as I understand, the narrative that has been created by the artist as a result of all these events with local communities was about telling the story of working-class women as well as the preservation of our river.

“I am very clear on the importance of scrutiny being raised in a public forum. But this shouldn’t be allowed to override other voices, including those from different backgrounds. There is room for everyone to have a view.”

She added that Section 106 money is “ring-fenced, meaning it cannot be used for anything other than public art”.

“Therefore, in funding public art we are not reducing our essential work to support those who are facing the cost of living crisis. We believe people of all classes should be able to enjoy public art and equally should have enough to live on too. We have continuously campaigned across a variety of issues related to the cost of living crisis, including our recent fuel poverty motion passed at full council, and our ongoing food justice work,” said Cllr Healy.

In a Cambridge Independent online poll, 84 per cent of respondents were opposed to the artwork, while 16 per cent supported it.

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