Monthly Archives: April 2016

Off the buses

How the Old Politics sowed discord where there should have been harmony

In my previous post I set out an explanation for the failure of the “old politics” in Exeter’s local government.  I noted: a combination of working behind closed doors, letting the political party system inhibit new thinking, and failing to show leadership on behalf of the community. In this post I outline how Exeter City Council managed to turn what could have been a positive and uncontroversial project into a winter of discontent – and create a political issue in the full Council elections on May 5.

To detail every twist and turn of the story would undoubtedly try any reader’s patience (as well as my own), so here is the simplified narrative of the Exeter bus and coach station site redevelopment plans.

The background (yes, it’s a bit dull)

The present bus station occupies what property people would call “a prime site” in the centre of Exeter.  It’s a dismal place, serving the country buses and long-distance coaches.  Half of the site is given over to a bus park for overnight stabling, and the bus maintenance depot is on an adjacent site.  The City Council has long held an ambition to produce a better “gateway to Exeter”, a view shared by most residents.

A proposed redevelopment in the previous decade foundered with the financial crash.  The council’s key planning document, the Core Strategy [1] adopted in 2012, continued to earmark the site for redevelopment – mixed use, including retail.  In the same year the council produced a set of “Development Principles” for the site [2].  This set out clearly the council’s view that the redevelopment would be led by the private sector, to include a “new and enhanced” bus station to be paid for by the development plus any available public funding, and “a landmark building” next to the roundabout at the south end of the site.  The site would cover not only the existing bus station and overnight stabling area but also the bus maintenance depot.  Diagrams in the booklet gave no hint that there would be any impact on Paris Street – a main northwest-southeast route across the city.

There’s much more, but that’s enough detail for now.

Roll forward to late 2014.  The developers bowl into town with some outline plans and set up a consultation in an empty shop.  Well, calling it a consultation is perhaps stretching the meaning of the word. They produced some coloured drawings and a tick-box form of loaded questions which were either fatuous, obvious or impossible to answer intelligently [3].  Since about three-quarters of those commenting thought the plans were a good idea, it was no surprise to see an application for outline planning permission arrive on the council’s desk in July 2015.  It proposed a mixed-use development of shops (hang on, isn’t High Street retail in decline thanks to online shopping?), restaurants (gosh, another Pizza Hut), a new cinema (a few yards from an existing one), a bus station, and a leisure centre.  The bombshell was a proposal to close Paris Street to traffic, accompanied by reams of transport consultants’ documentation incomprehensible to the non-expert.

The story now breaks down into three discrete elements: the leisure centre; the closure of Paris Street; and the new bus station.

The Leisure Centre

Behind closed doors, the council had been working on a plan for the “landmark building”.  As information dribbled out, it became clear that this building was to be a leisure centre, consisting largely of a swimming pool, funded wholly by the council at a cost of £26m.  This led to objections from swimming clubs who wanted an Olympic-size pool (“Tell them to go to Plymouth” was one response from the Civic Centre), from the substantial lobby that wanted the site used for a theatre, and from people who could think of better uses for £26m (for example on public services).  The business case for the leisure centre was – and still is – secret, so there has been no independent scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the council’s claim that it would be run at a profit [4].

As criticism mounted, the Leader of the Council started making statements that the rest of the redevelopment could not go ahead without the leisure centre, though no explanation was forthcoming as to why this should be the case (secret deals with the developers spring unworthily to mind).  A consultation of 400 responses, in which 81.5% supported the leisure centre, was held up by the Leader as proof that the council was right and the people were behind him.  Well, about 0.3% of the people were behind him.

The Tories have stated that if they win next month’s election, they will scrap the plans for the leisure centre.

The closure of Paris Street

There is much to be said on environmental grounds for excluding traffic from a city centre through route.  Unfortunately the developers’ traffic management plans involved rerouting much of the traffic through residential areas and past a school.  The well-informed residents of St James – who produced the second-ever statutory neighbourhood plan in England – quickly spotted that their area would be most affected.  The developers’ traffic assumptions were challenged, not only by the residents, but also by Devon County Council, the highway authority, which awoke in time to send the plans back for reworking.

At one point there seemed a real possibility that Devon County Council would be St James’ saviour because of its concerns over the impact on the city’s traffic network.  Sadly, a supine meeting of the county’s Development Management Committee green-lighted the revised proposals, despite an officer’s report which did not offer any evidence to support a recommendation to approve the plans [5].

The developers offered no life-line, making it clear that if Paris Street was not closed, they would not proceed with the development.  The council put up no fight about this.

