Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

If I have a formal occupation it’s as a governance, policy and management consultant, though these days I’d only take on projects in which I was really interested. See www.quantera.co.uk Current interests. I’m: •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •an active Exeter Green Party member, •a member of Exeter University’s social sciences and international studies research ethics committee, •a blogger, mostly on environment society and public policy, and •happily married and living in central Exeter. Formerly: •Chairman, Plunkett Foundation •Vice-Chairman, CPRE Devon (Campaign to Protect Rural England)o •member, CPRE national Policy Committee •board member, Community Council of Devon (now Devon Communities Together) •board member, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England); •Deputy Director at Defra, MAFF, Department of Social Security (and other types of civil servant) •Standards Committee member at Thames Valley Police Authority •secretary of a village community association when we lived in Bucks.

Scrutiny can work

Surveys are not always reliable.  Yet if you asked the usual representative sample how they liked to spend time, attending local authority committee meetings is unlikely to score highly.

This is understandable.  Public participation is strictly controlled.  In Exeter, members of the public can submit questions (3 days in advance) to be asked at any of the three City Council scrutiny committees; and interested parties are given speaking rights at Planning Committee meetings.  Exercising the self-discipline of sitting in silence while councillors say things you disagree with is not for the passionate.  Attempts to increase public participation in Council meetings have failed on the circular-argument grounds that people just aren’t interested [1].

Devon County Council operates with fewer constraints.  Unlike Exeter, members of the public can ask questions at full Council meetings or Cabinet meetings.

Exeter City Council’s attitude to openness is schizophrenic.  It claims to be open and transparent, and often is.  Conversely, there are some major issues on which it clams up, such as the Greater Exeter Visioning Board or the Leisure Complex business case (the latter is still in front of an adjourned Information Tribunal, and the whole project has stalled because the tenders received don’t match the budget for its construction).

So it was with no expectation of receiving anything more than a defensive brush-off that I submitted a question for response at the People Scrutiny Committee on 1 June.  The question was: “As none of the tenders for the construction of the leisure complex was within the budget for the scheme, will the Council explain why they did not estimate realistic costs for its construction before inviting tenders?”  The rules of procedure prevent supplementary questions, but do allow the questioner to speak for up to two minutes in response.  Naturally, I had prepared my response in advance.

I bowled up at the meeting, and was shown the seat to sit in when asking the question.  I read it out carefully, since the rules say that deviation from the submitted question may be penalised.  Councillor Bialyk, who is in charge of the leisure complex project and a man not known for mincing his words, launched into his response.

It was surprisingly informative.  Yes, the tenders were not in line with budget expectations.  But circumstances had changed since the invitation to tender was prepared, many due to Brexit.  Sterling was weaker.  The RICS building costs guidelines had changed several times.  There were uncertainties over labour supply in the construction industry.  In addition, one of the firms advising on the project had given poor advice, and had their contract terminated.  Other councils around the country were facing similar problems.

This is genuinely helpful information and makes the Council’s position understandable, far more so than the cryptic statement on their website: “But due to the nature of the tender returns submitted by contractors bidding for the contract, the council has announced that it needs more time to conclude the procurement process” [2].  It made my prepared response – which was critical in tone – largely redundant, and I abandoned most of it.

The City’s only Green Party councillor, Chris Musgrave, also used questioning to elicit the information that the Council planned to appoint a single operator for the Leisure Complex and all the other Council-owned leisure facilities in the city.

The lesson I draw from this is that openness works.  There will continue to be a small number of issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors, but these should be very few indeed.  Openness helps understanding, and understanding improves the quality of political debate.  We just need more people to break through the participation barrier, and start asking [3].

NOTES:

[1] See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=37916

[2] Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/a-new-bus-station/

[3] Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows:  Exeter City Council at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=444&MId=3295&Ver=4&Info=1 item 7.  Devon County Council at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/guide/public-participation-at-committee-meetings/

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How dense can we be?

[This post is a slightly expanded and referenced version of a five-minute presentation I gave to the Exeter City Futures Spring Connect meeting on 8 March 2017.]

