Category Archives: A Journey

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.

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.”

The will of the people

Nothing to do with Brexit, but Exeter City Council has bowed to public opinion

In the upmarket Exeter district of St Leonard’s, the residents have been flexing their considerable collective muscle against a City Council proposal to sell off 130 sq metres of the Council-owned Bull Meadow, amounting to 1% of the park.  The aim of the sale is not to raise funds for our cash-strapped Council but to facilitate vehicle access to a planned redevelopment of 12 almshouses to provide 31 almshouses, 

Disposal of public land requires a Council to advertise its intention and invite representations.  207 replies and a petition of 327 signatures were received. 191 of the respondents objected to the proposed sale and only one respondent supported it [1]. 

At the Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee meeting on 17 January, councillors considered a report from the City Surveyor which nudged them in the direction of agreeing to the disposal.  Two of the three ward councillors addressed the committee stressing the extent of local opposition and arguing that alternative ways of providing the vehicular access had been identified.  Committee members looked a bit glum until it was pointed out that decisions on the scheme and the access would be taken by the Planning Committee, and all the Scrutiny Committee had to do was to decide its position on the principle of disposing of a piece of parkland.

This cheered everyone up no end, since – because there were alternative access routes available – they could simply support the will of the people without risking blocking a scheme for housing for low-income residents.  The Member Champion for Communities was particularly thrilled at being able to agree with community views.  Indeed, there were so many statements from councillors about respecting the views of residents that you might think the will of people will hereafter dominate Council decision-making.

Well, you might think that.  Sadly, not all decisions are quite so simple.  In this case:

  • The Scrutiny Committee’s decision is merely advisory; it is the Executive that will decide.
  • The alternative access arrangements depend wholly on the developer being willing to put them forward and on Planning Committee approving them.
  • Because the value from the sale would be small (£25,000), there is no real financial driver.
  • Decisions on the future of the nearby Clifton Hill Sports Centre site, which could involve disposing of public green space (a proposal that is already being hotly and eloquently contested by local residents), will be much less easy, however great the number of objections.  The site would be used for much-needed housing and the value of the sale to the Council would be substantial.

So the will of people should enjoy its moment in the sun – it’s unlikely to last.

NOTES

[1]  The other 15 objections were based on a misapprehension that the Council proposed to sell the whole park.

A bold way forward?

Exeter City Council’s Vision for 2040 is more than just aspirational waffle.  It sets out some very clear commitments.

Let’s be clear.  A vision is a vision.  Those who have done time in corporate bodies will recall the business planning hierarchy, with the Vision on top, then Aims and Objectives (I could never tell the difference), then Strategic Plans, then Policies, then the Business Plans, then Operational or Delivery Plans, then individual Performance Plans, and the many variations on all these that existed.  One of the reasons I was happy to leave corporate life was to get away from writing Plans that had minimal chance of ever being implemented because someone, somewhere would move the goalposts.  So, really, a nice vague Vision is likely to be the most robust of the lot.

Exeter City Council’s new Emerging Vision for Exeter 2040 [1], hidden away inside the less visionary-sounding Our Strategy 2018-2021, is actually rather bold.  It states, sometimes precisely and other times less so, what it wants the city to be like in 20 years.  Because the Council is going to commit to this vision, or something very like it, we have to assume that it means what it says and that the Council’s actions will support its realisation.  We know it’s a vision, not a delivery plan, so its achievement will be subject to the usual caveats, such as availability of funding, relaxation of central government controls, no earthquakes political or otherwise, and (the catch-all excuse for the next 10 years) Brexit.  But meanwhile we can reasonably look to the Council to do two things.  First, to ensure that all the actions it does take – short term and long term – do actually advance achievement of the vision.  Second, and conversely, to ensure that none of its actions frustrates achievement of the vision.

