Exeter City Council’s decision to close the Clifton Hill Sports Centre and sell off the site and surrounding green space raises several important questions.
The story so far
One of nature’s reminders of human fragility was the heavy snow in March 2018 which damaged the roof of the Clifton Hill Sports Centre, resulting in its immediate closure. Very quickly the City Council began suggesting that the facility would never re-open, a decision approved by the Council’s Executive on 12 June and endorsed by a specially-convened full Council meeting the following day . In addition, the Council agreed a budget for the demolition of the sports centre and authorised the City Surveyor to include all the surrounding green space in a sale if that offered best value. It also approved:
- a budget of over £3 million for improvements to other sports facilities in the city; and
- a last-minute proposal from the Leader of Council, made at the Executive meeting, to provide £150k to cover the shortfall faced by the Newtown Community Association in building replacement premises in the adjacent Belmont Park.
A petition objecting to the Council’s plans attracted 1,500 signatures, and separate campaigns have sprung up to save the building and the green space.
The first set of questions: why is the plan inconsistent with current Council aims and policies?
Health. The proposal to build on a green field site of some 4.6 ha in an inner-city area flies in the face of all the evidence about the health benefits of open space . It’s true that most of the area is not public open space in the sense that payment is required to access the leased facilities; but it is nonetheless a chunk of open space that is non-polluting. An impartial report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology  makes the following key points:
- Areas with more accessible green space are associated with better mental and physical health.
- The risk of mortality caused by cardiovascular disease is lower in residential areas that have higher levels of ‘greenness’.
- There is evidence that exposure to nature could be used as part of the treatment for some conditions.
Wildlife. Irrespective of the extent of public access, green space area provides a home for wildlife in an often hostile city environment. The joint City Council/Devon Wildlife Trust initiative Exeter Wild City has as one of its objectives “Enhance and protect the wildlife value of green space in the city”. As an old landfill site, the area would be ideal for wild flowers, to be pollinated by bees as part of a network (see next point).
Green Infrastructure . Although much of the Green Infrastructure Strategy for Exeter focusses on new development, the Local Plan Core Strategy states that it “aims to promote and preserve biodiversity and green infrastructure across the city”. A look at a map of Exeter shows that the green spaces of Belmont Park and the Clifton Hill site offer a clean green corridor from Blackboy Road towards Heavitree Road. Not only would this provide an attractive and healthy alternative to walking on our traffic-filled roads, it would form – with private gardens – a key part of a green network enabling bees (and other insects) to spread their pollen around the city without encountering substantial gaps.
Land is in short supply in Exeter. The Council has just agreed two important and welcome measures which depend on the availability of publicly owned land for their success. Why, then, is the Council set on selling off land it already owns?
Sport and recreation
The Council has agreed to spend £3 million of public money in improving sports facilities despite the fact that it has no strategy for their role and development. In June 2016, fresh from winning the all-out Council elections, the lead councillor for health and well-being (and many other things), Councillor Bialyk, stated that he would “sign off and help implement the City Sports Strategy and Playing Pitch Strategy” . In March 2018 the Council responded to a Freedom Information Act request about the Sports Strategy as follows: “…to date the Council has not adopted such a strategy. A Parks & Play Strategy, Playing Pitch, Built Sports and Leisure Facilities and Sports Development Strategies will be produced during 2018 underpinning an overarching Physical Activity Strategy” . So why is the Council not waiting for these many, doubtless illuminating, strategies before spending £3 million in, presumably, a non-strategic way? Why not save the cost of producing the strategies in the first place?
The second set of questions: why the haste and lack of discussion of alternatives?
As noted above, the proposal has been rushed through the Council machinery at high speed. Why? During the full Council debate on 13 June, the Tory opposition called for a pause for breath, but Labour voted this down. No reason for the haste has been given.
Excessive haste often leads to ill-informed decisions. The officer report must have been drawn up in a hurry, because it contained errors and omissions. For example:
- The report states that the leases for the golf driving range and the rifle club are annual leases. They are not.
- The report does not explain that the lease for the ski slope runs until December 2022, with no break clause.
- The wider health and biodiversity benefits of the green space were not even flagged up, let alone discussed.
Haste also leads to inconsistent undertakings and decisions. For example:
- At the Executive meeting on 12 June, Councillor Bialyk said “any development of the site would be subject to consultation”. But the recommendations, subsequently adopted by the full Council, state: “4. Delegated authority be given to the City Surveyor to take necessary steps to ensure the land is used for residential accommodation and not used for purpose-built student accommodation.” So if you can have anything you like as long as it’s housing, what’s the point of the consultation?