There is resistance to high density housing.  Perhaps it’s in the descriptor.  More likely it’s memories of the poorly-designed high-rise blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s to which families were relocated from older inner city housing (“slum clearance” as the planners and local politicians liked to call it).  The Aylesbury estate in Walworth, south-east London, was one of the more notorious examples.  Built at a density of about 95 dwellings per hectare (dph) [1], it designed in crime and anti-social behaviour and became a byword for urban decay.  Tony Blair made his first speech as prime minister there, using the estate as a symbol of all that New Labour was going to put right.

Yet high-density housing has been with us for centuries.  Mansion flats in central London, the Georgian terraces in Bath, 19th century tenements in Glasgow and Edinburgh – these are now seen as highly desirable places to live.

My post Wider still and wider – time to call a halt explained how current house-building planning in Exeter is favouring sprawl across green fields rather than designing higher density housing within the city’s urban footprint.  Today’s post seeks to demonstrate that, within Exeter, high density housing has a long history and can be found in some of today’s most desirable areas of the city.

What are the benefits of high-density living?  Apart from reduced land-take, there are two others which coincide with Exeter City Futures own priorities.  It can help reduce domestic energy use, although the evidence here is not conclusive [2].  More obviously, it helps reduce the need to travel and therefore congestion.  If we can get our spatial planning right, we can have more people living in city centres and inner city areas, which is where people come to, for work, shopping, education and leisure.

However, I’m not going to argue in favour of high-rise accommodation.  Quite apart from being out of keeping with Exeter’s generally low roof-lines, there is good evidence that high-rise is not the most effective way of increasing density.  Courtyard developments have been shown to produce higher dph than high rise [2, again].  And there is evidence that tall buildings, say 12 stories plus, increase energy consumption.

What we have in abundance in Victorian and Edwardian Exeter are examples of low-rise high-density housing, almost all with their own front doors.  In Mount Pleasant, the average density is in the 70-80 dph range: these elegant and substantial terraced houses in Elmside are built at about 77 dph:

Picture8

And, below, the northern end of Polsloe Road at about 75 dph:

Picture1

Contrast this with the estates in the eastern end of the city.  The Newcourt development planned for 3500 dwellings at 45-55 dph.  The planning application for housing at Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumed 28 dph, less than set out in area masterplan (whicn envisaged a minimum of 35 dph). My earlier post discusses in more detail how the city council’s residential design guidelines are, or are not, applied, and I won’t repeat that here.  Suffice it to say that prejudice against high-density housing appears to be a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, and not something that is inherent in our make-up.  After all, as a recent Sunday Times article noted with glee: “Exeter is attracting a growing number of part-time commuters who can work from home, taking advantage of the excellent broadband (nearly 90% of homes can get ultrafast speeds). They’re helping to make it the fastest-growing city in the UK, pushing up house prices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the leafy, stuccoed district of St Leonard’s. It’s the place to live, and even the shabbiest period semi will set you back £600,000.”[3].  You can in fact pick up a more modest terraced house in St Leonard’s for less than that, but the price still packs a hefty “St Leonard’s premium” – and at very efficient densities.  The picture below shows a terrace at the southern end of St Leonard’s Road of 89 dph.

Picture3

What this suggests to me is that we don’t have a collective prejudice against high-density housing but that we do dislike badly designed and/or poorly located high density accommodation.  I won’t name the apartment block in the photo below but it was built in the 1950s as part of a major expansion of Exeter.

Picture2

Compare it with a similar design built in 2016, not all that far away.

Picture5

We don’t seem to have learned much about making apartment blocks attractive to look at.

We can do it, though.  This conversion on Clifton Hill contains 10 apartments.

Picture6

And we can be inspired by others.  My post A Tale of two urban extensions showed how Freiburg in Germany built interesting and liveable high-density housing.

So to overcome the problems we face of badly designed and/or poorly located high density accommodation, we need to change a few policies and attitudes.

