Vision on

Exeter City Council’s Chief Executive has given an important and valuable lead in setting a new direction for the city.

The Legacy

Like many other English towns and cities Exeter’s growth and development has been erratic, sometimes managed and sometimes not.  The post-war reconstruction of the High Street was actively managed by the current council’s predecessor, Exeter Corporation, though the subsequent 1970s saw such developer-driven fortresses as the Guildhall Shopping Centre car park which wrecked Paul Street, and the unloved addition to the riverside in the form of Renslade House.  More recently, the build-what-and-where-you-like approach that passes for central government’s planning policy, combined with a weakness in Exeter’s own Local Plan, has allowed the city to sprawl eastwards in a series of uninspiring housing estates made up by volume housebuilders’ standard designs.

The City Council has had aspirations to change course, but has lacked both the powers and the political will to do so.  In 2011 it published A City Centre Vision for a Green Capital.  Included in its guiding principles are such worthy aspirations as:

  • Principle 3: Any new development in the city centre will respect the city skyline and reflect the underlying topography.   Well, the mushrooming of purpose-built student accommodation blocks around the bus station area has put paid to that.
  • Principle 6: Create an exciting mix of contemporary design and historic buildings.  Um.  Princesshay Mark 2 is good, but there’s not much else to make the heart beat faster.

There’s some good stuff in it but, at the end of the day, the vision appeared to be just that.  To some extent it informed the following year’s Core Strategy element of the current Local Plan, but there was little impetus to deliver it and no real visualisation as to how it all fitted together.

The new vision

On 26 February 2019 the City Council formally accepted a recommendation from its Executive group to adopt a new spatial vision for the development of the city [1].  There are some similarities with the 2011 vision, notably in the illustrations of how specific parts of the city could be redeveloped, perhaps not surprisingly because both visions were commissioned by the City Council from Exeter-based but nationally-active LDA Design.

But the real difference between the two visions lies in the drivers for implementation.  The 2011 vision had as a key (perhaps, the key) aim to provide a context for future transport planning.  The officer report presented to the Executive on 6 December 2011 stated:

[…] there was no clear vision for the City Centre that could assist decision makers in grappling with specific issues and site specific interventions. A long term vision for the City Centre should drive the traffic management strategy rather than vice versa.  […]  Explicitly the work has been commissioned to: Provide a development context for a City Centre Transportation Strategy and other potential studies and projects in the City Centre; and form the basis of a vision for any future City Centre Action Area.

Unfortunately, responsibility for the transport and traffic strategy lay, as now, with the unimaginative Devon County Council.  So the City Council had produced a vision to guide a strategy over which it had minimal influence.  That lack of impact is visible today.

In contrast the 2019 vision is described as a “Vision for a Transformational Housing Delivery Programme”.  Authored by the Council’s Chief Executive, Karime Hassan, it challenges the assumptions that have underpinned Exeter area planning since the days of the Regional Spatial Strategy [2].  Specifically it is intended to provide a strategic context for:

  • redevelopment of the City Council’s assets (which are extensive);
  • the production of Site Planning Statements to clarify developer expectations on sites offering scope for redevelopment;
  • investigating options resulting from the Government’s removal of the cap on local authorities’ borrowing to fund the delivery of new council housing, and
  • assisting planning responses to an acute housing land supply problem in Exeter [3].

The driver here is finding practical solutions to the city’s serious housing shortage, over which the City Council as both local planning authority and social housing developer has some clout.  Exeter is required to ensure an additional 13,100 homes over the next 20 years.  The Council has recognised that leaving everything to the private sector is no longer an option if any sort of green city is to be achieved, a point explained in a previous blog post.  This housing-driven vision looks forward to 8 specific projects, based on naturally occurring communities in the city, which would be designed with the right mixes of land for homes, shops, leisure, work space and community services (eg schools).  The smallest of the projects – South Gate, based around the top of Western Way – would generate 300 homes; and the largest – reinventing Marsh Barton to use the wasted spaces above the single storey industrial units – is to provide 5,544 homes.  These projects would be designed to encourage walking, cycling and public transport use, leading to reductions in car use.  They would move us from wasteful low density to higher housing densities, as previously advocated by this blog.

Moving things forward

The new housing-driven vision is an exciting prospectus.  It puts the City Council into a leadership role for place-making which would be a step-change from simply reacting to county-imposed transport policies (or county inaction) and to the volume house builders.  It aims to influence the much-delayed Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, so that we don’t end up back where we were with the old Regional Spatial Strategy.

You don’t have to agree with every detail in the vision.  Its aim is to set a direction, a new development context.  If achieved it would greatly improve the quality of life for a vast number of Exeter’s present and future residents. But if discussion about it gets steered towards practical objections from day one, it will fail.  Already the sceptics are complaining about the idea of one of the bridges in the Exe Bridges gyratory system being turned into a pedestrianised garden bridge, the chief objection being that the remaining bridge won’t cope with the traffic.  The response to that is there will be much less traffic to cope with, despite Devon County Council’s ill thought-out draft transport strategy for Exeter.

And, if the vision doesn’t cover everything, that’s because its focus is a spatial one, particularly for housing and communities.  It will sit alongside – and support – other policies, including air quality improvements, reducing cars and congestion, and other elements of a climate change strategy.

It’s an understatement to say that achieving the vision will be far from easy.  Setting aside the obvious need to lever in money, the City Council – and I mean councillors themselves – will need to adopt two essential approaches.

First, replace the understandable desire to pursue short-term and/or opportunistic projects with a commitment to a firm discipline to act only in support of the vision and to do nothing that makes its achievement more difficult.  This does, of course, assume that when councillors adopted the vision on 26 February, they meant it.

Second, get out into communities and explain why all this important. Arrange local public meetings and start a dialogue.  Explain what the vision is (more housing and a better place to live) and what it is not (a planning blueprint).  Listen to what people say about it and how it could fit in with their own aspirations.  Be ready to make changes, refine the vision. Leaving everything until the planning applications roll in is too late – we all know from experience that many people feel threatened by development and so oppose it.  We all need our elected representatives to start being grassroots advocates for our city and to encourage a shared vision for its future.

NOTES:

[1]  The City Council has set up a useful web page which brings together some key visioning and planning documents, including both the 2011 and 2019 vision documents.

[2]  Regional Spatial Strategies were produced by Regional Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies in the heyday of the Blair government’s love-in with the concept English regions. The fact that the south-west region ran from Penzance to Cheltenham and Bournemouth illustrates the nonsense of trying to plan on that scale.  For those who are curious or who would just like a wallow in nostalgia, the draft south west RSS can be found here. It was never formally adopted, because the coalition government elected in 2010 immediately dismantled the regional apparatus.

[3]  The officer report to the Exeter City Council Executive on 12 February 2019, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=45692


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