A few months ago I wrote about the wasteful purchase by a number of councils of public art vanity projects. An example that hit the headlines this week reminds us that as well as being indulgent wastes of money, such white elephants often prove extremely embarrassing for the councils themselves. What is intended to impress by demonstrating a council’s avant garde tastes and radical cultural activity ends up exposing their lack of regard for taxpayers’ money.
The example I refer to is Islington Council’s “Living Wall”. A 30 ft high structure covered in plants, the wall was commissioned in 2005 for £100,000. At the time, the technology used in its self-watering system had never been used before anywhere else. Rather than deterring the council, the fact that they were splashing a small fortune on an untested technology seems to have spurred them on.
Unfortunately for Islington’s taxpayers (and the plants themselves), the wall hasn’t worked as intended. Indeed, the thing has malfunctioned so badly that Friday’s Evening Standard ran a page lead about it entitled “The Living Wall of Islington is dead”. As you can see from the accompanying picture, which also features Tim Newark of the Islington TaxPayers’ Alliance, the plants have withered away.
Instead of the verdant monument they paid for, Islington’s residents have been left with something reminiscent of a vertical version of Macbeth’s blasted heath, but without the cultural significance.
Wisdom, as they say, is easy with hindsight. Islington council’s Councillor Barry Edwards told the Standard that, “It would have been better to let someone else try it first, experience all the problems and find a solution before trying it here." He’s right, of course, but should it really take a mistake costing £100,000 for a council to learn that lesson?
Worryingly, whilst Cllr Edwards has apparently learned a bit of caution from the fiasco, there are apparently some at Islington who are looking into pouring more money down the drain (there is another analogy for wasting money which does involve a wall, but I shan’t soil the standard of discussion on ConservativeHome with it).
An Islington council “spokesperson” said: “Of course we're disappointed that it hasn't thrived. It seems this could be down to its design and we are looking at the best way to restore it."
It seems that the thing is set to absorb even more money.
This should be a salutary lesson to all councils. You are not there to boldly push the boundaries of architecture or lead a cultural revolution. You are there to deliver services and oversee various areas of planning, licencing and minor public order. That might not be as fun as hiring radical architects, but it is of far more importance to the local community you are meant to serve.
A culture of artistic and architectural patronage has grown up in local government in recent years, following the example of a Government apparently addicted to taxpayer-funded white elephant gimmickry. Whilst the public were sometimes willing to turn a blind eye to it with a muttered curse about self-indulgent politicians when economic times were better, now the recession is upon us these activities are unacceptable.
I could name other examples – the £3,000 graffiti wall that only attracted the painted slogan “I paid my taxes and all I got was this lousy wall” in Wadebrige, Cornwall springs to mind – but hopefully they will in future be viewed as a bizarre and temporary peccadillo of the early 21st century.
The repeated and embarrassing failures of the recent rash of council public art projects should teach local government to steer clear of them in future.
On top of the £100,000 cost to Islington’s taxpayers, this has cost the council an awful lot of respect. The recession should lead councillors and officers everywhere to reassess what is really important. Hopefully, if localism brings real autonomy to local areas councils will focus their attentions on making a real difference to people’s lives, rather than squandering money on pointless indulgences.