Planners must develop policies which stop letting the volume housebuilders do what they want and which encourage small builders and co-operatives to make a greater contribution to our housing stock.  Government policy now encourages this [4] and the new embryonic Greater Exeter Strategic Plan [5] offers an opportunity to break with the past.  And can we design out the soulless “newness” that infuses new estates, with more architectural variety, mature trees, well-designed communal grass spaces?  Freiburg Vauban has done this successfully.

Planners also need to seek out convertible space.  As the traditional “high street” retail sector declines, floors over shops offer new housing opportunities in very central locations.  The initial Greater Exeter Strategic Plan consultation invites submission of sites suitable for building [6], and it will be interesting to see if anyone does offer up space “over the shop”.

Picture7

We residents have to change our attitudes as well.  Let’s rely more on communal open space for our rest and recreation rather than tiny fenced-in gardens.  Let’s follow Freiburg Vauban in seriously reducing car use.  Let’s form housing cooperatives to work with architects and builders to design the housing we want, applying principles that respect the finite nature of the country’s natural resources.

None of this is easy.  It requires recognition that indiscriminate land use is storing up problems for the future, ranging from threats to the continued existence of some wildlife species, through maintaining ecosystems which provide us with fresh water and carbon sinks, to being able to grow the food we all need.  This recognition will come on a sufficient scale if community leaders take action to spell out the importance of change.  It’s a sad reflection that the current political leaderships in both Westminster and Exeter Civic Centre show no sign of being willing or able to step up to the task.

NOTES

1.  There are other ways of measuring density, including people per hectare or bedrooms per hectare. The dwellings per hectare measure is much simpler to calculate, and will usually understate people density because it takes no account of how many floors the building has (and in Exeter very few are single-storey).  My calculations are made using Google maps, and including gardens as part of the dwelling unit.

2.  See for example, the discussion at http://www.createstreets.com/blog/4585309664/High-Rise-Buildings-Energy-and-Density/10292499

3.  This extract was reproduced in the email edition of “Latest Council News” issued by the City Council on 14 March 2017 (and on Facebook on 13 March at https://www.facebook.com/notes/exeter-city-council/could-exeter-be-a-more-perfectly-positioned-city/1325345727503465/ ). Given that we have a housing crisis in the city, I thought it deeply insensitive that the Council should be promoting such stuff.  A complaint to the councillor responsible for communications, Ollie Pearson, has not elicited a response.

4.  See the recent White Paper Fixing our Broken Housing Market, DCLG, February 2017, in particular Step 3 on Page 19. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/housing-white-paper

5.  See www.gesp.org.uk

6.  See www.gesp.org.uk/consultations/call-for-sites/

Up for a transport challenge?

The Exeter City Futures challenge fund approach to making the Exeter area congestion-free is not for the faint-hearted.

Exeter City Futures (ECF) is a community interest company with a mission to make Exeter and the surrounding area sustainable for the future.  Their first goals are to make the area congestion-free and energy-independent by 2025.  Not much time then, so it’s good to see a concrete initiative coming forward.

ECF has just launched a specific challenge as part of the congestion-free goal. The website [1] states:

A group of employers based at Exeter Business Park have expressed a requirement for an alternative transport choice for commuting to their offices so they can reduce the number of private cars arriving at site.

We’re offering an amazing opportunity for an early stage start-up to develop and deploy a service that is as attractive and flexible as the private car and presents a viable and investable business model for growth.

Can employees travel to work via a responsive, on-demand minibus service? Can it take you from where you want, to where you want, when you want, all for the price of a bus fare?

Are you up for the challenge? If you have a concept that has potential to deliver a successful service, then apply now.

The website gives details of the support available to the selected concept, which is significant, including £15,000, a 17-seat minibus and lots of mentoring and access to data.  The plan is that the concept is worked up into a saleable proposal (“incubated”), with the potential to scale up.

