Author Archives: Peter Cleasby

About Peter Cleasby

Current interests. I’m: •an active Exeter Green Party member, •an openness campaigner •a contributing editor at Exeter Observer •a volunteer watchkeeper at the National Coastwatch Institution’s Exmouth station, •a blogger, mostly on Exeter, environment, society and public policy, and 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.

TEDx Exeter and the Plague

TEDx Exeter’s virtual climate change show was worthy but off-target

It could have been a spam tsunami.  An email arriving in my inbox inviting me to a virtual “Countdown” complete “with special guest”. Had Channel 4 found my dotcom address and was it now assaulting me with come-hither puffs for its programmes?

Closer inspection revealed the email to be an invitation to something altogether less frivolous. This particular Countdown turned out to be “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action”. Developed under the TED talks banner, the Countdown with which I was being encouraged to engage was produced by TEDx Exeter, and the “special guest” was none other than Exeter City Council’s ubiquitous Chief Executive – and, as the host reminded us, Growth Director – Karime Hassan.

TEDx Exeter’s website explains that “Countdown is a year-long focus on climate change led by TED and a coalition of leaders, activists, scientists and businesses around the world. Countdown will launch on 10 October and culminate in a climate summit in Edinburgh in October 2021 amplified though local TEDx events around the world – including us, here in Exeter – leading to COP 26 in October 2021”

And so, three days after the launch, on 13 October at 7.30pm TEDx Exeter’s contribution was sent off down the slipway by its curator, Claire Kennedy. It was of course Covid-proofed in the sense that the audience had to log in remotely and was a Covid-substitute in the sense that TEDx Exeter’s live programme had been cancelled. As the host Ms Kennedy highlighted how well up the curve Exeter was by referencing the city council’s Climate Emergency declaration and its adoption of the Net-Zero-Exeter-by-2030 plan. She was thrilled that Karime Hassan was present, though modestly did not mention that their mutual admiration extended to him appointing her to the shadowy but presumably influential Liveable Exeter Place Board.

After inviting Mr Hassan to reflect on how things stood (“living from day to day”), Ms Kennedy then opened the show, to be made up of a series of little films. The first of these focussed on a breakfast-TV style couple who explained that the issue was all very simple: we were sending up too many carbon emissions.  They followed that lightbulb moment with the statement that today was a day we would all remember for the rest of our lives. Can anyone devise an effective and realistic method of measuring the delivery of that somewhat threatening promise?

We, the dispersed audience of some 200 (according to Ms Kennedy), were then treated to a series of talking heads, owned generally by idealistic and committed young people from around the world, explaining what they, their communities, their countries had been doing to stop the planet reaching the climate tipping point. At intervals, notice boards appeared, including one which simply said “Meat”.  It was not explained whether this was to stimulate a carnivore’s guilt trip (it failed) or a reminder of what the production crew wanted in their sandwiches.

The final young person spoke to us in what might have been blank verse, accompanied by dramatic muzak. Her performance left Ms Kennedy, in her own words, “speechless”, though this was clearly not the case since she immediately went on to introduce some examples of local action closer to home.

The first of these came not from Exmouth but from the Netherlands. It involved removing all petrol and diesel vehicles from central Amsterdam by 2030. Next up was the Future Generations Commissioner in Wales, who announced she was a mum of 5 and the only Future Generations commissioner in the world. She has 4 well-being criteria against which she tests everything and has persuaded the Welsh Government to stop building motorways. A Welsh county had also seconded a public health person from the local health board to the council to help see transport planning through a different lens. Wales, be warned – no different lens has been apparent at Devon County Council, even though the head of transport planning reports to the director of public health.

No climate change event would be whole, or at least wholesome, without Al Gore who popped up for a few minutes to promote his programme for training young leaders for the climate change movement. Which poses the question, why are we only doing this now?

There were two propositions that recurred throughout the show: that we only had 10 years to act, and that we had to focus on saving society rather than the planet. How widely these premises are shared was sadly not explored.