The bus station

The first (and the revised) outline planning application showed a bus station with 12 bays, down from the present 16.  The result of this is that the National Express long-distance coaches are likely to have to park on adjacent streets, which will be a really welcoming experience when arriving from London at ten past one in the morning.  It could be worse – a leading city councillor has suggested that the coaches need not come into Exeter at all, and pick people up at the Park and Ride by the M5 motorway. Since the P&R services do not run at night, it’s not clear what happens to city passengers wanting to catch the 4.25 am to London.

Worse is to come.  Because the bus station is crammed into a corner of the site (and incidentally further from the High Street than it is now), getting buses in and out will be tricky.  So much so that the bus company will have to employ a banksman – someone who guides drivers in and out – which will be unwelcome news to cost-conscious Stagecoach management.

Although the Development Principles envisaged the site would include the bus maintenance depot, the planning application excluded it.  Instead, in a side deal, the site has been offered for a 600-bed student accommodation block.

And finally.  Despite the commitment in the Development Principles about the development paying for the new bus station, the council tax-payers of Exeter received as a Christmas 2015 present the news that they, not the developers, would be paying for the bus station.  £6.25m as a first estimate, and doubtless rising along with construction costs.

And what happened next?

Guess.  On 20 January 2016, the full City Council met and approved the outline planning permission, including giving itself permission to build the leisure centre [6].  The number of people wanting to attend the meeting was so great that the Guildhall could not accommodate them all.  Despite the volume of well-argued objections received, the council leadership pressed on with its plans, having given no sign over the previous 2 years that it was interested in listening to any other views.

A subsequent consultation exhibition on the detailed plans led to 63% of respondents objecting to the whole development.  This brought forth a scolding from the council’s Chief Executive and Growth Director (no prizes for guessing his agenda) to the effect that the 63% were all rather silly people because the principle of the development had already been settled, on 20 February.  The Chief Executive and Growth Director told the local paper that he was kept awake at night thinking about the redevelopment.  A letter in the next issue suggested that the CE&GD’s sleeplessness was because the plans were flawed.

We now await the outcome of the May 5 election.

So what went wrong?

To pick up the question posed at the beginning:  why did Exeter City Council fail to unite the communities in support of what had the potential to be a worthwhile major project?  How did things go sour?

My own answers are these.

First, the council and the developers came up with the plans, presumably in conjunction with each other behind closed doors, and then defended it against all comers, despite the volume of evidence that the development would create as many problems for Exeter’s residents as it might solve.

Second, this die-in-the-ditch approach led to the leisure centre in particular being labelled a council leadership vanity project, to be delivered at any cost.  At no stage was there any willingness to accommodate reasoned objections.  The party system imposed discipline on Labour councillors who were forced to defend the project and vote it through (though one had the strength of mind to vote against it in support of his constituents).

Third, the so-called consultations were a joke.  They were designed to get the answers the council and the developers wanted, and they usually succeeded.  None of the questionnaires gave people the opportunity to say what sort of retail mix they wanted, nor to put forward alternative uses for £26m of public money.  The option of giving the existing bus station a makeover has never figured in the council’s public thinking.  There was no engagement with people.

Fourth, when the planning application was open for consultation, the result was a welter of well-argued objections, freed from the constraints of tick-box questionnaires.  Had the council allowed a more open approach to the earlier consultations, issues might have been identified earlier

Fifth, the council displayed remarkable weakness in failing to challenge the developers, on behalf of its residents, about the proposal to close Paris Street.  The developers demanded and the council agreed, and hard luck on the residents of St James (and indeed the rest of us when the city gridlocks in the run up to Christmas).

It would be good to think that the council has learned from this, and that those who practise the “old politics” are chastened by it.  It would be good to think it.

NOTES:

[1]  For those with stamina, the Core Strategy is at www.exeter.gov.uk/media/1636/adopted-core-strategy.pdf

[2]  See www.exeter.gov.uk/media/2037/bus_and_coach_station_development_principles_nov_2012.pdf

[3]  The questions, with commentary, are set out the first part of a post on my other blog at www.petercleasby.com/2014/12/11/how-to-fix-a-consultation/

[4]  The Information Commissioner has accepted for investigation a complaint from me that Exeter City Council is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act by not publishing the business case on request.

[5]  The offending paper is at http://democracy.devon.gov.uk/Data/Development%20Management%20Committee/20151125/Agenda/pdf-PTE-15-66.pdf

[6]  The paper put to the Council summarising the proposal and the extensive objections received is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s49543/150791%20Report%20HS%20Final.pdf

The Old Politics no longer serves us well

Local authorities should be the cornerstone of local democracy, but they are failing to respond to a changing society.  This post, and those immediately following, aim to show at least some of the reasons for this failure and to illustrate the scale of change needed in local governance without which initiatives from others in the community won’t fulfil their potential.

