Category Archives: A Journey

Scrutiny can work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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 2016.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture8

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

Picture1

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

Picture3

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

Picture2

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

Picture5

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

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

Picture6

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

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

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

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

Picture7

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

5.  See www.gesp.org.uk

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

Tinkering with transport isn’t enough

Is transport really at the root of our urban sustainability problems?  If we can come up with some innovative and deliverable approaches which challenge why and how we move around, does that unlock solutions to the other issues we face?

The section of my personal vision of a future Exeter headed “Place” makes much of reforms to the way we move around the city, but that could just be a reflection of my mindset.  Yet if we think about the impacts of our current mobility patterns, it’s clear that these make a substantial contribution to a city building up problems for its residents and visitors.

These impacts include:

  • Air pollution: cars and buses in particular, but HGVs, motor bikes and diesel trains all add to the potentially toxic mix we breathe.
  • Poorer health, as we exchange walking or cycling for the soft option of the bus or car.
  • Congestion: businesses use traffic congestion as the economic justification for road improvements, but it impacts on family life (a parent stuck in a traffic jam) and on health (stress from not being able to move easily), as well as adding to air pollution.  A different form of congestion is overcrowding on our local peak hour trains.
  • Infrastructure: new roads and new car parks are usually top of the vandalism lists because of the amount of land they take and the evidence that car journeys expand to fill the increased space available.
  • An acceptance that out-of-town shopping malls can be developed on greenfield space, because car use makes it easy for people to get to them.
  • Similarly, a belief by some planners (and almost all housebuilders) that it’s acceptable to build new housing on greenfield sites away from jobs and services because people will be able to travel.

Some willingness to address these impacts is being made, at least on paper.  The city council has responded to concerns about pollution by having an Air Quality Action Plan in place since 2011 and more recently by producing an Air Quality Strategy and a Low Emission Strategy [1].  However, action on the ground is less evident.  There is no equivalent, for example, of the London Low Emissions Zone.

In any case, this is fiddling with the symptoms rather than the causes.  Transport planning in Devon is heavily road-focussed.  The centrepiece of the current Local Transport Plan [2] is the recently-opened South Devon Link Road designed to make it easier to drive to and from Torquay.

True, new rail stations in or near Exeter have opened – at Cranbrook and Newcourt, with further stations at Marsh Barton and (perhaps) at Monkerton in prospect.  Yet there are huge disconnects between rail services and bus services.  I’ve illustrated this disconnect in rural Devon in a past blog post [3], which argues that matters could be vastly improved by designing better services rather than building new infrastructure; and I will examine the parallel problem within Exeter itself in a later post.

Most people in the city who want to move around by public transport are heavily reliant on bus services.  This is a service model that has remained largely unchanged since the widespread introduction of the bus.  It has the advantage of great flexibility, both within the city and in the surrounding travel to work area, though bus operators seem strangely reluctant to exploit this advantage.  Buses remain broadly the same design – mandatory wheelchair spaces being the main difference – with cramped seating and minimal luggage space.

Again, there have been marginal improvements.  Stagecoach – the major bus operator in Devon – has recently introduced smartcards for fare payments, in theory reducing the time spent at stops while passengers find cash to pay to their fares.  The one-day ticket for unlimited travel in the wider city area is attractively priced and seems to be well-used.  Some local buses offer wi-fi.

And yet.  Despite all the fine words in the Local Transport Plan, Devon County Council was forced to bow down before the god of austerity and implement cuts in bus subsidies [4].  These bore down hardest on rural areas, and so reinforced the reliance of rural dwellers on private cars and served as a disincentive to use a bus to get in and out of Exeter.

We need to ask whether incremental improvements using traditional models will really deliver change.  Outside of London, the evidence that improving public transport on its own will reduce car use is weak. Transition Exeter has promoted a report which argues convincingly that major innovation is needed if the city is not to be choked by its own growth plans [5].

The diffusion of leadership between different public and private bodies doesn’t help in forging a clear vision of what we want and need from our transport systems.

In future posts on transport I will suggest specific innovations that ought to be explored.

 

NOTES

[1]  All three documents are available at https://exeter.gov.uk/clean-safe-city/environmental-health/pollution-control/air-pollution/

[2]  Devon and Torbay Local Transport Plan 3, 2011-2026, available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[3] https://petercleasby.com/2016/02/01/its-not-just-the-infrastructure-stupid/

[4]  See my post at https://petercleasby.com/2015/02/13/local-austerity-how-the-environment-and-the-people-lose-out/.

[5]  Rush Hour Transport in Exeter, by Trevor Preist, available at http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/node/263

We know what we need to do …

Let’s move away from Exeter for a moment, into the wider world

There should be no serious argument by now – but there is and will continue to be – that the world cannot go on as we are.  Climate change is a real threat, though too few of us take it seriously [1].  The very term “climate change” has now become overused – and misused – to the point at which it has become a turn-off.  Like the much-abused “sustainable development”, it is trotted out as another tick-box on the policy-making check list.

Perhaps it’s helpful to describe the impending crisis differently.  I prefer to use the term “exceeding environmental limits”, which gets over the idea that the planet’s resources are finite and we cannot go on consuming them at the present rate without seriously prejudicing the futures of our children, their children, their children’s children and so on.

At the international level, there have been many good initiatives attempting to engage authorities and individuals as well as national governments.  Local Agenda 21, adopted at the Rio Summit in 1992 was a non-binding commitment to advance sustainable development with the catch phrase “Think global, act local” [2].  It inspired a flurry of activity, including in the UK, with many local authorities committing to local action plans.  But the world moved on, and LA21 itself was largely forgotten.  There is no reference to it on the UK government’s website (although it figures frequently on the Scottish Government’s).  Its decline in Devon can be seen on the County Council’s website where a dated piece [3] describes its progress from action plan to independent charity which was then taken over by the Devon Conservation Forum (speaks volumes!) which was in turn – after the website narrative – absorbed into the Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (volume even higher) and was never heard of again.