 A few more short films followed, including one from Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, the saviour of the Paris climate agreement, who described us as “the farmers of the future” with no right to give up the climate struggle. And then it was time for the special guest.

Ms Kennedy asked Karime Hassan if the 2030 target for net zero Exeter was realistic. Mr Hassan said he was an optimist but elegantly declined to answer the question. Finance was at the root of everything, citing the challenges of upscaling successful small retrofit housing projects such as Chestnut Avenue. Since Exeter had the knowledge base for clean growth, there was no reason why we couldn’t lead the innovators and scoop up the accompanying funding.

When asked what citizens could do, Mr Hassan suggested that we could be more understanding of our councillors when they take action that doesn’t work out as intended. Given that our city council tends to prefer writing plans to taking action, this was perhaps not as big an ask as it sounded. He concluded by saying that climate change was a much bigger danger than Covid-19, a welcome statement of perspective.

Summing up in full gush mode, Ms Kennedy thanked Mr Hassan for giving up his valuable time and assured him that “the whole city is behind you”, although exactly what we were supposed to be behind was far from clear. She promised that a series of Countdown events prepared by TEDx Exeter for 2021 would be announced in due course.

TEDx Exeter is by many accounts highly regarded in the TED world. It seems at its best when applying its pre-Plague format of speakers standing in a spotlight, talking knowledgeably about real innovations that will advance the quality of our lives. It’s not a good vehicle for the mass communication of difficult issues, and that’s where this Countdown show should be counted down. It would be interesting to know how many of the 200-odd audience learned anything new during the 90 minutes; it seems unlikely that the people the climate change activists really need to reach would have tuned in.

Perhaps one post-Plague action is for councillors to be given a brief and get out there holding public meetings and discussions in their wards. There is no substitute, ever, for face to face multi-way communication. And if they stick to explaining the challenges – one of Ms Kennedy’s filmed speakers had some scary graphs – rather than promising that the city council will sort it, then the rest of us can’t fault them for over-promising, and Mr Hassan will be happy.

All change, please (if perhaps not yet)

The revisions to Exeter’s city bus services this month may be more significant than they first appear.

Few people will have noticed the changes to Exeter’s Stagecoach bus timetables introduced from 15 June. That few will be the much-depleted number who now use the buses and geeks like me. Stagecoach consulted on the changes several months ago, and one of their commonest justifications for the new timetables was to “improve reliability”. Amen to that.

Some of the changes go beyond amending frequencies and alter the routes themselves. Traditionally almost all of Exeter’s city services go from one end of the city to another and thus pass through the High Street. Particularly since the redevelopment of the bus station displaced some country services to terminating on Sidwell Street, which in turn led to city bus driver handovers taking place on the High Street, the bus congestion in the city’s principal shopping street has at times been wicked. One way of relieving this congestion and so improve the urban space is to take buses out of the High Street altogether, as I advocated in a post over two years ago.

This month’s service changes don’t go as far as that, but they make a start.  Routes E, F1, F2 and K now turn round before they enter the High Street and head back whence they came. That’s around 20 daytime bus movements an hour removed from the High Street. Not only should that help service reliability by avoiding buses being caught up in congestion, but it begins to make our High Street a place for people and businesses rather than diesel vehicles.

It will be interesting to see whether there is any significant push-back from passengers to the changes.  Because my guess is that Stagecoach are testing the water on eliminating direct bus access to the High Street before deciding whether it can be rolled out to other routes. Through services could then be replaced with a shuttle running the length of the High Street for those who need or want it.

That really would be a major step forward in reimagining the city’s centre.

 

Really, it’s not all bad news

Once the coronavirus is fully under control, there is much to look forward to, and even some things to welcome while we’re still in lockdown; the climate emergency clock is still ticking.

Historians reckon the Black Death of the mid-14th century killed at least a third of the population of Britain. So the first bit of good news is that we’re not living in the mid-14th century.

