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 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.

High Street Greens

We can do so much better than the current High Street business model, and its current difficulties offer Exeter new opportunities

There’s a lot of truth in the observation that Exeter’s city centre is a “clone town”.  Along the length of the High Street and in the shopping centres at Guildhall and Princesshay, the retail frontage of the national chain stores far exceeds that of one-off local businesses.  That’s not surprising.  Exeter has long held ambitions to be the “regional capital” and having the major brands present is, whether you like it or not, a demonstration that this is a serious place with all the retail facilities that serious places are expected to provide.

This ambition underpins the Exeter’s planning policies. Unfortunately, the two main consumer sectors in the city centre – retail and food outlets – are having a fairly torrid time.  In recent weeks, we have seen national announcements galore.

  • Byron and Prezzo closing branches, and Carluccio’s calling in KPMG – Carillion’s auditors – for help.
  • The likely closure of three New Look stores in Devon, including Exeter’s.
  • The owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia announcing major losses.
  • Toys R Us and Maplin – both with Exeter branches, but outside the city centre – going into administration.

The commonly given reasons for instability in these businesses are [1]:

  • The shift to online shopping. It’s not surprising.  This week I wanted a new cover for my Samsung smartphone.  It’s not a recent model, and did any of the phone accessory shops in the city centre have what I needed?  Of course not.  I found it and paid for it on the internet in 5 minutes.  It takes a big leap of faith and logic to believe that this shift is anything other than permanent.
  • Less disposable income for discretionary spending. Inflation is up and exceeded the growth in annual earnings throughout 2017.  It’s also worth noting that despite some trumpeting in the latest report from the Centre for Cities [2] of Exeter’s success in creating private sector jobs (and, by the way, how many of these are in the gig economy?), there are some substantial downsides.  Particularly the finding that average weekly earnings in the city actually fell by 4.1% (£35 p.w) in 2016/17, the largest percentage fall of any of the 63 cities surveyed.  And the employment rate fell by 6.4% over the same period, one of the worst performances of any UK city.
  • Rising overheads. According to the BBC report, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the National Living Wage costs the industry between £1.5bn and £3bn a year.  Perhaps if businesses paid their staff properly in the first place and factored this into their business plans, the NLW wouldn’t be an issue?  The BRC also complains that business rates are “preventing retailers from delivering what their customers want in an efficient and cost-effective way.”  Haven’t business rates always been a fact of life, guys?  In the food sector, the Brexit-induced devaluation of sterling has also added to costs.
  • Over-provision. It’s simple.  Too many businesses chasing a static, or even declining, pool of customers.  Apart from the usual run of High Street businesses, Exeter also has Princesshay, Guildhall Shopping Centre, and Queen Street Dining.  These developments, and the High Street, are largely occupied by national chains, many of whom are now facing financial difficulties.  If they have to close branches, Exeter has no divine right to be spared.  Polpo in Queen St Dining, Swaroski jewellers in Princesshay, Jones the Bootmakers on the High Street and Jamie’s Italian in Bedford Square have all been and gone.  The nearest branches are usually in Bristol.  As noted above, our local economy is troubled.

It was surely recognition of these factors that informed the private sector developers’ decision last year to pull out of the scheme for redeveloping their part of the bus and coach station site.  All of the four reasons above are down, directly or indirectly, to the behaviour of businesses themselves.  Would you really invest in their performance?

So, we’re back to the city’s planners and their commitment to protecting the city centre.  Of course cities need a centre, however vibrant their district hubs may be, and Exeter is no exception.  Our best (and worst) buildings are in the centre, as are most of our entertainment venues and places where we meet.  What the planners need to start asking themselves is this:  does protecting the city centre equate to protecting its present retail offer, which may be in freefall?

The market may be ahead of them.  In the eastern Exeter, there are now three major retail developments in prospect: on surplus police land at Middlemoor, the new Moor Exchange retail park plan, and on a Western Power Distribution site.  All three are adjacent to, or close to, Honiton Road, thus setting up a new east-west retail corridor.

These edge of city developments throw down a challenge to received thinking about “protecting the city centre”.  Protect from what?  Protect from competition has been the local politicians’ and planners’ mantra [3].  Yet the City Council leadership has displayed enthusiasm verging on the orgasmic at the impending opening of an IKEA store, now under construction – not in the city centre, but on the city’s furthest eastern fringe.