I’m particularly looking forward to measuring words against deeds on these elements of the vision :

  • Exeter will be a model of strong local democracy. Communities will organise themselves [..]. Active, engaged citizens and communities will be empowered to create, share and use data to respond to shared problems and needs.  Can we all now expect the city council to revitalise its flagging democracy by leading a campaign for a fair voting system in English local government, setting up ward councils, bringing communities in at the beginning of proposals rather than the end, and making openness its default position
  • Every resident will have a home that is secure, affordable and healthy in a balanced and connected neighbourhood. Can we expect the end of homelessness and constraints on executive-priced market housing?
  • The impacts of growth will be managed and mitigated and communities will lead development. Can we expect the end of purpose-built student housing being concentrated in the central area against the expressed wishes of communities, and to the creation of public transport, educational and other infrastructure services that keep pace with housing and employment patterns?
  • Exeter will be a liveable city, with a thriving city centre. Can we expect the end of empty shops, congestion and too much land given over to car parks, and of air pollution?
  • Urban planning will protect and enhance Exeter’s exceptional natural and historic environment, safeguard its iconic landscape setting, and encourage high-quality contemporary design that complements and enhances the city’s heritage. Can we expect the end of characterless housing estates thrown up by volume builders, and an end to building on green spaces?  Can we expect the City Council to use joint planning arrangements to stop neighbouring authorities building on our surrounding hills?

Can we expect all this?  If the City Council is to keep faith with the rest of us, then of course we can.  Bring it on!

NOTES:

[1]  Available at https://exeter.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/council-information/corporate-plan-2018-21/ . The vision is on page 4 of the glossy version.  The text-only version is amusingly entitled “Our Strategy 2018-2012”.

Doing Council business differently: Part 2 – Leadership

Not long ago, an Exeter city councillor on the Executive said to me that he might be called old-fashioned but he saw it as his job, having been elected, to take the right decisions as he saw them.  He was right: he is old-fashioned.

Whether councillors like it or not, the paternalistic or top-down model of local governance is no longer fit for purpose.  The stories in the Where We Are Now section of this blog demonstrate this.  Faced with sustained expenditure cuts imposed by a central government hostile to the concept of public services and the ever-increasing dominance of “out-sourced” services operated for private profit, local government needs more than ever to win the trust -and support – of its citizens and demonstrate its commitment to serving communities.

My previous post on Engagement sets out one key strand in the process of regaining trust.  But that is unlikely to happen without a change in the concept of leadership by councils.  In a book [1] that should be mandatory reading for all council leaderships – politicians and officers alike – Professor Robin Hambleton argues persuasively that the traditional “city boss” must be replaced by a leader who facilitates rather than dictates.  He argues for a form of leadership that is dispersed rather than centralised, mobilising talents and expertise outside the council to collaborate on developing and implementing a “place-based” vision.  He warns of the risks to cohesive and sustainable communities of the “place-less” organisations, such as national land developers, major retail chains and others whose loyalties are to themselves and their shareholders rather than to local residents, businesses and environments.  The Exeter City Council’s leadership’s enthusiasm for IKEA is likely to as misplaced as its belief in the private sector being the lynchpin of the bus station site redevelopment.

The World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs have collaborated on a guidebook [2] for city leaders who want to encourage innovation.  It recognises that technological change which is simply imposed from above will not generate the benefits sought by that change, and proposes forms of policy co-ownership in shaping the future.  In particular it foresees a model in which the nature of political trust changes, from a commitment to fulfilling promises (delivering policy objects) to a commitment to openness, transparency, inclusiveness and shared ownership (delivering policy processes).

All this is highly relevant to Exeter City Council’s ambition be in the vanguard of innovative cities.  The partnership with Exeter City Futures in delivering a transformation agenda is a hopeful beginning [3] but we have yet to see how it will play out.  Meanwhile, there is little evidence of the top-down approach being supplanted:  an emerging project tells us that the city’s mantra is “Exeter. Live Better”, though it’s not clear that those of us who live here wake up every morning reciting it; and – more seriously – the ruling group this month rushed through a decision to demolish a Council-owned sports facility and sell off the land – potentially including open green space – for housing without any pretence of public engagement [4].

Political leaders can lead.  But in 21st century democracies the divergence between leading and telling needs to grow more strongly than ever.  One of the most valuable forms of local political leadership is to lead on the identification of issues for debate, and perhaps even lead the debate itself.  Yet it has to be an inclusive debate, which shows the council is listening, responding and developing key policies and plans which are visibly shaped by that debate.

