The will of the people

Nothing to do with Brexit, but Exeter City Council has bowed to public opinion

In the upmarket Exeter district of St Leonard’s, the residents have been flexing their considerable collective muscle against a City Council proposal to sell off 130 sq metres of the Council-owned Bull Meadow, amounting to 1% of the park.  The aim of the sale is not to raise funds for our cash-strapped Council but to facilitate vehicle access to a planned redevelopment of 12 almshouses to provide 31 almshouses, 

Disposal of public land requires a Council to advertise its intention and invite representations.  207 replies and a petition of 327 signatures were received. 191 of the respondents objected to the proposed sale and only one respondent supported it [1]. 

At the Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee meeting on 17 January, councillors considered a report from the City Surveyor which nudged them in the direction of agreeing to the disposal.  Two of the three ward councillors addressed the committee stressing the extent of local opposition and arguing that alternative ways of providing the vehicular access had been identified.  Committee members looked a bit glum until it was pointed out that decisions on the scheme and the access would be taken by the Planning Committee, and all the Scrutiny Committee had to do was to decide its position on the principle of disposing of a piece of parkland.

This cheered everyone up no end, since – because there were alternative access routes available – they could simply support the will of the people without risking blocking a scheme for housing for low-income residents.  The Member Champion for Communities was particularly thrilled at being able to agree with community views.  Indeed, there were so many statements from councillors about respecting the views of residents that you might think the will of people will hereafter dominate Council decision-making.

Well, you might think that.  Sadly, not all decisions are quite so simple.  In this case:

  • The Scrutiny Committee’s decision is merely advisory; it is the Executive that will decide.
  • The alternative access arrangements depend wholly on the developer being willing to put them forward and on Planning Committee approving them.
  • Because the value from the sale would be small (£25,000), there is no real financial driver.
  • Decisions on the future of the nearby Clifton Hill Sports Centre site, which could involve disposing of public green space (a proposal that is already being hotly and eloquently contested by local residents), will be much less easy, however great the number of objections.  The site would be used for much-needed housing and the value of the sale to the Council would be substantial.

So the will of people should enjoy its moment in the sun – it’s unlikely to last.

NOTES

[1]  The other 15 objections were based on a misapprehension that the Council proposed to sell the whole park.


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