In Ireland, by contrast, LA21 is still alive and well, and the national government has been providing funding for relevant projects annually since 1997.

Perhaps LA21’s most lasting legacy in the UK is the Transition Towns movement [4], local community groups who devise new approaches to developing our towns and cities, and who lobby the authorities to adopt them.  Exeter has its own group, Transition Exeter [5]

Of course, novelty is attractive, so the ideas underlying LA21 were rewritten into later versions of much the same principles.  Underpinning everything is the UN’s set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015.  To focus on urban areas, a worldwide network of cities and regions – ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability – has been keeping the international conference circuit going for several years.  Based on the Aalborg Commitments [6], its latest product is the Basque Declaration, adopted in April 2016, which sets out eminently sensible and necessary actions [7].

The Basque Declaration states:

We understand the need for transformation in order to:

  1. decarbonise our energy systems and reduce total energy consumption,
  2. create sustainable urban mobility patterns and accessibility for all,
  3. protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services,
  4. reduce the use of greenfield land and natural space,
  5. protect water resources, water and air quality,
  6. adapt to climate change, and reduce the risk of disasters,
  7. improve public space to create convivial, safe, and vibrant environments,
  8. provide sufficient and adequate housing

 

At the EU level, there is no shortage of exhortation, goals and frameworks.  The current Dutch EU Presidency is giving strong support to an EU Urban Agenda, expected to be approved by member states at the end of May.  Alongside this the Dutch have arranged a City Maker’s Summit to “connect people that are actively engaged in the liveability of their cities”, as part of a continuing EU Cities in Transition programme [8] (in which no UK city plays any visible role).   And there’s the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities [9], which “brings together cities, industry and citizens to improve urban life through more sustainable integrated solutions”.  Doubtless, there are many more.

That said, beneath the verbiage and grandstanding of international networking, what’s going on is really important.  It’s a growing and sustained recognition that the planet is at risk, and that there are ways available to start living within our environmental means.  Some of these challenges are deep-seated – such as weaning people away from the belief that material economic growth is the only valid measure of success – and that won’t be solved by building a few zero-carbon houses.  But planning our communities differently is important for two reasons.  First, by stopping any further development that is not consistent with sustainable development goals, those decisions contribute – albeit in a minor way – to slowing down our journey to breaching environmental limits.  Second, those decisions send our signals that business-as-usual is no longer an option, and begin to engage communities in a shared search for new approaches, including exploring alternatives to conventional economic growth.

Engaging communities will be a recurring theme in this blog.

 

 

NOTES:

[1] See, for example, George Marshall’s book “Don’t Even Think About It:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”, Bloomsbury 2014.  One of Marshall’s key points is that climate change is too remote to be a realistic threat, and so we don’t focus on it.

[2]  For an introduction and summary see http://www.sustainable-environment.org.uk/Action/Local_Agenda_21.php

[3]  http://www.devon.gov.uk/historicalbackground

[4]  https://www.transitionnetwork.org/

[5]  http://www.transitionexeter.org.uk/

[6]  http://www.sustainablecities.eu/fileadmin/content/JOIN/finaldraftaalborgcommitments.pdf

[7]  Details of the suggested actions are at http://conferences.sustainablecities.eu/basquecountry2016/declaration/

[8]  https://citiesintransition.eu/

[9]  http://ec.europa.eu/eip/smartcities/

A Green future for Exeter?

This blog is about Exeter – what needs to change, what needs to be conserved, and how what’s needed can happen.  Much of what I will write is, I hope, applicable to other similar communities; and indeed to some that are very different.

It’s written from a Green perspective, though it does not always follow adopted Green Party policy. Nor do I speak here for the Green Party, despite being an active member in Exeter. Much of the content will be familiar to local Party friends and colleagues, because it reflects our shared belief that society should be organized for the common good respecting the limitations of the planet and not for the convenience of the financially privileged.

The starting pistol for this blog was fired twice during January.

On 20 January we witnessed a pyrrhic victory of the ruling Labour group on Exeter City Council who – despite extensive and well-informed opposition from community groups – gave outline planning approval to a deeply flawed scheme for redeveloping the city centre bus and coach station site. At this stage the details are not important: suffice it to say that the development will do nothing to help create the sustainable community we need. It is a triumph of the increasingly redundant “old politics”, which I will describe in the next two posts on this blog.

Then, a week later, the Exeter City Futures project was formally launched. Under the strap line of “Our City, Our Say” – though who “our” is in this context might be debated – the project promises to “reimagine” the city’s future, using data analytics and technology to identify solutions for a sustainable city and draw in capital investment. The project is run jointly by the city council and Andromeda Capital an Exeter-based company which invests in projects with essentially green ideals. How this project might evolve, and how the people of Exeter and wider Devon can influence it, will be reviewed in a future post.

First, though, where are we heading? What could the Exeter of the future be like? To provide an “anchor” for this blog, to give it a sense of purpose, I’ve set out here my own take on that future.  This isn’t a masterplan, and it may evolve during the life of the blog.

Much of this particular future can be achieved within the existing powers available to local government, aided by some substantial attitude and behaviour changes by all who live and work in Exeter. The one flight of fancy is that central government has been persuaded – perhaps by the work of the emerging Exeter City Futures project – to designate Exeter as an “Innovation Zone” which allows some creative modification of national tax and accountancy rules.

If any of this interests you, do add comments or click “Follow” for updates.