The second is how resilient Exeter is proving to be. Key services continue to operate – waste collections, street cleaning, buses, the NHS, chemists, supermarkets, local shops. Parks are open, the lockdown seems to be generally observed, and strangers are more ready to nod or stutter a greeting when passing in the street – countryside manners prevail. This may well be the case elsewhere in England, but the rules prevent me from going anywhere else to find out.

The city council continues to conduct essential business by remote means, indeed believing itself to be the first to do so. This worked successfully until last Monday when the planning committee meeting was abandoned because Virgin Media, the internet service provider, had what are known as “outages”.

In other news, the council has been exemplary in mobilising what resources a small district council can in supporting people who need help during the emergency:

  • It has contacted all businesses in the city eligible for a business support grant.
  • It has set up Exeter Community Wellbeing to put individuals wanting support in touch with organisations and individuals that can provide it. I had my own offer to volunteer rejected by the national scheme on the grounds that it couldn’t verify my identity (after thinking about it, I found this rather reassuring). The good news is that the Exeter scheme threw up no such obstacle.
  • It has launched a £1 million community grants programme to support Covid-19 related issues with assistance from the Exeter Chiefs Foundation.
  • It is setting up a hardship fund for people experiencing financial difficulties.

And the council is doing so despite huge budgetary pressures, including losing over £1 million a month in car parking fees. It doesn’t have to do any of this, but it has rightly chosen to do so.

Although the restaurant and café trade in the city has been clobbered with enforced closures, many are offering home delivery or take-away services. As a regular at Devon Coffee in Queen Street it’s a great pleasure to find the proprietor, Justine, serving take-away coffee and cakes from the café doorway..

Wildlife is having a great time. Without being gawked at all day by humans, Hong Kong’s pandas have become relaxed enough to mate. The arrival of goats in the middle of Llandudno, filling the space vacated by holidaymakers, will be one of the iconic images of the emergency. At home here in Exeter the bird song is more audible and varied than we have ever experienced it.

Looking to the future, the opportunities – and indeed necessities – for a rethink of much of how we live, including the design of our cities, are intensified by the present crisis. But before the virus arrived there were already encouraging signs of an acceptance of change in Exeter.

Not least, the return of high-density housing to the live agenda, in the form of a planning application to build 400 accommodation units, much at high density (not the same as high-rise) on old railway land at Exmouth Junction. The project will provide car parking provision for only half of the dwellings, car sharing opportunities, electric charging points and 1,000 cycle parking spaces. It was approved as an outline scheme by the council’s planning committee on 16 March despite local objections, and stands as welcome evidence that councillors as well as officers are now serious about making Exeter a sustainable and green city. The vision outlined last year is a small step closer to reality.

High density housing was well-known to the Victorians and Edwardians, as I explained in the first-ever presentation at the first-ever Exeter City Futures Connect event in March 2017, and which I elaborated in a subsequent blog post. Ideally suited to urban brownfield land, well-designed high density housing ticks a lot of the climate emergency boxes: denser local populations make public transport more viable, good energy use, communal space, efficient use of land, only limited space for private car parking.

Which leads into the next bit of good news, from Exeter City Futures itself, in the form of a plan to turn Exeter into a Net Zero Carbon city by 2030. There are questions – to be explored another time – on why the plan took so long to develop and whether the wider community really is on board with it, but it is a substantial achievement. Published and handed over to the city council on 7 April, the preoccupation of all public bodies with the coronavirus meant the timing could not have been worse. It will be important to ensure action follows on from the plan as soon as possible, and everyone who cares about the future of our city and our planet should study it and lobby for action.

It’s not as if change is too difficult. For example, Britain’s reducing dependence on coal as an energy source continues apace: on 28 April, we notched up the longest continuous period without using coal-fired power since the Industrial Revolution, according to National Grid data.

The reduction in traffic has been beneficial, not just in terms of a quieter and freer environment but also in improving air quality. At the time of writing air pollution at all 165 Defra measuring sites is ranked 2 or 3, where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest. Given that there is some, though limited, evidence of a link between high air pollution and the risk of dying from Covid-19, then is this a potential virtuous circle? Not to mention the scope for reducing the number of deaths from air pollution alone, estimated by Public Health England to be between 28,000 and 36,000 each year.