- On the same point, where does the planning system come in? Any housing on the site would require the Council to grant planning permission. The adoption of resolution 4 comes close to anticipating the outcome of what should be a distinct and separate process. Given that the land is not allocated for housing in what passes for the Local Plan, and no planning permission exists, how is the Council going to sell the land to ensure it issued for housing. And if the land is sold with some sort of covenant requiring housing, what happens if the Planning Committee turns down an application for planning permission? Who would buy the land given such conditions?
- Indeed, the authority given to the City Surveyor is muddled. As well as resolution 4 (above) resolution 3 states: “Delegated authority be given to the City Surveyor to include [with the sports centre site] the sale of the adjacent driving range, ski slope and Exeter Small Bore Rifle Club areas of the Clifton Hill site as a single development site if this offers the best value to the Council”. But, hang on, read the words of the Leader at the full Council meeting: “the City Surveyor would not be able to make decisions to sell all or part of the site without further Member involvement through the appropriate democratic process”. So what exactly has been delegated? Or did the officer who produced the report and the draft resolutions – not the City Surveyor, by the way – hope that this might be slipped through unnoticed?
- It’s also difficult to resist picking up on a piece of what might just be sloppy drafting. Resolution 1 states: “Clifton Hill Sport Centre be sold to generate a capital receipt”. Note that this refers to the building being sold. Yet resolution 10 provides for “up to £150,000 to demolish Clifton Hill Sports Centre to secure the site”. Are they selling it or demolishing it? I think we should be told.
And then there’s the lack of answers to questions raised in both meetings. Unusually, the normally comatose Tory opposition was on the ball, asking some important questions, such as why had maintenance been allowed to get so far in arrears? Did the Labour leadership answer? Of course not. Though to be fair, the officer report highlights the central government cuts in local authority funding as a reason for prioritising front-line services over maintenance, a policy that might now usefully be revisited.
Pause for thought might also have obviated a complaint from Exeter Green Party to the Council’s Monitoring Officer alleging that Labour councillors, whose party owns the freehold of a property adjacent to the site, should have declared a financial interest in the decision or sought a dispensation allowing them to vote.
Finally, is the Council throwing good money after bad? The officer report includes this alarming comment: “The on-going maintenance of the facility has also been hindered by the contractual split of responsibilities between the Council as landlord and Legacy Leisure/Parkwood Leisure as the facility operator, and the time taken to negotiate whose responsibility repair and other works are” . If similar problems are occurring at the other leisure centres – and since it’s a single contract, that’s a reasonable assumption – what guarantees do we have that the new investment will not lead to similar maintenance problems with the present contractor?
Can we learn anything from all this?
Yes. First, that major decisions are best taken at a sensible pace with full consideration of all relevant information and watertight paperwork. The process has all the characteristics of a “bounce” (an expression used by civil servants when trying to persuade ministers that they must agree to a risky course of action, and at once). Unforeseen consequences are a common outcome.
Second, current local government processes work against effective scrutiny. Lead councillors were simply able to ignore questions they didn’t want to answer. At full Council meetings members are only allowed one supplementary question, which significantly reduces the ability to probe. The proposal did not go to a Scrutiny Committee, where there is a theoretical possibility of pinning down the leadership, but nowhere near the level of scrutiny given by Parliamentary Select Committees.
Third, local authorities where one party has an impregnable majority can get away with pretty well anything.
 The Council papers are worth reading, and are quoted from in this post. The key documents are:
the officer report that went to both meetings (http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s64238/Built%20Sports%20and%20Leisure%20Facilities%20Plan%20Report%20for%20Executive%20June%202018%20FINAL.pdf );
the minutes of the Executive meeting (http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g5306/Public%20minutes%2012th-Jun-2018%2017.30%20Executive.pdf?T=11) ;
and the minutes of the Extraordinary Council Meeting (http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g6047/Printed%20minutes%2013th-Jun-2018%2018.00%20Extraordinary%20Meeting%20of%20the%20Council.pdf?T=1 )
 See, for example, the following reports:
 Green Infrastructure is defined in the Core Strategy as: A network of, often interconnected, waterways, woodlands, wildlife habitats, parks and other natural areas and green spaces which supports the natural and ecological processes and is integral to the health and quality of life of sustainable communities by encouraging sustainable movement, recreational opportunities and/or climate change mitigation
 Minutes of People Scrutiny Committee 2 June 2016 at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=4825&Ver=4 item 6