Category Archives: How we can change

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.

Quis custodiet .…..?

Increasing dependence by public bodies on consultants raises questions about where the buck really stops.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Since January 2015 Exeter City Council has spent £9.4 million on services described as “Consultants Fees”.  Over half of this – £4.8 million – has gone on consultancy work related to the bus station site redevelopment [1] – even though we haven’t seen a new brick yet – but the Council buys in consultancy for a range of other services: the new housing development companies, work at the Museum and public relations advice all figure [2].

Consultants have their uses.  They offer most benefit in providing, on a short-term basis, skills and knowledge that the local authority doesn’t have, ideally transferring those skills to council staff during the project.  They are also used to make up shortfalls in permanent staff numbers, though this raises – or should raise – value for money questions.  Less laudably, big name consultancies can be engaged as a means of shifting blame from the council to its contractors for the inevitable cock-up or failure to meet deadlines or budgets, a point I return to later.

Consultants are not cheap.  When I freelanced some years ago, my daily rate varied between £400 and £600.  You wouldn’t get even a fresh-out-of-university junior consultant for twice that from any of the big generalist or strategy consulting firms, not least because they have expensive overheads, including partners’ profits at levels unimaginable in the public service.  Consultancy UK publish a useful overview of fees.  To be fair to Exeter City Council, they don’t use the Big Four for consultancy services and not all the fees are at eye-catching levels.  But it’s all a transfer of money from the public sector to private interests.

So do we get a Rolls-Royce – or, as the consultants would say, world-class – service for our money?   Always difficult to tell, because not all consultancy outputs for the Council are made public.  Occasionally, something erupts into public view, as when shortly after announcing that the bus station site redevelopment project would be further delayed because the construction tenders submitted well exceeded the budgetary advice provided, the Council abruptly dispensed with the services of one of the consultancy firms working on the project team.  Still, the firm received over £400,000 of public money for its contribution.

Then, less dramatic but no less problematic, there is the  business case for the city’s new leisure centre, now known as St Sidwell’s Point.  On the basis of a business case drawn up by consultants in secret during 2015 the Council resolved to go ahead with the project, despite the construction costs being underestimated.  The whole show collapsed in late 2017 when the developers for the private sector element of the site pulled out, followed in very rapid succession by the contractors eventually lined up to build the leisure centre and bus station.  The business case was then rewritten during 2018, by a different consultancy firm, incorporating several Council requirements that had not been identified in the first business case, including pricing stipulations, free swimming for children, creche facilities, staff employment conditions and free car parking.  In addition, the revised business case contained a competition analysis and a “latent demand for fitness” report.  Not surprisingly, the assumptions on operating profits were revised – downwards [3].

One conclusion to be drawn from this is that if the contractors had not pulled the plug in 2017 the Council would have gone ahead with the project on the basis of what we now know was a business case which failed to incorporate key user requirements.  The most basic project management text book will tell you that among the common causes of project failure is not getting the user requirements right.  This is often because users themselves don’t know, but it’s the job of the consultants managing the project to tease this information out from them.  So who would have been accountable for any failure arising from going ahead using the first business case?  The lawyers’ fees in sorting that one out would doubtless pay for several chief executives

There may have been other deficiencies in the first business case but because the Council refused my request to publish it even in a redacted form (a request upheld by the Information Commissioner) there was no independent review of the case [4].  Encouragingly, the Council have been a bit more open with the revised business case and published a redacted summary version of it.

And here we come to the crunch issue in this consultant-led world.  Why did no one spot the problems with the first business case?  As central government puts more pressure on local authorities while reducing their funding, councillors and senior officers lack either the experience or the time or both to second-guess the consultants.  The first business case was at least 250 pages long.  Such quality assurance as there is comes from within the project team, itself managed by a consultant so embedded into the Council’s structure that he was able to call the shots at my final meeting with Council officers to seek to settle my complaint to the Information Commissioner.

Now a bit of culture.  The Roman writer Juvenal is little read these days.  In his sixth Satire, written around 115 CE, he ridiculed the institution of marriage because of the way in which greed, selfishness and corruption in Roman society had debased it.  In recognising that moral behaviour cannot be upheld when those charged with upholding it are themselves corrupt, Juvenal comments – in a line probably better known to posterity than anything else he wrote – sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  In English, literally “but who guards the guards?”