The major developments proposed for the east of Exeter may in these changing circumstances actually make more sense than the knee-jerk opposition to them from many in the city.  As the city’s housing expands dramatically eastwards, there is a case to be made that Exeter’s centre of gravity has itself moved eastward.  Allowing larger shopping areas with “High Street” brands should reduce the need to make the long slog into the city centre – often by car – for people wanting to use those stores.  New purpose-built premises away from city centre congestion may allow retailers to cut operational costs and improve their long-term prospects.

And so what sort of city centre do we plan for instead?  The opportunities are endless, guided only by the principle that the centre should be low-carbon and designed for people.  Some of the ideas we can look at are:

  • Make the High Street completely traffic-free, except for an early-morning period for deliveries where there is no rear access. Buses could use the normal diversion routes when the High Street is closed for parades, and space could be provided in the redeveloped bus station for city bus services to drop/pick up passengers and do crew changes.
  • With the traffic gone, the space for people increases massively. There would be space for proper markets – not just food produce (get your greens without plastic wrapping!) but also stalls selling a diversity of locally-made products, ranging from jewellery to small furniture items, from paintings and sculpture to books and DVDs.
  • Café society in all its glory. Weather permitting, Artigiano’s shows that people like sitting outside even with the buses.  When the weather is less welcoming, apply the French model in which glass panes are brought out from the shop or café onto the pavement to provide warmth and shelter.
  • Play spaces: games for the kids, giant chess or boules for others.
  • As the big retailers move east, or go west, there will be plenty of units and pavement frontages than can be given over to new uses without involving major new construction. A policy of low rents – which the City Council as the major freeholder ought to be able to negotiate – would encourage more local businesses to emulate Fore Street.  The other attractions in the High Street should increase footfall.
  • The upper floors of the High Street buildings – often used for storage or not used at all – could be converted into apartments for a mix of rents (sorry, no students: you’re great but you’ve got enough flats already).
  • Workshops, pop-up shops, drop-in services and much more: all would have a place.
  • A permanent space for community groups to publicise themselves and win converts to their causes.

This isn’t a blueprint.  There are many if, buts and downright unknowns.  But isn’t that already true of current policy and practice?  Let’s make a change instead.



[1]   According to a BBC News analysis at

[2]   The full survey report is at  Detailed data at

[3]   Though a little off topic, I can’t resist quoting from the City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan, currently out for consultation (accessible via ).  In Appendix B – reasons for not pursuing particular actions – the response to the construction of a tram network is:  “No tram network is planned currently, as improvements to the bus network are proposed and the two modes would compete.”


Reclaiming our main roads for residents

It’s not only our side streets that can be made people-friendly

Traffic restraint on residential streets is not new – humps, speed limits, barriers, residents’ parking schemes, pedestrianisation, and so on.  Some of these measures have become discredited because of their impact on driving behaviour: for example speed humps encourage breaking and acceleration with consequent increased fuel consumption and noise.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a general recognition that residential streets are for people and – for as long as we have them – their own cars, even if action to develop this belief into practicable schemes is thin on the ground.

Those who live on the main roads into cities fare less well.  The A30 at its London end – the Great South West Road – was one of the capital’s inter-war major road building schemes.  Today it is a grim industrial three-lane dual carriageway corridor, with Heathrow Airport on one side and industrial buildings or open spaces on the other.  By contrast, what was the A30 at its Exeter end is the narrow East Wonford Hill, Heavitree Fore Street and then (surprisingly) Magdalen Road.  Apart from the centre of Heavitree, the road is mostly lined on both sides by housing.

Although the through traffic has alternative routes, vehicles heading for central Exeter have no choice but to use one of the main arterial roads, built for an age that could not foresee the growth of motor vehicles.  Heavitree Road has substitiuted for Magdalen Road, but Pinhoe Road, Cowick Street, Topsham Road and Alphington Road (the latter two are signposted routes from the national network) have no such relief.  All these roads are primarily residential, with some parts such as East Wonford Hill and the city end of Pinhoe Road having the houses very close to the road itself.

In my post Tackling congestion won’t make our streets liveable I suggest that tackling air pollution from traffic congestion is an essential but short-life issue.  It should not dominate our thinking at the expense of making our streets, including the main roads, liveable for people.  Yet we need, for the foreseeable future, ways of continuing to allow buses, trade vehicles and residents’ private cars to enter and exit the city centre; and until the public transport offer is improved, commuter traffic will still be with us.

