This is what a future Exeter might look and feel like. It’s not comprehensive but sets out a personal view of which characteristics – human and physical – would improve the well-being of our citizens and help us survive and prosper through the 21st century. Most can be achieved by local rather than national action. There is no timescale, but 15 to 25 years would not be out of place.
People, values and behaviour
People of different backgrounds and cultures live at ease with one another, on a basis of mutual respect and kindness. Within the city defined communities remain, but all are treated fairly, their needs are understood and acted on, and they feel this to be the case.
From this, there is a shared commitment to the city and its improvement. Instead of looking for scapegoats, people join together to find solutions. They recognise that the more they value their environment, the more everyone will respect it. The impact of man-made climate change is widely understood and counter-measures are implemented with minimal argument.
Key decisions about the city – size, shape, services – are taken by consensus across the community. Decision-making governance requires elected leaders to engage with individuals and organisations so that their views and values are recognised. Things are no longer “done to” people. All involved know this will be hard but rewarding work.
Inequality has reduced markedly. A strong and respected local administration has ceased bowing to big business and capital investors, ensuring that the proceeds of growth focus on creating fairly-paid jobs, supporting public services, helping volunteers, and respecting and enhancing the natural and built environments.
Unintentional homelessness and rough sleeping are not considered as potential criminal or anti-social behaviours. The scandal of long-term empty houses has been brought to an end, with social landlords replacing most private sector letting.
Most people have abandoned their support – which was often subconscious – for neo-liberal economics. The slavish devotion by establishment politicians and the media to handing over control of public services, and therefore aspects of our lives, to private companies has ended. Quality of service, not profit, is the new hallmark.
“Sustainable development” as a term is no longer appropriated as a cover for uncontrolled economic growth. Its original meaning – balancing the demands of economies, societies and environments – is now widely understood and decision-makers are held to account for its implementation. Economic growth is no longer seen as the principal driver of Exeter’s development.
Attitudes to consumption have changed. The norm for presents to family and friends is now to pay for an “experience” – a day out, a balloon trip, theatre tickets – instead of physical gifts which end up in the waste disposal stream. Throwaway packaging beyond the absolute minimum necessary for health and hygiene is seen as anti-social, and people do not buy from shops which over-package. Using energy from fossil fuels is frowned on and discouraged financially, with sufficient energy available from renewable sources at fair prices.
The early 21st century sprawl of the city has ceased, in recognition that it is Exeter’s relative compactness that is one of its greatest strengths. Housing estates originally built without easy access to jobs, shops and services have been first in the queue for new frequent bus services, and some of the houses have been converted to shops or other businesses to reduce travel needs and isolation.
All new development is constructed to be zero-carbon and to the highest visual standards. There are no more Sidwell Streets.
The city’s green spaces have been protected in perpetuity. Unused city centre land is considered automatically for conversion to green space before alternative uses are considered. The number of trees within the city boundaries has doubled. Soft surfaces are preferred to hard, for biodiversity, for amenity, for growing food and as a flood control measure.
Exeter’s potential as a transport hub is being realised. The undersized bus station off Cheeke Street partially completed in 2019 has been turned into a park and replaced by a fit-for-purpose transport interchange built over the tracks at Exeter Central station. This forms the hub of Devon Metro rail services, offering frequent bus connections, taxis and bike hire.
Private car use in the city centre has been eliminated. An Exeter congestion charge applied to all vehicles other than those owned by city residents and car clubs raises funds for reinvestment in public transport.
The bus service has been reformed, with a social enterprise as the main provider. Buses are low-energy, designed to carry more people who have mobility difficulties, and run at greater frequencies especially in the evenings and on Sundays.
Cycling has increased among the able-bodied population, thanks to the reduced car traffic and the availability of bike hire throughout the centre and the suburbs.
The clean-air city is a pleasure to walk in. Historic buildings, streets and townscapes are valued, protected and enjoyed. New buildings are designed with aesthetic and practical appeal.
The dogma that public services should be provided by the private sector has been consigned to history. Key services have been brought back into community ownership, whether directly operated by the council or contracted through a social enterprise: in either case, any “profits” revert to the community. Buses in particular now serve the community, not the shareholders.
Community groups have taken over community assets, whether these were previously held in the public or private sectors, and the services provided from them are those that local people want to use.
The private sector is robust. But the focus is on supporting and encouraging a diversity of small and medium-sized businesses, which value their staff as well as their customers. Short supply chains mean that local businesses become interdependent, and transport costs and emissions are reduced. Jobs are accounted for as a value or asset, not as an overhead.
The uncertainty for employees working in large businesses with overseas owners who think nothing of closing down local branches in the interests of protecting shareholders has markedly reduced. Investment is sought locally, giving priority to local businesses. Inward investment from outside Devon is no longer automatically given red carpet treatment.
The managerial model of local government has been replaced by a more inclusive system, with a reversion to committees that have teeth and can impose community priorities on officers. The city council again views residents as citizens, not as “customers”.
Despite national measures to reduce financial inequality, money remains tight, and engaging a wide range of people in difficult spending decisions is now seen as the most effective form of local governance. Elected Ward councils have been set up on the model of rural parish councils, and are working well with the city council.