The voting figures really do tell it all.  If our local politics was seen as important by the wider public, we wouldn’t have low turnouts in elections.  From 2010 to 2014 the turnout for Exeter City Council elections ranged from 31% to 43%; in 2015 the coincidence of a general election on the same day raised turnout to 69%.

Research following the 2010 general election found that the two most commonly stated reasons for not voting were that people didn’t believe their vote would make any difference, and that parties and candidates were all the same [1].  The Hansard Society’s latest annual survey of political engagement found that only one-fifth of respondents felt they had some influence over local decision-making, a record low for the survey [2].

This massive disconnection between people and mainstream politics is not news.  Exeter City Council is, with a few exceptions, competent and efficient.  Its staff are helpful and as open as they feel able to be.  But, like so many other local authorities, it fails to capture popular enthusiasm for its role: it’s dull and unimaginative.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, since expenditure cuts have reduced staff numbers to the point where those remaining have their work cut out to deliver essential business – space for creativity is at a premium.

Yet that is far from being the whole explanation for the great disconnect.  I suggest that the causes lie in three overlapping factors, shown below (and there may well be others).

  • The tendency to develop policies and plans behind closed doors
  • The deadening effect of traditional party politics.
  • The weakness of local authorities in relation to other players.

 

Closed doors

Most Exeter City Council meetings open to the public start at 5.30pm.  A colleague and I wanted to attend a meeting of the Council’s Executive – the committee of councillors responsible for direction of the various Council services – and turned up at the Civic Centre about 5.15pm.  The main access door was firmly locked, so we walked around the building looking for another way in.  No luck.  We went back and banged loudly on the main door, which eventually brought a member of staff to allow us in.  We were asked to wait in the reception area.  Shortly after the meeting was due to start an officer appeared through a doorway and shouted out “Are there any public here?”.  We were then shepherded into the committee room, a bit like prisoners entering the dock.

Is this the behaviour of an organisation that actively welcomes people to its meetings? [3].

Perhaps this is a trivial illustration, but it is consistent with the behaviour of the City Council over a wide range of its business.  Despite protestations of openness, the reverse is more often true.  Some specifics:

  • The website does indeed contain papers and minutes for all council and committee meetings that are open to the public, which is most of them for most of the time. But what you see on the website is generally the finished product.  The proposal – for a strategy, policy, project or whatever – has been worked on by officers, consulting other parts of the council and other organisations – the “partners” – as necessary, and is the finished product to be approved by councillors.  These internal processes are invisible to outsiders.  Papers for decision always end with a section headed “Any other options?”.  Some officers make use of this, but key papers, particularly finance ones, invariably state “None”.
  • The culture is to keep as much of this background activity away from outsiders as is possible. There is currently a lively public debate about whether too much of the city centre is being handed over to public-built “luxury” student accommodation.  The Council has no policy for managing this, other than to let the market lead, though they recognised an emerging problem and commissioned an academic expert to write a report on the options.  This has been available since the end of last year, but only councillors and officers have access to it.
  • Another example is the way in which the City Council, along with other local authorities in the south-west, responded to the government’s proposal for devolution. The first most of us knew of what was afoot was when the consortium of councils issued a press release announcing that their devolution bid prospectus had been sent to Whitehall.  It gives the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership significant influence over what ought to be democratically-led decisions about spending, and envisages some sort of “combined authority” over Devon and Somerset to exercise the powers devolved from central government.  No one ever asked the people of Exeter, and beyond, whether we want to be part of such an arrangement.
  • Even at the published level, there’s a climate of non-disclosure. Council minutes of meetings do not identify councillors other than lead members.  So we read that “a member” said this, and “another member” said that, but we don’t know who they are.  It would be interesting to know, for example, the identity of the councillor who said that “councillors were elected to represent their residents and the majority of the public were too busy to attend Council meetings” [4].  I’ll come back to him or her in a later post.
  • The Council points to its readiness to consult on key issues. They did indeed carry out an excellent public consultation in 2014 to help them decide where to make budget cuts [5].  But all too many recent consultations have been tick-box affairs, or events held during working hours when many people cannot attend.  Alternative options are never canvassed.  The key point is that people are being asked to say what they think, often simplistically, about a proposal that has been worked on so much behind closed doors that what the public think has ceased to have relevance.