The response to the virus has shown that many more of us can work from home, at least for part of a working week. The costs of homeworking in terms of reduced face to face contact, putting on weight, feelings of isolation and lack of casual networking with colleagues have yet to be measured (and doubtless many academics are already plotting suitable surveys and chasing the funding for them). But the benefits of reduced commuting and other travel, more family or leisure time, and less stress in dashing from one place to another are surely already visible, if unquantified. This could have profound implications for where we live, in what sort of accommodation, how and when we travel and the structures of work.

Exeter was recently ranked the 10th greenest city (out of 59) in the UK by the Solar Centre. Its score was heavily influenced by a very favourable statistic on recycling: on other measures such as emissions the performance was more middle of the road. The point about these surveys is not their accuracy – it’s not difficult to pick holes in the methodology – but that they show effort and potential across a range of indicators. Exeter is in the right part of the spectrum but with some challenges ahead.

The Net Zero Carbon plan sets out some paths to follow. Covid-19 is both an opportunity and an impetus to start delivering.

Ultra vires

Exeter City Council has voted to suspend parts of its constitution, despite not having the power do so. 

The sentiment that the first casualty of war is truth has been attributed to many sources, including the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. These days, at least in public life, truth is a vanishing commodity which doesn’t require a war to depose it, so we would do better to look at what else is under threat as the coronavirus sweeps through society. I refer only to the precariousness of our constitutional structures, not to the human costs of the virus.

Democratic accountability itself is wobbling. Some ministers treat parliamentary select committees and journalists with contempt by simply refusing to answer their questions. The default answer by government departments and ministers to any enquiry is a bland statement about how focussed and relentless the government is on ramping up whatever the tabloid press says needs ramping up.

The other pillar of society under threat is the rule of law. We have a now-invisible prime minister whose advice to the monarch on the prorogation of (an unhelpful) parliament was so blatantly illegal that it took the courts no time at all to overturn it. Since then we have seen (a supine) parliament nod through a massive set of emergency powers with next to no scrutiny, and their partial implementation by one or two over-zealous constabularies before the laws were actually in force. None of this is to argue that the emergency powers were neither necessary nor urgent. I simply use what has happened as an illustration of changing norms in public life and our willingness at times of crisis to look to “the authorities” to watch out for us, however driven by amoral expediency those authorities are perceived to be.

So what happened at Exeter City Council on 21 April 2020 should not perhaps have been seen as shocking, though indeed it was. Included in a long series of recommendations from the executive of senior councillors for approval by the full council was a set of measures intended to keep the council functioning through the coronavirus crisis. Central to these was an uncontentious amendment to make sure that the operation of powers delegated by the politicians to officers would not be interrupted if the officers to whom the powers were delegated fell ill.

Additional recommendations – to allow councillors to be absent without losing their seats, to arrange for meetings to be held remotely and to empower the city solicitor to amend the council’s constitution to keep it in line with any new legislative requirements – were also passed without comment.

But the 4th recommendation in the set – which was voted on separately from the rest – is where the council overstepped the mark. The recommendation adopted on 21 April states:

(4) suspending Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and Standing Orders 47 and 48 for the next six months, effective immediately, to allow for the Council’s Constitution to be amended by a simple majority of Council; [1]

The need for this specific measure is not spelt out. It is merely included as part of the wider package to enable the council to continue functioning in the event of officers and councillors being incapacitated. Standing Orders 47 and 48 set out the procedures for amending or suspending other standing orders.

Articles of the constitution take precedence over standing orders. Article 15, which the council has voted to suspend for six months, includes the unambiguous sentence: “The Articles of this Constitution may not be suspended”. There is no let-out clause allowing them to be suspended in certain circumstances. Nor is there is a general power  in the Coronavirus Act 2020 and subordinate regulations for councils to ignore their own constitutions.

