A third attempt to build a skate board park in North Oxford has apparently been all but beaten off. Two have already been repelled from Aristotle Lane Recreation Ground, between Kingston Road and Waterside. This one was actually planned for Waterside itself, at the end of Walton Well Road on a patch of rough ground known, with revolting tweeness, as The Spinney.
It was apparently promoted by Councillor Clark Brundin and Councillor Alan Armitage fuelled respectively (I would guess) by naivety and ambition. This time around, the council officers are not backing the idea – a whipped cur shuns the fire or whatever the expression is. Even council officers can get a message if you kick them hard enough – but not, apparently, some of the councillors.The first skate area was plotted between Councillor Jim Campbell and an official in the Parks department known locally as Dim Cow. It killed Jim Campbell’s reputation – someone told me, I hope correctly, that he was a “broken man” when the diggers destroyed his creation in March 2004 with £50,000 wasted.
Campbell had adopted the Blair approach – once you have convinced yourself that something is right, then opponents must necessarily be wrong, and any tactics can be used to win the day. Dim Cow obligingly produced a dossier which purported to show widespread support amongst residents for a noisy skate area a few yards from their homes. The statistics and the conclusion were patently false, but Campbell ignored or glossed over the difficulties in his representations to the voting councilors. The thing had to be built before it could be shown what everyone else had predicted was true – that the noise would make it a statutory nuisance, as well as a practical one.
Dim Cow lay low for a couple of years – so does Aristotle Lane, incidentally, and with the drainage money wasted on the abortive skate area, the Rec was waterlogged and useless for much of the time. Dim Cow’s chance came when she was asked to put together a plan for a second go at improvements to the Rec in the summer of 2007. No-one spotted until very late in the day that she had slipped a hard “street sports area” into the budget at a cost of £47,000. It makes you wonder what the quality of supervision is at Oxford City Council that a junior official can casually bid for sums of this order (the biggest single budget item by a long way) on an issue on which blood had so recently been spilled, and get it as far as being an agenda item at the North Area Committee before she was stopped.
Neither Dim Cow nor anyone else turned up at the meeting to argue for the street sports area – she presumably hoped that it would just slip through unnoticed as her falsified dossier had done in 2003. The NAC councillors blew it out of the water (the expression is apt given the soggy condition of the Rec), as much because of the way that it had been put forward as because of the inherent stupidity of the proposal. So what makes Clark Brundin and Alan Armitage think it worth another go now?
The provision of entertainment for yoofs is seen as a big issue here. Modern yoof must have its entertainment made for it, and the sort of people who work for councils, both the paid drones and the elected dummies, think it their duty to provide it. There is cash available – although Jim Campbell pissed the first tranche of developer’s money up against the wall, there is a second large sum to spend from the same source. The Spinney (ugh) is exactly the sort of area which council pen-pushers hate – it is unkempt, dark and wooded. Where you and I (and the children) see somewhere untamed to play, the council mind (if you will pardon the oxymoron) sees the risk of children falling off or tripping over things, being stung or bitten, or being carried off by wicked men who pay no heed to equalities legislation, health and safety regulations or council by-laws, and certainly not to policemen, who are much too busy with vital paperwork to guard the streets.
What council people like is regular shapes, lots of lighting, council-approved play equipment, hard surfaces (but not too hard of course, just none of this nasty natural stuff), and plenty of signs and notices to say what is not allowed and what the opening hours are. There was in fact the chance to have exactly that in the large development of flats now rising (rising, rising) a few yards further south. The developers saw off any suggestion that their precious profit might be diluted by the provision of a play area or anything else for residents. They told the planning officers it was unacceptable, and the planners loyally passed that message on to the councillors – it wouldn’t do to fall out with a big developer, would it? I mean, who is in charge here?
There is no possibility, I hope, that a street sports area will be built on the Spinney. It is closer to homes than the one which had to be destroyed on Aristotle Lane Rec. It lies by a railway line, a road, a canal and the unpoliced area at the end of Walton Well Road where the drug dealers and car thieves gather after dark. Despite its proximity to houses, there is no secondary supervision – passers-by who supply the observation which we used to get from beat policemen. And besides, it will be bitterly opposed.
I do not think either of the enthusiastic councillors seriously expect this to happen. Clark Brundin is a nice enough fellow and was a good thinker in his day. He has, I am sure, a genuine conviction that it would be a really nice thing if the kids had somewhere to play, preferably well away from Observatory Street where he lives. In his idealised, Lib Dem-y sort of world, minor practical objections can surely be got round, lions can live with lambs and everyone be, you know, understanding about what may at first sight be incompatibilities. Surely we can talk this through and find a middle course which doesn’t hurt anyone too much?
Alan Armitage is a different kettle of fish. He is ambitious – he wants to supplant Ed Vaisey as MP for Wantage and I suppose that any Lib Dem who thinks it possible to erode the 15% lead which Vaisey won in 2005 is not going to baulk at trying to dump a noisy skate park next to the well-drilled and vociferous voters of North Oxford. I would guess that this is part of his CV – when you aim to abandon your Ward voters anyway, you can afford to pad out your record with a few bids for the soft social vote at their expense. I suppose also that a man whose claimed political obsessions include both democratic accountability and promotion of the EU is unlikely to notice the equally obvious incompatibility between skate-boarders and the residents of quiet suburbs.
I wonder if his CV will say anything about his fearless stand for the view from Port Meadow. He expressed concern that the aforementioned block of flats would spoil the view of the city from the river – and promptly voted in favour of it. What about the willow trees of Osney? No sooner had officers mentioned concern about their condition than Armitage had most of them chopped down, justifying this with an hysterical explanation that he might have to go to prison if someone was hurt. A subsequent investigation concluded that some of the trees could have been saved and an inquiry condemned the lack of consultation.
Wantage is welcome to him. The best scenario is that he has to resign his Ward seat to contest the Parliamentary one and ends up with neither.The last skate area had three adverse consequences for residents, and not just for those whose houses immediately abutted it. One was the sheer noise as the yoofs threw their skate boards down on the concrete. One was the stream of hulking boys (no girls incidentally) racing down narrow pavements and roads on their skate boards to get to and from the skate area. The other, and in many ways the worst, was the fact that younger children and their parents were driven out by the influx of older people from outside.
Campbell has been heard to say that he still bears the scars of the first attempt to foist a skate-board park on the area. Dim Cow presumably kept her job – incompetence is no disqualification for working for Oxford City Council. What will be the fate of Brundin and Armitage?
I must make it clear that I accept the responsibility of local authorities to provide facilities for young people. Compared with many of the stupidly unnecessary things on which councilors waste our money, it is a worthy cause. The fact that a cause is worthy or desirable does not, however, entitle its proponents to ignore the interests of others, nor relieve them from the need to engage the brain before acting.