Typically, an Exeter main road looks like this:


The characteristics of such roads are:

  • High volumes of traffic at peak hours, making crossing the road other than at lights or zebra crossings difficult or unsafe.
  • Traffic noise and fumes.
  • Random use of either the pavement or the road by cyclists and mobility scooters.
  • In some places (eg on Polsloe Road, Blackboy Road) the pavements are so narrow that it is impossible for people to pass without unacceptable intimacy or one of them risking life by stepping onto the road.

Separation schemes are already in use – see the cycle lane against the traffic flow on Paris Street.  However the lack of physical barriers enforcing separation weakens their impact.  The new cycle lane being built on Cumberland Way near the Met Office has such physical separation and is a welcome step forward.  Cumberland Way is wide enough to allow two lanes of traffic in addition to the cycle lane.

Yet this doesn’t do much to make the road more “liveable”, to overcome the adverse characteristics of main roads highlighted above.  For that, we need something like this:


What you see here is a primarily (but not solely) one-way street for motor traffic, with generous two-way provision for everyone else.   Vehicle drivers who live locally, ie in a side street off the main road, and who are arriving against the main flow of traffic, won’t want to drive around a large one-way system (see the final part of this post) to get to their homes, and nor should we want them to generate extra noise and fumes by having to do so.  Hence the idea of an airport-style car park barrier with vehicle licence plate recognition technology: residents simply provide proof of residence to the local authority to register their vehicle and the barrier lets them through.  A fixed barrier at the far end prevents vehicles from rat-running, and they may need to drive onto the “non-vehicle path” to avoid larger vehicles coming the other way or to unload/pick up.  An exception to the fixed barrier may be needed for buses to pass against the main traffic flow.

But what of those narrow main roads that can only manage two lanes of traffic as they are?  How do we bring in separation schemes there?  Take, for example, the west end of Pinhoe Road, so narrow that parking is prohibited on both sides.  This is a major route in and out of the city centre, so it clearly needs to accommodate traffic.  A possible solution is this:


In other words, the same principles, but with one of the “non-vehicle paths” taken out.

By now, readers’ objections are mounting.  Two issues in particular are nagging away: parking; and the evils of one-way streets.

Let’s take parking.  None of us has the right to park outside our house on a public road.  Sometimes there isn’t room without obstructing traffic.  Or there’s a double yellow line.  Or another car is parked there.  So the absence of parking provision on these new-style roads is not adding to challenges that already exist.

Next, one-way streets.  Much beloved of traffic planners in the 60s and 70s, main road one-way streets became more like race tracks, with pedestrians hemmed in behind safety barriers.  Drive into central Brighton from the north if you want a taste of it.  But those one-way streets are a nightmare because they were designed to speed up traffic.  What we need now are one-way streets which allow the traffic to flow, thus avoiding congestion and fumes, but to flow at controlled low speeds of say, 20 mph maximum.

And below is how part of a one-way system might work.  The aim is to reduce volumes of traffic on individual main roads – by making them one-way – and to improve the environment for residents of those roads by reducing the space for motor traffic and increasing the space for other users.  Barriers would be needed in side streets to prevent rat-running to escape the one-way restrictions.


OK, this is not fully worked out.  It’s a possible model to add to the options for making our cities and towns places where motor vehicles are less important than liveable spaces.

Our planners’ cat is out of the bag

Consultation on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) looks like being an expensive and time-wasting ritual.

Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.

(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)

Last week CPRE Devon arranged a public meeting to discuss the emerging Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP).  The room was packed with over 160 people, thus giving the lie to those who believe that people aren’t interested in spatial planning.

The formal presentations – one from the Growth Point and one from the GESP team – didn’t add much to the store of existing knowledge.  After all, the Plan doesn’t exist yet, so how can anyone say anything about it?  What we did discover is that the GESP timetable is slipping badly:  at one time their website stated the consultation draft would be out in January 2018, but today’s timetable is that it will appear in “Autumn 2018”.  We also discovered something else that I don’t think we were meant to discover, about which more in a moment.