The articles can of course be amended or revoked by following the approved procedure (Article 14) but they cannot be suspended. Given that Article 15 also provides for the suspension of Standing Order 48, it is difficult to see why the council should remove the power to suspend 48, since its own suspension is one of the stated objectives.

It is not as if councillors were unaware of this. At the executive meeting on 7 April, when the recommendations to full council were finalised, Green Party Councillor Diana Moore draw attention to the impossibility of suspending Articles 14 and 15. She was told by the leader, Councillor Phil Bialyk, that further information on her point would be provided in writing. By the time of the full council meeting Councillor Moore had not received the information. She therefore raised the point again, only to be told by Councillor Bialyk that he was not allowing any changes to the executive’s recommendations because they had been discussed fully there, supported by the leaders of the two opposition groups, and all issues were resolved (not quite, Phil). The offending recommendation was carried in full council with only the four councillors in the Progressive Group voting against.

In normal times, I would be among those rapidly accusing the council of acting beyond its powers – ultra vires – in suspending Articles 14 and 15. But these are not normal times and the pressures on local authorities – particularly ones like Exeter which are commendably doing a great deal to support vulnerable people and organisations – are too intense to expect them to engage in what many people will regard as unimportant nit-picking.

But it’s not unimportant. Even in difficult times, we should not allow public bodies unilaterally to set aside the rules. If the council makes use of any of the freedoms it thinks it has given itself by the suspension of Articles 14 and 15, there will be a reckoning when we are through the crisis.

Meanwhile, there’ll be a good news post for next week.

 

NOTES:

[1]        This is where the post gets a bit anoraky. The council’s constitution is set out at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=382&MId=6530&Ver=4&Info=1 . Part 2 lists the Articles which govern the role and powers of councillors, the committee structure and decision making by the council. Part 4 lists procedural rules which govern day to day council business, including standing orders for the conduct of meetings (4b).

An unsustainable council?

Exeter City Council has reacted energetically to put in place community support measures in the face of the coronavirus emergency. But it faces a drop in income from a single source that raises questions about its short-term solvency and its broader financial strategy in the light of its zero carbon ambitions for the city,

In a report to the council’s Executive meeting on 7 April [1]– the group of senior councillors responsible for making recommendations to full council and for taking day-to-day decisions requiring political clearance – the Chief Financial Officer warned of reduced income as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. He said: “Without Government support, a prolonged period of income loss will threaten the Council’s viability during the next twelve months and likely require service reductions and the issuing of a section 114 notice.” [2]

The issuing of a Section 114 notice would be a major step. As the City Solicitor states in paragraph 7 of the report: “The purpose of this Section 114 notice is to make it clear to Members of the Council that it faces a financial [word missing] of an extremely serious nature; with a significant unfunded financial deficit forecast in the current year. Any such Section 114 notice, therefore, has serious implications aimed at prompting action to attempt to avoid a negative General Fund balance.”

The Chief Executive provided some essential detail. Because of the government’s stay-at-home orders, the number of people coming into the city during the previous two weeks had fallen dramatically. Consequently, income from car parking had reduced from a budgeted £331,000 to an actual £11,000. The fall in the second week was 98.8%. If the trend continued, the council would lose income of between £1m and £1.2m per month.

Given the council’s working balance – that is the difference between income and expenditure – was a normally healthy £4.3m, it clearly would not take long for the council to breach the legal requirement to balance its books unless it took drastic action to slash services. Central government was aware of the problem – which affected many other district councils – and was said to be “sympathetic”. Given Whitehall’s by now ingrained distrust of local authorities, plus the already massive dislocation of the public finances, the cure may be far worse than the problem.

Now in the light of all this, one might have expected councillors to say something if only to ask about contingency plans. Not a whisper from any of them, including the leaders of the two opposition groups. It may have been that they were too stunned to take it all in. Or the Leader’s injunction not to get into a debate on the wider finances was hypnotic in its influence. Or, simply, that now was not to the time to rock the boat.