Now I’m far too relaxed to be pitching for this sort of thing myself, but it strikes me that the prescriptive nature of the invitation might be designed to attract only those who like a mission near-impossible (and why not?).  In particular, why is a minibus service the preferred solution?  It seems to rule out alternative packages such as a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) [2] approach involving different transport modes and providers which could achieve the same goal, if the right partners could be found (though perhaps the idea of Stagecoach participating in a MaaS is a bridge too far [3]).  Less elaborately, what about a simple behaviour-change model in which staff at the business park are charged for parking but receive a bus season ticket in return?  OK, the half-hourly B bus doesn’t quite meet the “on-demand” requirement.

So, seen in that light, the minibus service outlined in the invitation is a worthwhile goal in its own right, however tough.  If I were judging the final proposals – whether they’d been through the incubation route or submitted direct – I’d be looking for the following assurances:

  • A business plan that makes use of smart technology to keep costs down and customer convenience up, so that the service offers a real alternative to the private car.
  • A method of generating income that enables the operator to manage troughs in demand.
  • An operating model that demonstrates reliability in the service, including the use of smart technology to maximise the efficient use of minibuses in line with customer requirements.
  • Similarly, a model that demonstrates resilience: number of minibuses, responsibility for operating and maintaining the fleet.
  • Non-exploitative employment conditions for staff and/or contractors.
  • Regulatory issues identified and resolved, eg need to involve Traffic Commissioners, use of bus lanes.
  • Potential to scale up so that large parts of the city would be covered by this transport model, which requires a good understanding of commuting and other travel patterns.
  • Who other partners – customers and providers – in scaling up might be.
  • Realistic assumptions about how many private cars could be taken off the road at each phase of expansion.
  • And, as a prejudice of my own, the opportunity for developing a social enterprise rather than shareholder value business.

There’ll be other issues to resolve.  It all sounds great fun, but also very hard work.  Let’s hope the bright and savvy people out there will make a go of it.  And congratulations to the Exeter City Futures team for generating the opportunity.

NOTES:

[1] https://www.exetercityfutures.com/programme/open-for-application/

[2] For an explanation of MaaS, see http://maas-alliance.eu/

[3] That said, it’s encouraging to see Stagecoach South West moving in the right direction with the introduction of a smart phone app through which passengers can buy day tickets and just show them to the driver on the phone rather than scramble for cash (and delay the bus).  Details at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/news/south-west/2017/january/mobile-ticketing-launched-across-stagecoach-south-west

Normal service will resume on 3 January

Well, if you’ve read this sign on Exeter’s Stagecoach buses, not exactly.

With a delightful irony (whether intended or not, only the editor will know), today’s Express & Echo runs two adjacent stories on page 10.  The first is about an Exeter University-led project studying commuting patterns with the aim of reducing the city’s traffic congestion.  The survey stage of the project found that car commuters who also use public transport are 20% more likely to use public transport if they are influenced by the traffic congestion information they receive [1].

The second page 10 article explains in some detail how Stagecoach is celebrating the New Year by making “mergers, cuts and frequency changes” to Exeter area bus services.  And which group of bus users will be most affected by the changes?  Yep, commuters.  Two of the Park & Ride services are being merged and reduced to a 15-minute frequency (a year ago, the interval was 10 minutes).  The frequency on the commuter route from Crediton is being reduced from 4 an hour to 3 an hour (and the service from western Crediton from half-hourly to hourly).  Newton Abbot to Exeter services are cut from 3 an hour to 2 an hour, though passengers will doubtless feel greatly compensated by the news that their buses will in future be painted purple.

We know that the number of car journeys made by commuters into Exeter is twice that of car journeys within the city [3].  So cutting commuting is the key to cutting congestion and pollution.  Even Stagecoach say they recognise this – on publication of the group’s half-year results in October 2016, the chief executive said: “There is a large market opportunity for modal shift from cars to public transport against a backdrop of population growth, urbanisation, technological advancements, and increasing pressure to tackle road congestion and improve air quality” [4].

Clearly Stagecoach don’t believe that market opportunity exists in Exeter, despite the fact that the “backdrop” conditions for it are here in abundance.  After all, it’s the shareholder dividend that counts, isn’t it?

