Monthly Archives: August 2016

A Tale of Two …urban extensions

In my post on the Compact City, I noted the different choices made by Freiburg and Exeter in their approaches to balancing the need to provide new homes against the need to protect the natural environment.  To illustrate how these choices played out in practice, what follows is a brief study of how the two cities have managed urban extensions.

Freiburg

Within Freiburg’s southern city boundary is the district of Vauban, built on the site of a former French army barracks about 3km from the city centre [1].  Planned and developed between 1994 and 2014, with building work starting in 1998, the district was designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living.  Its population at the end of 2014 was 5,600, or 2.5% of the city’s total population.  Covering some 40 hectares, the whole district is easily walkable from one end to the other.

The city council bought the land from the German federal government, and so had effective control over land use decisions.  In planning the development, however, the council worked in a formal partnership with communities, through a purpose-built organisation known as Forum Vauban, a vehicle for articulating community views and for influencing the types of housing, traffic and energy plans and ensuring the development of a community centre for social services.

The City Council and the Forum took steps to ensure that the Vauban community was indeed “green”.

  • Energy-efficient housing was mandated, including over 100 buildings to PassivHaus standards. Solar energy is a major contributor to energy needs, and was designed into some of the buildings from the start.  Rainwater is captured on flat roofs.
  • Preference was given to co-operative housebuilders. Though there was some privately-built housing, the major housebuilding firms were excluded from Vauban.
  • The district is designed to provide some 600 jobs: in shops, schools, businesses and community services. This does not appear to have stopped commuting, but it is a better jobs to houses ratio than in many other places.

160628 Vauban Mitte

Transport planning has been managed seriously and proactively.  In particular:

  • Cars are not banned, but they must be parked in a community car park on the edge of the district, not beside houses and apartments. Households without cars don’t have to pay towards the community car park upkeep.  Car-sharing through a car club is on offer.
  • The excellent tram service was integrated into the development at an early stage, with services running from 2006. Trams to the city centre and beyond run on dedicated tracks along the district’s main central road, every 7-8 minutes.  The trams – and the buses – are run by a municipally-owned company.
  • Bicycles are in common use. The whole district is flat, there are few cars to create conflicts with cyclists, and ample parking for cycles both at the main tram stops and in residential areas.

160628 Vauban culdesac

Vauban looks modern but it doesn’t “feel” like a new town.  Its main street has ample shops and businesses, there are plenty of people walking and cycling.  The architecture is varied and well located around green spaces.

Though not designed to the same green standards, another major urban extension in Freiburg is the district of Rieselfeld [2].  Larger than Vauban, at nearly 10,000 residents on a 70-hectare site, it was also built on brownfield land – a former sewage works – without breaching the city boundaries to encroach on green space.  In Riesefeld too, the tram system was an early piece of infrastructure and now runs at the same frequency as in Vauban, taking 15 minutes to the city centre.

Both these developments are real expressions of Freiburg’s planning policy “It is quite clear: the more residential areas constructed on the outskirts of a city, the greater the negative ecological consequences. The prime directive of the city of Freiburg is therefore to keep the need for new areas to an absolute minimum.” [3].  In pursuing this goal, the city’s planners have not been afraid to plan for high-density living:  Vauban’s population is currently 137 people per hectare, the highest by far of any of the Freiburg city districts, and the density in Rieselfeld is 100 per hectare.  The average for the city as a whole is 49 [4].

Exeter

The policy response to Exeter’s housing need has been, reasonably enough, to get more houses built.  The key planning document, the Core Strategy (no longer as key as it was, but that’s another story), commits to an increase of at least 12,000 dwellings within the city boundaries between 2006 and 2026.  As a result, major developments of several hundred houses have grownn and are growing up on the city’s fringes, particularly to the east, pushing against the city’s administrative boundary.