The nearest we got to an acknowledgement that things were tricky was the removal from the agenda of several reports seeking approval for new capital spending amounting to £6.36m with consequential annual revenue costs of £0.23m. The Leader said it was not “appropriate” to discuss these now.

What is clear about the council’s finances is how dependent they are on a single source of income, namely fees from car parking. This clearly presents a challenge since the council’s goal of the city being carbon neutral by 2030 will depend in large measure on reducing private motor traffic in the city on a permanent basis. No cars equals no car park income.

A radical mindset change is now needed. The council is looking at other ways of income generation, though these are as yet untested. But to show how far it needs to change, we only need look at one of the capital schemes that was removed from the agenda.

Put very briefly, officers were asking for up to £3.9m to carry out repairs and improvements to the hideous Cathedral and Quay multi-storey car park off Western Way. Because the full extent of the repairs required would not be known until work had started, the report stated that additional funds above the £3.9m would almost certainly be needed. Somewhat naively, given what every person commissioning capital schemes should know about the problems with construction projects, the report’s author stated boldly: “There are no risks in proceeding with the proposals.”

I have an alternative suggestion which would both save money and help with the 2030 carbon neutral target. Demolish the car park, and build a few houses instead.

 

NOTES:

  1. The report is agenda item 7, para 5.
  2. Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires the Chief Finance Officer to report under this section “if it appears to him that the expenditure of the authority incurred (including expenditure it proposes to incur) in a financial year is likely to exceed the resources (including sums borrowed) available to it to meet that expenditure.”

How to give Exeter’s climate emergency plans some welly

The coronavirus crisis has led to some reworking of the actions to develop a practical response to the climate emergency in Exeter.  This could be an opportunity to make the plans more robust.

Yesterday, 26 March, should have been the climax of public engagement activity in the development of a “roadmap” to a carbon neutral city by Exeter City Futures (ECF). What was planned was a “summit”, to be held at Exeter City Football Club – though presumably not on the pitch – at which various significant persons would outline their thoughts and then the rest of us who had registered to attend would offer our input.  The aim of the summit was to give a final steer to the roadmap, due to be handed over to Exeter City Council at the end of March. However, the summit has become a predictable victim of the coronavirus crisis.

Readers unfamiliar with key events since Exeter City Council declared a climate emergency in July 2019 will find this article in the Exeter Observer a helpful briefing.

As I noted in that article, a key weakness of the ECF Blueprint as a basis for public engagement was the absence of data to enable people to make informed choices about which of the 89 specifications for a carbon-neutral Exeter they considered the most important. Nor was such information available in the mobile “creative conversations” van from Totnes that popped up around the city, breakdowns permitting.

Since writing the article, I’ve come across some potentially very useful work carried out by Ashden, a sustainable energy consultancy, and the campaign group Friends of the Earth. Their project sets out an evidence-based list of the 31 most effective actions councils can take on climate. But this is not just a list, as in the Blueprint. It comes with a downloadable spreadsheet packed with empirical data which can be applied to each of the 31 actions for any given population. What the data does is enable anyone to rank the actions according to their effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions, factoring in costs and ease of implementation. The narrative highlights additional benefits from particular actions, such as improvements to health, resilience and equity.

Of course there’s a risk if a formulaic tool is followed without regard for local circumstances. But it’s better than anything we’ve had on offer locally, and could serve as a valuable starting point for an informed discussion of priorities.

Meanwhile, the postponement of the summit has led to some confusion. In a statement ECF stated that although the summit would not now take place as scheduled, the plan (aka the Routemap) would still be delivered to the City Council “on schedule”, in other words very soon. This raises an interesting question: if the plan can be handed over to the council without the benefit of input from the summit, then what exactly was the point of the summit?

ECF has given itself some wriggle room. Having told the Council’s Strategic Scrutiny Committee on 16 January that the final plan would be delivered to the Council’s Chief Executive by the end of March, the Net Zero Exeter website – also operated by ECF – now gives the date as being “April 2020”.

So, let’s hope that the extra time allows the Ashden work or something like it to be used to transform the Blueprint into a useful plan.