 

NOTES

[1] There are other very interesting findings.  For details see the Engaged Smart Transport project at http://www.commute-exeter.com/results/

[2] Stagecoach service update information at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/promos-and-offers/south-west/exeter-area-timetable-changes-from-3-january-2017

[3] Findings of a study by Trevor Preist, promoted by Exeter Civic Society and Transition Exeter.

[4] http://www.stagecoach.com/media/news-releases/2016/2016-12-07.aspx

Musical Council Boundaries

When the music stops, your local council leader will be here to tell you a story [1]

First, there was “devolution” for the Heart of the South West, which wasn’t devolution at all because it would have sucked powers upwards from localities to a vast “combined authority” covering all of Devon and Somerset, including Plymouth and Torbay [2].

Then came the idea for a Greater Exeter Growth and Development Board (the GEGDB), which would be a joint strategic authority made up of Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge Councils [3].  Joint authorities are in practice run by their officers, not councillors, because the officers negotiate a common acceptable position on a given issue and then serve it up the councillors as the only available option that the four councils will agree on.

Finally (or perhaps not), proposals for a “South Devon” unitary council leaked out last week.  This would be an all-purpose council covering East Devon, Exeter, Teignbridge, Torbay and Plymouth and, possibly, South Hams (sorry, Mid Devon, you’re out), discharging all existing district council functions plus those of Devon County Council within the new unitary area.  Such evidence is there is suggests the prime movers appear to be Exeter and Plymouth, if only because they refused to back further moves to support the “devolution” proposals.

The Exeter Green Party has written to the leader of Exeter City Council asking the following questions:

  1. What mandate does the City Council have from the residents it serves to:

(a) attempt to reorganise local government decision-making structures?

(b) propose arrangements which would suck key decisions upwards from the elected representatives

of the people of Exeter to a new superior authority – the GEGDB – which would not be directly elected?

(c) propose a strategic authority – the GEGDB – which on the evidence of the 8 November paper would focus solely on economic growth to the exclusion of social and environmental considerations?

  1. When does the City Council plan to publicise its thinking and actively consult residents and businesses on whether they actually want new local government arrangements and, if so, on the form they should take and how any new body might be fully accountable to local people?

 

It seems clear that the option favoured by Exeter and Plymouth is the South Devon unitary authority.  Central government is believed to be offering £1 billion if the unitary is established, complete with an elected mayor.  We don’t know what the money would be targeted at – improving public services, infrastructure, or grants to businesses?  But a bribe’s a bribe.

A directly elected authority – which is what the unitary would be – is certainly preferable in democratic terms to the other options.  But it would be a huge area, currently represented by 237 councillors elected by 105 wards (and that’s without South Hams).  So a workable sized council will require a massive cull of elected members (no wonder the leaderships have been playing their cards close to their chests), leading to a weakening of the links between people and their councillors.  On present ward boundaries, based on the most recent election results, 123 of the councillors would be Tories – a small majority, which gives pause for thought as to why Labour-run Exeter is so keen on the idea?  Of course the new council could be a pathfinder, to be elected by proportional representation, which would change the political balance considerably.  Look it’s a pig up there.

Many, many more questions.  And meanwhile energy is being diverted away from service improvements into a potentially massive reorganisation.  It still feels like the “old politics”.  For the time being, we have to await the answers to the Green Party’s highly pertinent questions.

 

NOTES

[1] You have to have been an aficionado of BBC Radio Children’s Hour in the 1950s to understand the reference!

[2] See my post https://petercleasby.com/2016/09/30/devolution-is-not-control/

[3] The proposals adopted by Exeter City Council’s Executive are at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g4903/Public%20reports%20pack%2008th-Nov-2016%2017.30%20Executive.pdf?T=10, page 73.

Wider still and wider – time to call a halt

We need a policy rethink on how changes to housing density assumptions can stop urban sprawl.

In 2010, after several years of study and debate, the UK’s Government Office for Science published Land Use Futures: making the most of land in the 21st century.  The product of a major exercise in evidence-gathering and analysis (including a very minor contribution of my own [1]), it had the bad luck to hit Whitehall desks just as the 2010 general election led to a coalition government that preferred a market-driven framework for land use planning.  But the project remains a thorough and important study.

