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particularly economic ones, outweighed the fact that the application did not strictly conform to the increasingly outdated 2012 Core Strategy which aims at “protecting” the historic city centre from edge of city competition.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