It’s no longer about Brexit

The government’s ability to suspend parliament at will must be challenged on the streets, and in Exeter this Saturday.

The British constitution finally broke down on Wednesday. A government that lost its majority at the last general election and whose party attracted minimal support at this year’s EU and local elections forced the monarch to suspend Parliament and did so within the conventions of our constitution. As a demonstration of what is wrong with our governing arrangements, it cannot be bettered.

Our constitution is not written down. It is a mix of law and convention. It is a convention that the monarch accepts the advice of the prime minister, including on whether to suspend parliament. There are no enforceable rules about how this advice must be framed. So in practice, any government – even with a majority of one and propped up by a Northern Ireland party whose own track record towards parliaments leaves much to be desired – can get rid of parliament whenever it is convenient to do so. This and other uses of so-called royal prerogative powers have no place in the modern world.

Leaving aside the question of what is the point of a monarchy which is no more than a rubber stamp, where do we go now? The long term solution is for the UK to have a written constitution. Meanwhile we the people need to send a clear message to our government that its conduct is not acceptable. It does not matter whether you are for or against Brexit. The practice of suspending parliament could be used to enable any government to avoid scrutiny on any controversial measure.

Exeter has a long tradition of political pluralism. In the civil war of the 17th century, when parliament was set aside by two other tyrants – King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell – the city’s allegiance wobbled between the two sides. Hopefully, without the Earl of Bedford’s or General Faifax’s troops to coerce us, we can send a resoundngly inclusive rejection of the government’s actions. So, remainers and leavers, people of all parties and none, join the demonstration against the government this Saturday 31 August at 11am in Exeter’s Bedford Square.

No sanctions please, we’re councillors

Scene:  A committee room in Exeter City Council’s Paris Street offices.

Cast:  Councillor Chris Musgrave (Green Party), Councillor Pete Edwards (Labour Leader of the Council), plus other members of the Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee, attendants, and a member of the public.

Cllr Musgrave (after having asked several questions stonewalled by the Leader):  What sanctions are available against Councillors who fail to act in line with the council’s constitution?

Cllr Edwards: None.

(Gasps of surprise, even from Labour members.  The Chair mutters something about committees – which is inaudible in the public seats = and moves onto next business. Later on, the curtain falls and everyone goes home.)

+++++

The story begins in May 2016 when Lewis Keen, then a student at Exeter University, was one of three Labour members elected for the St David’s ward.  After finishing his studies, Cllr Keen moved to London during 2018 and took up employment with Clarksons, a marine brokerage and shipping services conglomerate whose London HQ is in St Katherine’s Docks.  Not a Corbynite, then.  Emails to his Council address receive an auto-response referring the sender to the other ward councillors.  Since May 2018 he has attended 3 out of the 13 Council meetings where he was expected, and that non-attendance rate would have been much worse if the Labour group had not removed him from all Council committees in October 2018.  Keen has not claimed any allowances since July 2018, which may be honourable but is a clear admission that he was not doing the job he was elected to do.  Local media reported the story in November 2018

In that same month, Exeter Green Party made a formal complaint to the Council’s Monitoring Officer [1] about Keen’s continued absence.  The complaint argued that Cllr Keen had breached the City Council’s constitution, particularly Article 2.03 which sets out the responsibilities of councillors.  These are clear and specific, aimed at making sure councillors know what their jobs are and that they do them.  In brief, the Green Party argued it was impossible to comply with this part of the constitution if a councillor is living 200 miles away, returning to Exeter to attend the very occasional meeting and avoid disqualification.

The complaint also alleged that Cllr Keen, by his absence, breached the Members’ Code of Conduct.  The Code of Conduct is a less specific document, being primarily concerned with probity and with what councillors should not be doing.  This part of the complaint correspondingly tended towards matters of judgement rather than unarguable fact.

5 months later the Monitoring Officer responded to the complaint.  Cllr Keen was found not to have breached the Code of Conduct, which was no great surprise.  But, astonishingly, the complaints about breaches of Article 2 of the constitution were ruled out of order on the grounds that they were outside the scope of the complaints procedure.