The report identifies a set of sectoral pressures on land, often in conflict, which require to be managed if – to take three examples – natural resources are not to be depleted, food production capacity is to be sustained and house price inflation moderated.  These pressures are land for: water resources, conservation, agriculture, woodlands and forestry, flood risk management, energy infrastructure, residential and commercial development, transport infrastructure and recreation.  Of these, built development including transport infrastructure has the biggest irreversible impact on the natural environment.

Some development is inevitable, if only because we have a serious housing shortage.  The choices are about the location and nature of that development.  As noted in my post The Compact City, these choices are political rather than technical.  Compact development has many advantages:  less land-take, easy access to services and recreation, less dependence on transport, and so on.  But planning for compactness, at least in relation to housing, rapidly leads into talking about housing density, and this is tricky territory.

The Land Use Future study concluded that we don’t like high density housing:

Housing densities [in England] are increasing (up from 25 dwellings/hectare in 2002 to over 40 in 2007), and houses are becoming smaller. New houses in the UK are now amongst the smallest in Europe, despite strong evidence that people generally dislike living at high density [2].

Housing density in Exeter

The evidence underpinning the conclusion that people don’t like high density housing appears to have influenced Exeter City Council’s own planning policies.  A supplementary planning document (SPD) [3] states:

The City Council requires development which is efficient in land use terms but which also creates an attractive, city-living, environment. Recent trends in house building have seen the development of some dwellings which are far too small to be sustainable ( Introduction, para VI).

Reality does not always match the aspiration.  The SPD sets out minimum space requirements according to the number of bedrooms and occupants [4].  These may not be adhered to in the face of opposition from a forceful developer.  For example, a planning application for 148 new houses at what is now Hill Barton Vale initially proposed a substantial number of 2-bed houses with a gross internal floor area (GIA) of 58m² although the GIA for the smallest 2 storey house type in the Council’s SPD is 83m².  Negotiations with the planning department led to the housebuilder agreeing to increase the houses to just under 68m², a proposal accepted by councillors even though the space allocation was still 18% below the Council’s requirements [5].

This anecdote is not to knock the planning department.  The housebuilder argued that the SPD was requiring higher space standards than emerging national guidance, and would in all probability have won an appeal against a refusal by the Council.  But it does suggest that the guidance may not be giving enough weight to another of its stated goals, where it summarises the policy requirement as follows:

….for high quality, sustainable housing developments which are of sufficient density to represent efficient use of land and contribute positively to urban renewal (Design Objectives, para 1.1)

Note the acknowledgement of the importance of density.

If towns and cities are going to respond to meeting housing need other than by sprawling outwards, this suggests we need to rethink assumptions about density.  The conclusion that people don’t like high density is not sacrosanct; and it may not even be sound.  Could it be that the dislike of high density housing identified in the studies cited in the Land Use Futures report – most of which are now over 10 years old – have softened as the difficulties in funding a house purchase have become more acute?   Of course high density living has negative connotations, based on history.  1960s tower blocks destroyed communities and blighted whole areas.  There is little enthusiasm for them, and cultural resistance is still probably too great for them to be part of a widespread solution.

However, density in parts of the St Leonards district of Exeter reaches 82 dph [6], yet the district is so sought-after that house prices automatically acquire a hefty St Leonards premium.  Over the river there doesn’t appear to be any difficulty in selling or renting apartments without gardens but which are on or close to the river, canal or quays.  Further afield, mansion flats in central London have long been prized, despite past problems with management companies.  Location, location.

In fact, examples of high density living are found all over Exeter.  The streets of narrow terrace houses in Newtown give rise to community spirit: three years ago, many of the residents of Portland Street got together to turn the street into a giant Advent calendar [7].  Across the city, larger terrace houses have been divided into flats, to increase population density.  At Shilhay, by the eastern quayside, some 150 dwellings were built in the 1980s on a site of no more than half a hectare, but their design is so good as to attract plaudits in the Devon volume of Pevsner [8].