There are rumours of an impending change in the leadership of the Exeter City Council’s ruling group.  This is an opportunity for a transformation to a more inclusive and facilitative leadership style, and it isn’t tokenism to suggest that the most suitable new leaders reside within the group’s female membership.  Watch that space.

 

NOTES

[1] Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, Robin Hambleton, Policy Press, 2015.

[2] Citizen-Driven Innovation: A guidebook for city mayors and public administrators. World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs, 2015. Available via http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/629961467999380675/Citizen-driven-innovation-a-guidebook-for-city-mayors-and-public-administrators

[3] See https://www.exetercityfutures.com/news/exeter-city-futures-strengthens-partnership-exeter-city-council/

[4] See https://exeter.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/sport-and-leisure/our-leisure-facilities/clifton-hill-sports-centre/

Doing Council business differently: Part 1 – Engagement

In several previous posts, brought together in Can the Council be a leader?, I have illustrated why I believe Exeter City Council needs to change its political and administrative culture if it is to succeed in harnessing the energy and talents within the city to make it a truly liveable place in the 21st century.  I’m not suggesting Exeter’s  council is unique in needing to change:  I focus on it because I live in and care about Exeter.

In this and successive posts, I suggest ways in which the Council can change, using four headings:

  • Engagement
  • Leadership
  • Openness
  • Governance

This first post addresses what could be done to engage better with the communities the Council exists to serve.

Why engage?

In the age of deference, it was enough to elect MPs and councillors, then leave decision-making to them, informed by central and local government professional staff.  That age has passed, but a readiness in some quarters to leave the elected representatives to get on with things persists – though driven more by apathy and despair at the quality of our governance rather than by any deferential attitudes.  Where the pip squeaks is when a council – and it is usually a council – takes a decision that upsets, inconveniences or affects the quality of life of individuals.  The fact that these decisions appear to come out of the blue brings our governance further into disrepute.

Good engagement between decision-takers and communities helps address this.  Decisions are supported by a much richer and locally-specific evidence base; and communities feel engaged with the decisions and more understanding of the factors affecting it.  It is a part of a wider necessary democratic renewal.

What is engagement?

Real engagement with communities – whether they be residential, business, sports, public service, local interest groups and so on – is not something that comes naturally to Exeter City Council.  The Council claims that it consults on many issues; and so it does.  The problem is that “consultation” doesn’t tick all the boxes, as the following table shows:

CONSULTATION by Council ENGAGEMENT with communities
Asks for comments (often as multiple-choice answers) on a proposal that has already been worked out in detail. Council explains the issue (eg, problem to be solved, development to be pursued) and seeks views on how best to solve/advance it before putting forward proposals.
Feedback, when it occurs, is limited to summary of voting numbers and some identification of common concerns.  No or minimal explanation of how the consultation has influenced the final decision. A continued dialogue is maintained, with the Council explaining how the engagement process has influenced their thinking, followed by a willingness to continue to engage as proposals evolve.
Respondents are self-selecting, often confined to those with a developed interest in public affairs or happen to be in the High St and drop into an exhibition. Participants are actively sought out by the Council.
Consultation exhibitions are typically on one day, in the city centre, and consisting of a few explanatory boards and an encouragement to fill out the response form there and then. Flexible arrangements for engagement events are mutually agreed
There is limited scope for individual or community learning – essentially an isolated activity, although some organised groups do prepare considered responses Opportunities arise for people/groups to improve their understanding of issues and for action learning (see comment below on the Heavitree project)

 

Engage on what?  Macro or micro?

There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that too many people only wake up to the consequences of a policy decision when it hits them personally.  Planning applications are a common example (see below) but so are school and hospital closures [1], car park charges increases, park closures for special events, new student accommodation, and so on.  The common thread here is the event is invariably a consequence of a policy decision taken a year or more ago, with minimal consultation, let alone engagement.   Who remembers the Car Parking Strategy when the charges go up in line with it? [2].