The City Council’s complaints procedure relating to councillors states: “This procedure does not deal with complaints about matters that are not covered by the Members’ Code of Conduct.”  It seems to push hard at the limits of credibility that there is no procedure that comes into play when a councillor breaches other parts of the constitution, particularly Article 2.  Party discipline appears not to come into play here, since the Leader of the Council has said on another occasion that Cllr Keen’s conduct is nothing to do with him,

The Monitoring Officer stated the decision to the Green Party that “Cllr Keen’s failure to actively represent his constituents is not a matter regulated by the Code of Conduct. It is a matter to be determined at the ballot box.”  Which is a welcome recognition that Cllr Keen has indeed failed to represent his constituents, but it doesn’t help with solving the problem about what to do with a councillor, elected for a 4-year term, who decides not to do the job anymore but hang on as a councillor anyway (as in the Keen case).

Which was why Cllr Musgrave asked the question set out at the beginning of this post.

 

 

NOTES:

[1]  All local authorities are required to appoint a Monitoring Officer whose duties include handling complaints against councillors, in conjunction with an Independent Person or, where they still exist, a standards committee of the authority.

Vision on

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

The Legacy

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

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

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

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

The new vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving things forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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


County declares war on City

Devon County Council is prepared to let Exeter’s residents choke on traffic fumes so that rural commuters can stay in their cars.

It’s not unusual in these straitened times for a local authority to give with one hand and take away with the other.  How else can they balance their budgets without losing all political support?  Rather more eyebrow-raising is when a county council plans to reduce private car journeys by the residents of its principal city and county town with the aim of allowing the freed-up road space in the city to be occupied by commuters driving in from the surrounding towns and rural areas.

This astonishing proposal is set out the latest Exeter Transport Strategy, produced by Devon County Council (DCC) as the highways and transport authority covering Exeter, and which is currently out for consultation.  Paragraph 1.46 states that there will be a target of 50% of all trips within the city being made on foot or by bike, an excellent aim which should reduce pollution from motor vehicles, diminish congestion and traffic noise, and generally make the city a better place to live.

So far so good.  But then we read paragraph 1.47, which needs to be quoted in full:

“This [the target] represents the most achievable way of freeing up capacity to facilitate the increase of car-based inward commuters from outside the city and complements the Sport England Local Delivery Pilot and Exeter’s aspiration to become the most active city in the country.”  (My emphasis).

This is either a mistake which slipped through the editing process, or a test to see if anyone actually reads the small print, or one of the most cynical pieces of planning policy I have ever come across.  I favour the third interpretation, and this is why.

DCC is a Tory-led council: 42 out of 60 seats, but only 2 of the 9 Exeter seats.  The ruling group is by no means made up solely of slavish adherents to such flagship policies as “Austerity” and “Local Government Spending Cuts”.  No, it is not Mrs May, Conservative Central Office and the Ministry of Housing & Everything Else that the councillors fear.  Instead it is their constituents in rural Devon who regard it as their divine right to get into their large vehicles – so essential for country life – and drive into the middle of Exeter for business, shopping or pleasure.  They are particularly vociferous about the length of time it takes to pass through the Exeter suburbs, which are cluttered up with cars and buses being used by those pesky people who actually live in the city, not to mention all those pedestrians who slow up traffic by wanting to cross the road.  So what better move for DCC than to make life easier for their constituents by pushing the townies off the roads so as to let their chums race around the city adding to our mortality rates by polluting our local air and keeping our roads unsafe?

Exeter City Council is largely powerless on these matters.  Its Chief Executive has just presented an inspiring vision of what the city could look like in 20 years, given the right policies, strong community engagement in realising it, and the political will [1].  What DCC want to do is diametrically opposed to this.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Devon County Council has declared war on its own county town.

NOTE:

[1]  I shall be blogging on the CE’s vision in A Green in Exeter in the next few days.