Yet new developments on the edges of the city are being planned as if high density is an evil to be contained.  The partially completed major residential development at Newcourt – planned to accommodate some 3,500 dwellings – is based on a range of densities in the Newcourt Masterplan from 45 dph to 55 dph.  The other major development – the Monkerton and Hill Barton scheme – is predicted to have a greater range of densities.  According to the masterplan (page 51) the range is from a high of +65 dph to a minimum of 35 dph.  Again, however, reality is different:  the planning permission for 350 houses around Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumes an average density of 28 dph [9].   Scarce land is being developed at densities less than assumed in the original development plans, and this raises doubts as to whether the 65 dph target will be achieved.

The question for the city’s planning policy is whether to be bolder about promoting high density housing in more places and develop positive new policies which make it work.

Another approach

National policy, such as it is, is moving towards supporting high density housing around “commuter hubs” but a consultation on the issue has not so far been translated into policy.  This builds on work carried out for the Greater London Authority’s 2011 Spatial Development Strategy, which assesses different variables – including public transport capacity – to indicate acceptable densities on development sites. The other variables are: the local context and character of different urban areas; and the number of habitable rooms per unit [10].

The GLA’s approach is seen as having limitations and research by Paul Clarke has suggested a different approach, which bases density policy around four principles [11].  These are (and I quote):

  • Intensity: the measure of an urban environment’s socio-economic needs. Density policy and use classification may restrict the appropriate mix and provision of spaces in urban areas and a new typology that reflects the current conditions of people’s behaviour and user needs is required.
  • Amenity: the measure of an urban environment’s demographic needs. There is a need to measure household characteristics, diversity and user needs in separate urban areas.
  • Autonomy: the measure of an urban environment’s democratic needs. Aligning user needs with the local provision of employment and services by improving consultation can feed into what communities view as suitable type and density of a development in an urban area.
  • Frequency: the measure of an urban environment’s dynamic and mobile population. This examines the need for accessible mobility for transport uses in urban areas. Density policy should take into account accessibility to public transport

Food for thought.  As the CPRE briefing note points out:

Despite the criticisms of the London Density Matrix, other urban areas in England can investigate the creation of similar density guidelines formed around the variables of urban context, public transport capacity and habitable rooms per unit/hectare. Ideally, additional variables such as employment density, dwelling type and tenure, site coverage, floor area ratio and building form could be included in a matrix.  The creation of such a matrix would aid in the development of brownfield land that better responds to existing urban environments and the needs of communities.

This conclusion is directed at the redevelopment of brownfield land, though the principles could apply to greenfield schemes.  In the Exeter context, the now-redundant Development Delivery Plan of 2015 [12], designed to implement the no longer fit for purpose Core Strategy, identified nearly 800 hectares of smaller brownfield land sites suitable for housing.  The average density would be 40 dph, ranging from 130 dph to 24 dph, so some of this will indeed make good use of land.  The plan recognises that additional sites will be needed, and gives preference to brownfield, stating that development must comply with other planning policies including the Residential Design SPD, discussed above.

Given the urgent need to provide additional housing, there is a strong case for changing policy to give greater weight to increasing housing density and relaxing those which inhibit it.  Building outwards does nothing to address climate change and resource use challenges, because it destroys land and usually leads to people having to travel further.  Making maximum use of space on brownfield land has to be an imperative.  But it will only provide the necessary social benefits if we change our framework for house building.

Leaving the creation of this new housing to the usual private sector developers is unlikely to be successful.  For one thing, they prefer greenfield land and would adjust their prices upwards for building on brownfield.  For another, we can see (at Hill Barton Vale, for example) that the housing built is what the housebuilder wants to build – which may not be what people want.  “Wider still and wider” is the touchstone of the housebuilders, filling the land with their off-the-peg volume housing designs.

Given that there are both advantages and downsides – actual and perceived – to higher density living, engaging people in designing their own environment should have much greater priority than now.  Freiburg’s high density Vauban is a success because the developers and volume housebuilders were kept at bay, replaced by high levels of community participation in housing design and co-operative builders.  People may welcome the opportunity to trade off a life in lower density housing on the edges of the city for a well-designed apartment or high density house much closer in – but no one has really asked us.  The “Autonomy” point in Clarke’s four principles has never carried much weight in England.