Then there are the really macro policies, above all the pursuit of economic growth.  It spills out of every strategy, it’s the justification for housebuilding, it underpins policy support for the steady spread of the city eastwards into the Business Park, the Science Park, the Skypark, the large retail sites (including IKEA, arriving any time now) and the consequent loss of open space and increased traffic.  The City Council’s Chief Executive wrote in the local paper last week [3] that Exeter is striving to be “world class” and that we all share in this endeavour.  Perhaps we do, and perhaps being “world class” is a good thing; but when did anyone last take the trouble to explain what it means, how far achieving it is dependent on continued economic growth and – crucially – ask us if that a future we all want?

Constraints on engagement

Good engagement is not cost-free: staff time, meeting costs, and intellectual effort are all impacted by it.  The choice for the Council is whether these modest costs are outweighed by the benefits of good engagement.  Nor is engagement free of time constraints, though the Council’s aim should be to build engagement into their project planning as an integral element (not just a line at the end saying “public consultation”).

Engagement on planning applications presents particular challenges, because of the time limits for taking decisions.  What is important here is that planning policy – the yardstick against which individual planning decisions are taken – is drawn up using good engagement principles in place of the present outrage in which planners give themselves 18 months or more to draft a plan and expect those of us whose lives will be affected by it to comment in 6 weeks [4].  Small surprise that there are storms of protest from Pinhoe when an application for another 150 houses comes in.

Who does the Council engage with?

The list is endless, though the constraints noted above impose practical limits.  But engagement is not about talking to the usual players, such as the NHS, the University and the Chamber of Commerce – they employ people whose job it is to influence the Council.  Real engagement involves a wide range of interested parties, some of whom will be organised single-interest groups with an understanding of lobbying.  Others will not be so organised, will have multiple interests and will need to be sought out and engaged.  But the key is for the Council to work out at the beginning who will be impacted by what it is thinking of doing, and being them into the process from the start.

For this, new mechanisms are not always necessary.  Area-based community associations exist around the city, but they vary in both ambition and effectiveness.  Given a helping hand, all could become forums for bringing together interested members of their community to discuss emerging issues with councillors and officers before ideas become set-in-stone proposals.  Set up attractive events, designed to encourage people to get engaged.  These can be city-wide or local, depending on the task in hand.

There is also a huge amount of professional expertise around the city to be tapped into.  Retired doctors, policy analysts, service managers, engineers and academics are just some of the people who could be engaged in helping the Council work its way through issues.  They would not be paid but would have the time, free of the distractions and self-interest involved in earning a living.  They would be far better value for money than the firms of consultants to which the Council is so addicted.

One caution.  The people in the Council who need to do the engaging are the people responsible for the issue in question.  Having people who understand communications and event management is useful, but their role is behind the scenes.

Can any of this work?

The Heavitree Community Partnership, involving the City Council, Exeter City Futures, the University and – above all – local residents and schools – is a possible pointer to a better future [5].  The jury is still out on its longer-term impacts, but there is evidence of genuine engagement on how to solve traffic problems in the city as well as spin-offs in learning techniques for the residents (eg how to measure air pollution).  It may not be the exact model for every situation but it is hugely promising.

To scale up Heavitree, or something like it, into the normal way the Council conducts its business will require new approaches to leadership, to be discussed in a future post.

NOTES

[1] Schools and health are handled by Devon County Council and the myriad NHS bodies respectively; but the principle is the same.

[2] The City Council’s Car Parking Strategy 2016-2026 does demonstrate some consultation bordering on engagement (see pages 15-18), with a 70-strong stakeholder workshop.  Users were represented by a small (20 respondents) focus group selected by a market research company.

[3]  Express & Echo, 26 April 2018, page 21.  The paper’s website – Devonlive.com – defeats my attempts at finding the online version of the article.

[4]  Although there are encouraging signs that pressure for a longer consultation period on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan is bearing a little fruit.  8 weeks, rather than 6, is being proposed in a report to councillors (page 30).

[5]  A report on the project was presented to the City Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee on 8 March 2018.

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.

 

NOTES

[1]   According to a BBC News analysis at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43240996

[2]   The full survey report is at http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2018/  Detailed data at http://www.centreforcities.org/data-tool/

[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 https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/summary-action-plan/ ).  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.”

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/