Party politics

The Labour party has controlled the City Council since 1995, though the period 2004-2012 was one in which Labour ran a minority administration.  They are tired and short of new ideas.  The Corbyn effect has had no visible impact on Labour councillors’ views, and the city’s MP, Ben Bradshaw elected in 1997, is openly hostile to his leader.  In next month’s elections Labour’s vote-winning proposal to solve Exeter’s transport problems is to set up a “Transport Board”, to join all the other boards and committees trying to do the same thing.  Exeter Labour has gone stale.

Had the Conservatives or LibDems been in power for a similar period, it is highly likely that they would exhibit the same symptoms.

The staleness is not surprising.  Local political parties are run by small groups of people, with a limited pool to draw on for elected office.  It is in any case by no means self-evident that we need party politics in local government at all.  A cohort of elected independent thinkers could bring much-needed radical thinking about policies and, crucially, how the council relates to the people it is there to serve.  Those who follow politics have all seen examples of councillors voting in line with the party whip against their personal judgement or their constituents’ views.

The party system inhibits original thinking about the needs of the local area.  Local parties are constrained by their party’s national policies, which means that politically acceptable solutions to problems remain within that central box.  Thinking outside the box is not encouraged, at a time when the world has never been more in need of new radical policies.

Weakness

Local government is weak.  Central governments from the Thatcher administrations on have diminished its responsibilities, constrained its funding, and forced it to privatise public services.  Local discretion is seen by Whitehall as a way of passing the buck when things go wrong, not as an essential means of making sense of national policies on the ground.  County and unitary councils are about to be stripped of their schools, and district councils like Exeter have had their planning functions corroded by the developer-is-always-right approach of the National Planning Policy Framework (as serially amended by the Chancellor).  Nationally-enforced reductions in council housing rents will in time make it impossible for a council to afford to hold a housing stock.

It’s fair to lay much of the blame for a council’s weakness at central government’s door.  Yet local authorities have lain back as the punishments are dished out to them.  Developers generally get what they want, unless the officers can find a cast-iron case against: councillors are made fearful by the cost of an appeal by a developer to the Secretary of State against a rejected planning application, or developers simply threaten not to proceed.  Privatised services reduce accountability to the public they serve, since the provider’s accountability is to the contract, and nothing else.

What councils like Exeter have failed to do is to rally popular support behind them.  Central government and its friends in big business ride roughshod over councils because they believe that most people don’t care.  And most people don’t care because councils have failed to engage – really engage – their communities in what they do and the decisions they take

Instead, Exeter City Council regards us as “customers”.  There is a lead councillor for “customer access”, the front office of the Civic Centre is the “Customer Service Centre”.  This language reduces what should be the pivotal democratic authority in the city to the level of a shop.  Do councillors really see themselves as store managers, whose relationships with the city’s people have become transactions?

This loss of recognition that people are central to everything a council does shows up in various ways.  I sat through a Devon County Council committee discussion on traffic congestion in Exeter.  Traffic jams at a key roundabout was a major concern, and the “problem” was seen as the presence of a nearby pedestrian crossing.  There seemed to be no recognition that the real problem was the cars, not the people.  This was a committee whose remit was to deal with highways and traffic, and so their views were shaped by that perspective.

When councils get it wrong, they are further weakened.  Exeter City Council recently consulted on a proposal for a Public Spaces Protection Order, the effect of which would be to make it easier to clear homeless people off the city’s central streets, presumably because their presence didn’t fit the image the Council likes to present to inward investors and tourists.  A wave of well-informed criticism followed, putting the Council firmly on the back foot, so much so that the proposal has been kicked into the long grass.  The Council looks stupid.  Why didn’t they judge the public mood before putting the plan forward?

So what next?

This is not a hopeless situation, as I will suggest in later posts.  But first, we need to be clear about what needs fixing.  This post has suggested three key issues; the next post will give a practical example of how the three issues converged, in the debacle surrounding the redevelopment of the Exeter Bus and Coach Station site.

 

NOTES

[1]  Research by Survation.  See a summary at http://survation.com/apathy-in-the-uk-understanding-the-attitudes-of-non-voters/

[2]  Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 12, 2015, page 7, available at http://www.auditofpoliticalengagement.org/media/reports/Audit-of-Political-Engagement-12-2015.pdf

[3]  The City Council could learn from Devon County Council, a short mile away, where people are welcome, armed with a pass but unescorted, to go to the committee room before the meeting starts, to have a cup of tea or coffee there and chat with any officers or councillors who may be around.

[4]  During a debate on whether the public should be allowed to speak at council meetings.  Exeter City full Council meeting, 24 February 2015, item 12. http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=114&MId=4087&Ver=4

[5]  More detail in the second part of my post at https://petercleasby.com/2014/12/11/how-to-fix-a-consultation/