And, as again in Freiburg, high density housing needs access to community facilities and attractive public transport – the private car becomes a serious hindrance when land space is at a premium, not least because the requirement for parking spaces.  Talk of “commuter hubs” is not directly relevant to Exeter’s in-city density planning because most traffic is generated from outside the city, though I aim to explore this in a later post. But extending the penetration and the frequency of the bus network into new city developments will improve mobility options; and the higher the housing densities the greater the potential market for bus travel.

Increasing densities need not be restricted to brownfield.  Although the pass has been sold for much of the major housing development area in to the east of Exeter’s central area, there are still substantial development phases at Monkerton not yet planned in detail.  Together with the more central brownfields, there is scope here for designing and implementing creative policy change.

The decision to draw up a new strategic plan to replace the Exeter Core Strategy provides an opportunity for a radical policy rethink based on a real public debate about options.  That opportunity should be seized.

 

NOTES:

[1]  This is a vanity reference, because it’s not directly relevant to the theme of this post.  The paper in question is Defra Land Use Project – Demonstrator Case Studies, available at as Discussion Document Dis5 at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications or at www.quantera.co.uk/governance/publications/index.html

[2]  Page 24, with additional detail and supporting references on page 188.

[3]  Residential Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document, available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/supplementary-planning-documents/residential-design-guide-spd/

[4]  In the Building Design section, paras 9.38-9.40

[5]  Exeter City Council planning reference 14/2062/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[6]  Dph = dwellings per hectare.  The 82 dph figure is from the Monkerton and Hill Barton Masterplan available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/major-schemes/monkerton-hill-barton-masterplan/.  There is some debate as to the best measure of density: dwellings, households or people per unit of space:a useful summary is a paper for the Land Use Futures study by Professor Katie Williams entitled Space per person in the UK: A review of densities, trends, experiences and optimum levels, downloadable from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications

[7] See the newspaper report at  http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/exeter-street-giant-advent-calendar/story-20241756-detail/story.html

[8] See page 427 of Devon, by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 1991, The Buildings of England series, Yale University Press.

[9] Exeter City Council planning reference 14/1090/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[10]  The Campaign to Protect Rural England – which has done some good work in protecting Urban England – has produced a briefing note entitled Better Brownfield as part of its Housing Foresight series.  The briefing, on which I have drawn in this post, which includes at section 3 a very helpful review of new approaches to using housing density measures.  Available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/housing/item/3877.

[11] Clarke, P. (2007) Metricity: Exploring New Measures of Urban Density, cited in the CPRE briefing note.  Downloadable at www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanbuzz/downloads/projects_17/Metricity_Publication.pdf

[12] Available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/emerging-plans-and-guidance/  Policy DD7 refers.

Small but significant: Exeter City Council’s energy measures

I didn’t pick it up at the time, but a recent Exeter City Council report reminds its readers that the Council won a national award earlier in the year for its Renewables and Energy Efficiency Programme.  The Local Government Chronicle’s Environment Award was won by the Council for an “ambitious programme of projects to achieve energy reduction, to generate renewable energy and to be an energy-neutral council” [1].

Somewhat bizarrely, typing the programme’s name into the search engine on the Council’s website generates a “no results found” response, but progress reports to members of the Council show that the programme is being effectively delivered through a small team of two people. Solar PV on roofs of council-owned buildings such as car parks and the livestock centre have made a particular impact.  Work on battery storage, to build on this, is planned, as is the use of smart metering [2].

In the great scheme of things this is small beer.  But it is an important signal: the Council is giving a practical lead on climate change issues, as well as achieving some small financial savings.

Senior management have said that if the team could be expanded, much more could be achieved.  It would be a good use of our money if Council members agreed.

 

NOTES:

[1]   https://www.lgcplus.com/home/lgc-awards-2016/environment/7002814.article

[2]   The latest progress report can be downloaded from http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=634&MId=4843&Ver=4 item 13.