The last platform speaker was the East Devon MP, Sir Hugo Swire.  I don’t usually have a lot of time for his views [1] but on this occasion he said some sensible things.  Like pointing out that writing a plan to predict our needs 22 years hence – the plan is to cover the period up to 2040 – is an unrealistic endeavour given the pace of technological change which affects social behaviour, service provision and employment patterns.  Or reminding us that there is brownfield land for housing within and immediately around Exeter which could be used up without building on green fields and forcing people to commute even further into the city’s employment zones.  And having a pot at the volume housebuilders and their standard house designs which are out of keeping with any of our vernacular architectures.  He then joined in the area’s favourite sport of bashing Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group.

After the coffee break and the departure of the MP we were treated to a party political broadcast, masquerading as a question, from the Labour county councillor for Alphington and Cowick.  Then I caught the Chair’s eye and asked two questions.  The first related to my hobby-horse on housing density [2] which attracted no response from the platform or anywhere else except from an audience member who seemed not to understand the difference between high density and high rise.

The second was on the GESP planning process.  I have a rule that I don’t publicly criticise civil servants or local government officers by name, on the grounds that unless they’ve gone rogue they are doing their political bosses’ bidding.  So I shall simply refer to the recipient of my question as The Planner.  Prefacing my remarks with a well-received (by the audience) statement that planning in this country was done to us, not by us, I asked The Planner whether he thought the paltry 6 weeks being allowed for comment on the GESP consultation draft was fair.  The Planner said it was indeed fair, on the grounds that people never responded until right at the end of the consultation period however long it was.

Stumped by the non sequitur of the reply, my supplementary question was that they should at least now publish the completed evidence studies commissioned in support of the plan.  That way, those of us who couldn’t pay for armies of consultants to read the stuff could do some preparation ourselves before the consultation draft came out.  And this is where the cat’s head became visible in the opening of the bag.

The Planner paused for thought, presumably recognising the reasonableness of the question.  He then conceded that it might be possible to publish some studies, but not those which would give any clues as to what would be in the draft plan.  Hang on, I said, from a sedentary position– the Chair was a man of tolerance and wisdom – you’re saying that some planning policies have already been decided and the evidence has been commissioned to back up those decisions?  You’re putting words into my mouth, said The Planner, but I didn’t hear him deny it.

So now we know what the secretive Greater Exeter Visioning Board [3] was doing two years ago.  It was deciding the outline content of what is to become the GESP.  And the evidence was then commissioned to back up those key decisions, not to expose them to challenge.  It’s an easy process:  you just tell the consultants what assumptions and constraints to build in, and you end up with an impressive-looking piece of “evidence” that will be a wow at a public examination of the plan.

I wasn’t alone in complaining about the 6-week consultation period.  A practitioner far more experienced than I am commented that the mandatory period used to be 12 weeks, and 8 weeks was regarded as the minimum for best practice purposes.  How were organisations whose committees met every 6 weeks going to prepare their comments?  That cut no ice with The Planner either.

Interestingly,  Exeter’s chief planning officer recently told our Green Party councillor that the 6-week period was necessary because the GESP had to be produced as quickly as possible so that the City Council could put in place a new local plan to replace the current one declared by the Planning Inspectorate as not fit for purpose.  Being not fit for purpose means that developers can build pretty much where they like.  Well, the delays in producing the first GESP draft don’t exhibit much of a sense of urgency.  Given that the main content of the GESP has already been decided, why don’t we just skip all the expensive and time-consuming process of producing a formal, approved strategic joint plan?  Just tell the district councils what they’ve already secretly decided between themselves and they can then amend their local plans to conform.  As things stand, we’ll have developers running riot in Exeter until 2022 at the earliest.

No, that’s not very democratic is it?  Not in the spirit of engaging communities in deciding their own futures.  But until the attitudes exhibited by The Planner and his bosses are set aside, democracy and engagement don’t look having any place in our planning system.  Has no one learned the lesson of the Brexit referendum – which is what happens when people feel locked out?


[1]  See for example my post

[2]  See my posts at and

[3]  See my posts at and


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].


[1] See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at

[2] Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at

[3] Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows:  Exeter City Council at item 7.  Devon County Council at


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:


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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”.


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.


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

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 ). 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

5.  See

6.  See


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.



[2] For an explanation of MaaS, see

[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


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?



[1] There are other very interesting findings.  For details see the Engaged Smart Transport project at

[2] Stagecoach service update information at

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