What price green space?

Exeter City Council is about to take a decision that will define its soul

The modern story of the Clifton Hill green space began in March 2018 when snow damaged the Clifton Hill Sports Centre.  In July 2018 I asked a series of questions in a blog post, questions which have never been satisfactorily answered despite the efforts of the two campaign groups [1].  Over the next month, the future of this green space will in all likelihood be rubber-stamped by councillors of the ruling Labour group in a series of meetings. 

The process starts with a special meeting of the Place Scrutiny Committee on 31 January [2], which is the first occasion the Clifton Hill issue has been the subject of a report to a scrutiny committee.  These committees make recommendations to the Council’s Executive, which meets on 12 February before sending its decisions on for ratification by the full Council on 26 February.  By prior arrangement, members of the public may ask questions at scrutiny committees, but not at the Executive nor at full Council.

The report to councillors is stark.  The key points in its 16 pages are:

  • The Council needs funds to pay for the £3m improvements to other leisure facilities it has already promised to deliver.
  • Up to £5.5m is required to repair the Riverside Swimming Pool and Leisure Centre, as more defects in the – uninsured – building are discovered.
  • Nearly £1m will be spent on repairs to the Pyramids Swimming Pool.
  • The sale of the whole Clifton Hill site for a mixed housing development will generate about £9m.
  • The Council has very little room for manoeuvre in its forward capital programme (though it is not spelt out, in large measure because the St Sidwell’s Point and bus station development has pre-empted so much capital).

Much is included about residents’ concerns over the loss of the green space.  The recommended response is to retain 10% of the site as green space.  This is less a sop to local opinion as a hoped-for means of buying off opposition when planning permission is sought for the new housing: as the report states, “The risk of public opposition to development of this site will be addressed in the normal way through the statutory planning process. The recommendation to remove a part of the site from the sale to ensure it remains as an informal public green space is a significant mitigation factor to public opposition”.  Ho hum.

More housing is needed, of course.  But it seems unlikely that the “mixed” housing development will deliver the quantity of social, or even so-called affordable, accommodation that could be provided.  Clifton Hill itself being fairly posh, we are likely to get upmarket private housing, with a token (if that) amount for social rent.  The City Council’s own housing development company seems unlikely to be able to get in on the act because of the imperative of selling the site on the open market.

As is required, the report sets out alternative options, but only to dismiss them:

  • Developing part of the site and retaining more as green space will not generate sufficient capital receipts to pay all the bills.
  • Permanently closing Riverside, and so saving the repair costs, does not fit with the Council’s – as yet non-existent – strategy for leisure facilities, and a firm of consultants advised that a facility was needed at or near the present Riverside site.
  • Not retaining 10% of the site as green space will not provide the envisaged Valium for local opposition.

So, the vortex into which Council decision-making has fallen is now destroying any scope for action which does not feed the money machine. 

Need things have come to this?  How is a Labour-run council, whose current party strapline is “For the many, not the few”, nodding through plans to sell publicly-owned green space for private use?  Part of the answer lies, of course, with central government and Tory austerity, which is still with us (and people’s living standards can only be diminished further if Brexit goes ahead).  The rest lies with Labour Exeter itself which has blindly bought into a prospectus for economic growth based on high-value industries, which leave all too many people riding round on bikes delivering pizzas for a living. The growth scenario – and it is a scenario – requires public funding to make the city look “good”, which translates into ill-thought out vanity capital projects like St Sidwell’s Point.  Basic maintenance on keeping existing public assets in working condition has been set aside.

When did any political party actually ask us in an election whether we wanted economic growth? When did anyone spell out the downsides to a growth strategy, rather than take it as given that growth is a good? Because of the city leadership’s growth obsession, all policy decisions point in one direction. The voices of residents are heard only when it is convenient.

Not so many years ago, Exeter had a laudable ambition to be a “Green City”.  Now we face a future in which green space, and all the benefits associated with it, is destroyed for short-term expediency.  As is the humanity in our local government

NOTES:

[1]  See Save Clifton Hill Green Space at https://www.facebook.com/groups/207359149910641/ and Save Clifton Hill Sports Centre at https://www.facebook.com/savecliftonhillsportscentre/

[2]  The report to be discussed at the meeting is available via this link.


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