Many of these developments are housing-driven, with little by the way of the services that make life tolerable.  In a growth area in the east of the city, a proposal for a shopping centre was refused by the city council on the grounds that it could have an adverse impact on trade in the city centre.  To be fair to the council, the proposal was a bit OTT, and plans for a more modest district shops and services centre would probably have been approved.  Meanwhile the residents are as far away for easily accessible shops as ever, yet another example why planning is too important to be left to “the market”.

A characteristic of Exeter’s housing developments is that they sprawl, often onto greenfields.  Despite fine words in planning documents, it seems to be impossible to impose any sort of density requirement on house-builders through the planning system, and to prevent the gradual (and not so gradual) erosion of unprotected green space.  It’s common knowledge that housebuilders prefer building 3-4 bed “executive homes” with garages and gardens, because they will make greater profits than from building 1-bed apartments.  It’s also common knowledge that they prefer building on green space rather than brownfield – previously developed – land.

One consequence of Exeter running out of developable space has been a new settlement, Cranbrook, over the boundary in East Devon.  Started 5 years ago, currently at 1,300 homes, it is planned to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, all on greenfield land.  This new town has very little to do with East Devon’s own housing need, and everything to with Exeter’s: as late as September 2015, a report to Devon County Council concluded that decisions needed to be taken on “whether Cranbrook would constitute a standalone development in the future or an urban extension of Exeter, linking with other developments taking place in its vicinity as part of a wider growth corridor” [5].

Cranbrook is modestly described in East Devon’s Local Plan [6] as follows: “[the} efforts in delivering this self-sufficient, low-carbon new town, the first stand-alone settlement in Devon since the Middle Ages, have won national acclaim.  A sustainable community located close to real employment opportunities, among them a significant number of highly-skilled jobs, will be an exemplar for green travel.”

Ho hum.  A quick, and admittedly not comprehensive, comparison with the green district of Vauban raises a few questions about these claims.

  • First, and crucially, there are no car restrictions in Cranbrook. Almost every house has a garage or a car parking space, so there is no incentive for the residents to use public transport.  This is not surprising because, second comparison, public transport is sparse.  There is a train once an hour from the new station – opened two years late – west to Exeter or east to Honiton and beyond.  The bus service to Exeter is half-hourly most of the day.

160807 Brooks Warren(1)

 

  • Cycles are a rare sight. On a weekday morning there was one parked at the railway station.

160817 Stn bike park weekday(2)

  • Vauban has its central spine, walkable from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but the overall shape of the place is rectangular.  Cranbrook is a linear sausage, planned to become even longer in the future.  Both are the products of the site allocated by the planners:  Vauban based on a former barracks, Cranbrook squashed in between a railway line to the north and a former trunk road to the south.  The planners’ density assumption for Cranbrook is 40 dwellings per hectare (excluding green space) [7]

Like Vauban, Cranbrook has a district heating scheme, which is laudable.

Cranbrook’s housing design has been largely left to the developers and house builders.  Apart from the broad locations of housing set out in the Local Plan, there is – perhaps surprisingly – no development plan for the town.  East Devon District Council is currently preparing one, which won’t be adopted until mid-2017 [8].  There is something to be said for not designing a place in full until there are sufficient residents to generate worthwhile public input; but it leaves a great deal to house-builders at the outset.  And, unlike Vauban, the big house-builders are all that’s on offer: Bovis, Taylor Wimpey, Charles Church and Persimmon all strut their stuff.

That said, there have been serious efforts to provide affordable housing.  In the first development phase, 300 houses were offered at social rents or on shared ownership terms, and a further 100 at below market prices on the grounds that their rooms are 20% smaller than average. [9].

It’s probably unfair to judge the “feel” of Cranbrook at this stage.  It’s still being built, and it’s dwarfed by housing.  Yet I’ve met people who live there and rave about it.  Let’s just say it’s got a very long way to go to be a green exemplar, though with intelligent planning and strong local leadership it could get there.

 So what?

