Consultation on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) looks like being an expensive and time-wasting ritual.
Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.
(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)
Last week CPRE Devon arranged a public meeting to discuss the emerging Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP). The room was packed with over 160 people, thus giving the lie to those who believe that people aren’t interested in spatial planning.
The formal presentations – one from the Growth Point and one from the GESP team – didn’t add much to the store of existing knowledge. After all, the Plan doesn’t exist yet, so how can anyone say anything about it? What we did discover is that the GESP timetable is slipping badly: at one time their website stated the consultation draft would be out in January 2018, but today’s timetable is that it will appear in “Autumn 2018”. We also discovered something else that I don’t think we were meant to discover, about which more in a moment.
The last platform speaker was the East Devon MP, Sir Hugo Swire. I don’t usually have a lot of time for his views  but on this occasion he said some sensible things. Like pointing out that writing a plan to predict our needs 22 years hence – the plan is to cover the period up to 2040 – is an unrealistic endeavour given the pace of technological change which affects social behaviour, service provision and employment patterns. Or reminding us that there is brownfield land for housing within and immediately around Exeter which could be used up without building on green fields and forcing people to commute even further into the city’s employment zones. And having a pot at the volume housebuilders and their standard house designs which are out of keeping with any of our vernacular architectures. He then joined in the area’s favourite sport of bashing Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group.
After the coffee break and the departure of the MP we were treated to a party political broadcast, masquerading as a question, from the Labour county councillor for Alphington and Cowick. Then I caught the Chair’s eye and asked two questions. The first related to my hobby-horse on housing density  which attracted no response from the platform or anywhere else except from an audience member who seemed not to understand the difference between high density and high rise.
The second was on the GESP planning process. I have a rule that I don’t publicly criticise civil servants or local government officers by name, on the grounds that unless they’ve gone rogue they are doing their political bosses’ bidding. So I shall simply refer to the recipient of my question as The Planner. Prefacing my remarks with a well-received (by the audience) statement that planning in this country was done to us, not by us, I asked The Planner whether he thought the paltry 6 weeks being allowed for comment on the GESP consultation draft was fair. The Planner said it was indeed fair, on the grounds that people never responded until right at the end of the consultation period however long it was.
Stumped by the non sequitur of the reply, my supplementary question was that they should at least now publish the completed evidence studies commissioned in support of the plan. That way, those of us who couldn’t pay for armies of consultants to read the stuff could do some preparation ourselves before the consultation draft came out. And this is where the cat’s head became visible in the opening of the bag.
The Planner paused for thought, presumably recognising the reasonableness of the question. He then conceded that it might be possible to publish some studies, but not those which would give any clues as to what would be in the draft plan. Hang on, I said, from a sedentary position– the Chair was a man of tolerance and wisdom – you’re saying that some planning policies have already been decided and the evidence has been commissioned to back up those decisions? You’re putting words into my mouth, said The Planner, but I didn’t hear him deny it.
So now we know what the secretive Greater Exeter Visioning Board  was doing two years ago. It was deciding the outline content of what is to become the GESP. And the evidence was then commissioned to back up those key decisions, not to expose them to challenge. It’s an easy process: you just tell the consultants what assumptions and constraints to build in, and you end up with an impressive-looking piece of “evidence” that will be a wow at a public examination of the plan.
I wasn’t alone in complaining about the 6-week consultation period. A practitioner far more experienced than I am commented that the mandatory period used to be 12 weeks, and 8 weeks was regarded as the minimum for best practice purposes. How were organisations whose committees met every 6 weeks going to prepare their comments? That cut no ice with The Planner either.
Interestingly, Exeter’s chief planning officer recently told our Green Party councillor that the 6-week period was necessary because the GESP had to be produced as quickly as possible so that the City Council could put in place a new local plan to replace the current one declared by the Planning Inspectorate as not fit for purpose. Being not fit for purpose means that developers can build pretty much where they like. Well, the delays in producing the first GESP draft don’t exhibit much of a sense of urgency. Given that the main content of the GESP has already been decided, why don’t we just skip all the expensive and time-consuming process of producing a formal, approved strategic joint plan? Just tell the district councils what they’ve already secretly decided between themselves and they can then amend their local plans to conform. As things stand, we’ll have developers running riot in Exeter until 2022 at the earliest.
No, that’s not very democratic is it? Not in the spirit of engaging communities in deciding their own futures. But until the attitudes exhibited by The Planner and his bosses are set aside, democracy and engagement don’t look having any place in our planning system. Has no one learned the lesson of the Brexit referendum – which is what happens when people feel locked out?