The (city) centre cannot hold

Exeter councillors’ unanimous decision to reject the application for the Moor Exchange retail park suggests they have not grasped the changes in the city’s retail  environment nor the significance of the eastward spread of housing.  

On Monday 13 March Exeter City Council’s Planning Committee unanimously disagreed with their officers’ recommendation to give outline planning permission to a revised version of the Moor Exchange retail park proposal, off Honiton Road well to the east of the historic city centre.  In a long and at times indigestible report officers recognised the downsides of the application but concluded that the advantages, particularly economic ones, outweighed the fact that the application did not strictly conform to the increasingly outdated 2012 Core Strategy which aims at “protecting” the historic city centre from edge of city competition.

In particular the report recognises that changes in shopping habits should be taken into consideration.  In a concluding statement it says:

“…it is perhaps arguable that a bigger [than the ‘city centre first’ policy] current issue is securing ‘bricks and mortar’ investment, with its consequent economic benefits, in the face of the relentless growth of online shopping. Whilst the development plan is largely silent on this matter, it is clearly a relevant issue for Members to take into account given the emerging thinking such as that contained within the Grimsey Review on how towns and cities will need to evolve and change to respond to the way on which people now choose to spend their leisure time.”

I have argued in a previous post that protecting the High Street as constituted now is no longer a sensible policy, and the tentative conclusion by officers on the Moor Exchange proposal suggests some support for this view.

Councillors, however, remain rooted in the belief that any substantial eastern retail development will damage the city centre and, bizarrely, the St Thomas district shopping centre to the west of the city centre.  The Leader of the Council invoked the spectre of Torquay as an example of what happens when edge of town sites are favoured, conveniently overlooking the general awfulness of the Torquay central area and the fact that the council there had no alternative vision for a town centre without big retail.  Exeter has a chance to avoid the same mistake, but only if councillors can show more imagination than they did on Monday evening.  Otherwise, as the Irish poet W B Yeats said of more weighty matters:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world




2 thoughts on “The (city) centre cannot hold

  1. miketwalton

    I’m not quite sure what you are suggesting here Peter. That the Moors development should have proceeded? Surely not.

    I would disagree with the Officers’ advice that the original Masterplan for the are is out of date. That plan, as I understand it, was for _local_ shopping and other services in that area. In other words, services that local people can walk to and cycle too. This is a format that brings life and vibracy to a local area and stimulates economic growth….but growth that is not fueled by car travel. This can be done, I believe, without sucking life out of the city centre.

    I saw this format working time and again as I travelled through cities across northern Europe this summer. Local (dense) housing, interspersed with local shops, restaurants, hairdressers, doctors surgery etc. It brings local life to a place and breaks up the homogeneous housing format that we seem to have adopted in our edge-Exeter developments


    1. Peter Cleasby Post author

      Thanks, Mike. I am not suggesting that the Moor Exchange plan in its present form is ideal, but I remain concerned that in sticking with “city centre first” arguments councillors are not facing up to the problems building up for the High St. I agree entirely with your observations about local centres, but what has developed in Exeter is significant edge-of-town retail to the east (Ikea being only the latest) with a traditional city centre (at risk) and this pattern only exacerbates car travel as people move between the two poles.



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