These differences between Freiburg and Exeter reflect in large measure wider social and political differences, in particular the embracing by the UK’s – or at least England’s – political classes of market-driven doctrines over the past 30 years.  This contrasts with the “managed social economy” approach prevailing in Germany and much of the rest of the EU.  Whether England’s bosses will ever realise that the market is not the solution to everything is at present unanswerable.

Meanwhile there are lessons in the Exeter-Freiburg comparison, which I will elaborate in future posts: how plans are developed, and community engagement; the relationship between local government and the private sector, and the former’s relationship with central government; the involvement of social and co-operative enterprises; and investment in transport.

 

NOTES:

[1] The website www.vauban.de provides a wealth of information about the origins of the district, some of it in English (though much needs updating).  Freiburg City Council’s website is authoritative but mostly in German: for Vauban, see http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208732.html. The Google translation tool at [..] makes a valiant if not wholly successful effort at rendering German planning-speak into English planning-speak.

[2] See the entry in Freiburg City Council’s website at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208560.html (in German)

[3] English text available at http://www.greencity-cluster.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Downloads/Environmental_policy_Freiburg.pdf. Page 9 refers.

[4] These figures refer to population per hectare of developed land (“besiedelter Fläche”), so are less prone to distortion from large areas of greenspace in an area.. They are from page 34 of the 2015 edition of the excellent 300-page compendium of statistics published by Freiburg City Council, available at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/site/Freiburg/get/params_E1938626907/906571/statistik_veroeffentlichungen_Jahrbuch_2015-NIEDRIG.pdf  .

[5]  See para 9 of the report at http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_cs1519.html

[6] Available at: www.eastdevon.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/local-plan-2013-2031/

[7]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/planning-libraries/evidence-document-library/chapter8.1-housing/hsg012-cranbrookexpansionoptions.pdf

[8]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook/

[9] More detail at http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook-new-community/

 

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Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 2

In a previous post I highlighted the flamboyantly named Greater Exeter Visioning Board, announced with a fanfare of trumpets and then shifted off into the dark shadows of proceedings held behind firmly closed doors.  This post reports the uncomfortable outcome of my further investigations.

Having been told by Exeter City Council that the minutes of the Visioning Board were not made public, I asked some more questions.  The City Council’s answers are below.

Q1: Under what authority the board was established and who agreed its terms of reference?

A1: A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed by the Leaders and Chief Executives of Exeter City Council, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council in November 2014.  The Memorandum of Understanding is not a legally binding document but all parties use all reasonable endeavours to comply with the terms and spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding. 

Q2:  The reasons for its decision not to publish agendas and minutes?

A2:  Many of the issues that are discussed at the Board relate to the growth of the Greater Exeter area.  It is considered that the board needs to be able to have open discussions through which they can develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions.  Disclosure of these discussions may inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice, or the offering or requesting of opinions for consideration. 

Q3:  Whether it reports its proceedings to councillors and, if so, what opportunities are open to councillors to scrutinise its work?

A3:  Council Leaders and Deputy Leaders from each of the three authorities sit on the board.

Q4:  If it does not report its proceedings to councillors, to whom is the board accountable?

A4:  See above.

Answer 3 was a little less than forthcoming, so I checked the website (again) to see if anything about the Visioning Board had been reported to any minuted meeting of a Council committee.  Nothing found.  I asked the Council if I was missing something, and the reply was that no such reporting back could be traced.

So, there we are.  A body that is set up to “develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions” about the growth of Greater Exeter has been meeting in secret for over a year, with its members not even reporting back to the councillors they lead.  It’s possible that the Exeter City Council members have been keeping the mysterious Planning Member Working Group informed, but since its proceedings are also secret, we do not know.

Having spent 30 years as a Whitehall civil servant, I’m ready to agree that politicians and officials need the space to discuss ideas openly without press and public in the room.  But what is astonishing about the Visioning Board is that it was set up with a blaze of publicity, a formal MoU and regular monthly meetings.  And it appears to have been taking decisions in secret that could have major implications for Exeter.

So what’s next?

We can at least now speculate what the Visioning Board was up to.  On 12 July, the City Council’s Executive (the lead councillors) discussed a report by the Assistant Director City Development which set out proposals for establishing:

“a joint strategic plan for the Greater Exeter area which would be prepared in partnership between East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council with assistance from Devon County Council. The plan would cover the geographical area of the 4 partner authorities (excluding the area of Dartmoor National Park) but would be limited in scope to cover strategic issues and strategic allocations within those areas with local issues to be considered through linked local plans prepared by each partner authority for their area.” [1]

This was nodded through and then approved by the full Council on 26 July.

In a future post I will explore the challenges for serious public engagement presented by this form of joint working.  For the moment, let’s just say that the gestation of this proposal behind closed doors, and the underlying assumption that joint planning is a technocratic issue rather than something which asks the communities what sort of Greater Exeter we want (if indeed we want one at all) does not augur well.

Or is there another agenda?

Of course, I might be completely wrong, and the Greater Exeter Visioning Board has been discussing something completely different.  But if so, what?  A Greater Exeter Unitary Authority perhaps?  There is an obvious link between the joint strategic plan proposal and the so-called “Devolution” bid for spending powers to be transferred from central government to the “Heart of the South West”, made up of Devon County Council, Somerset County Council, Torbay Council and Plymouth City Council [2].  The district councils like Exeter are at present secondary players in this, a position with which Exeter for one is not comfortable.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The full report is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s52597/EXECUTIVE%20-%20Proposed%20Greater%20Exeter%20Strategic%20Plan%20-%2012%20July%202016%20-%20FINAL.pdf

[2]  I will have more to say about the “Devolution” bid in a later post .  Meanwhile a useful update is at item 76 of the minutes of the Exeter City Council Executive meeting on 12 July, at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=4469&Ver=4

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

This post was originally published on http://www.petercleasby.com on 16 May 2016

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.

Good listening

A couple of recent events suggest that Exeter City Council may be starting to listen seriously to its communities after all.

First, another bus station story.  While the new bus station is being built – and we all assume it will now go ahead – on the existing bus station site, there will need to be somewhere for the buses to drop off and pick up passengers.  The Council floated the idea of converting a nearby car park, known as the Triangle, into a temporary bus station.  From an environmental perspective, this would have the great merit of reducing the number of car parking spaces in the city centre and, once the temporary bus station was no longer needed, the area could be used for something socially useful like affordable housing or green space.

Anyway, the Council floated the idea and held a public meeting to discuss it.  The local residents did not like it one bit, and said so.   Very quickly, the Council dropped the idea and decided that the buses could use the nearby main streets for their business instead.  So, brownie points to the Council for (a) making it clear that the idea was tentative and not a worked-up proposal and (b) acting on what it heard.

Of course cynics would say that the Council never wanted to lose the car park spaces at the Triangle, in line with its policy of encouraging people to shop in the city centre, and so the whole exercise was arranged to achieve the result that it has.  But I prefer to think that it was just a good and welcome example of the Council thinking out loud, for a change.

The second bit of good news was on the fringes of the city, in upper Pennsylvania.  When new housing was built there in the 1970s, an area of green space was handed over to a Public Open Spaces Charitable Trust whose object is to “hold various pieces of land as a public open space to the intent that the same may at all times hereafter be available to and be used by the public at large for the purpose of recreation” [1].  Despite that, the trustees put the land up for sale at auction, which means that public access could be restricted by a future owner.  The locals were, rightly, outraged.  The City Council stepped in and offered a grant of £5,000 to purchase the land [2].  In the event the community were able to purchase it for £1,500 and so ensure continued use as public open space.

NOTES:

[1]  Source, Charity Commission website, charity number 328402.

[2]  See Exeter City Council news release on Request for purchase of land at Sylvania Valley at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/council-news/latest-news/