It is an age-old question that occurs throughout the conduct of public business (though hopefully without the greed, selfishness and corruption).  Checks and balance are woven into our structures: some are often effective (Parliamentary select committees), others are usually more feeble (local authority scrutiny committees).  But the complexity of modern major projects is overwhelming the current processes.  If you pay a consultant not just to provide information and analysis but also options and a preferred way forward, and the work looks solid enough, what else do you do but accept it?  Consultants are experts at blinding non-experts with reams of tables and figures derived from “accepted” methodologies.  Councillors and officers, as already noted, can’t challenge from a level playing field.

So, quis custodiet ipsos consultores?

Not the external auditors, for sure, who are many cases one of the big audit firms whose real money comes from consultancy.  Their idea of a value-for-money study is checking to see whether the local authority followed the procedures correctly.

What about review by another consultancy?  Apart from the extra cost, there can be hidden influences.  Are the two firms competitors, in which case the reviewing firm has an interest in finding fault.  Or do they collaborate on projects, in which case the reviewing firm has an incentive in presenting their collaborator in the best possible light?

There is an approach which could work, and at low cost.  Central government runs a Gateway review system for major programmes and projects.  The system as I knew it was run by an arm of the Treasury, and it used a mix of external freelance consultants (often ex-civil servants) and serving civil servants with relevant experience borrowed from Departments for the duration of a one-week review (I was regularly one of these towards the end of my Whitehall career).  Essentially, major programmes and projects were required to call in a Gateway review team at various stages of the project, and the team ploughed through key documents and grilled project staff and stakeholders about progress.  The team then reported to the senior official in overall charge of the project, traffic-lighting progress as red, amber or green.  It was – and hopefully still is – a cheap and effective check on what was going on.  It would certainly have identified gaps such as the absence of user requirements.

For local government, the Local Government Association would be the obvious driver for a Gateway scheme, much as it manages the Corporate Peer Challenge scheme.  A mix of serving officers and genuinely independent freelance consultants would be the ideal resource.

There are doubtless other options.  But business-as-usual is looking increasingly high risk.

 

NOTES:

[1]  For those unfamiliar with the bus station site redevelopment proposals, see my blog post at  https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/04/28/off-the-buses/ which takes the story up to 2016.  The City Council website provides updates at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/st-sidwells-point/

[2]  Source:  Exeter City Council spending data available at https://exeter.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/council-information/council-data/council-spending/

[3]  The Council minutes and papers are at agenda item 11 at  http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=608&MId=6167&Ver=4  This also includes the redacted business case referred to later on.

[4]  See https://agreeninexeter.com/2018/07/26/leisure-centre-business-case-stays-secret/

Upon Sidwella’s Day

St Sidwella could do more for Exeter than she (probably) ever dreamed of.  

St Sidwell’s Church on Exeter’s Sidwell Street commemorates the late St Sidwella, believed to have been alive in the 6th century.  Sidwella (whose name derives from all manner of genealogical speculation) is said to have been a modest, chaste, virginal, devout, and courageous local lass.  At least she was until a couple of farmworkers killed her off with a scythe.  The truth of all this is far from certain, since the story appears to have been sexed up by Bishop Grandisson in the 14th century, to introduce a wicked stepmother who paid the farmworkers to do the deed and the miraculous creation of a water spring where she fell.  For all we really know she was just a very naughty girl who hung out with the wrong sort of people. [1]

We have no information on Sidwella’s tastes in architecture and we cannot begin to imagine on what she would have thought of today’s Sidwell Street, including the dismal 1957-58 version of St Sidwell’s Church, designed by the same firm that gave us the nearby supermarket building and which could be mistaken for a modestly sized power station.  She might, however, have concluded that the 21st century was not beyond redemption if she visited today and discovered what goes on within the former church’s walls [2].

The building is now divided into three parts: a small chapel at the west end, social housing on the two upper floors, and the Community Centre offering a café and meeting rooms.  The Centre is run by an independent charity seeking to promote social inclusion.  It does so by bringing people together, whether as customers for the café’s locally produced food or as participants in the many training opportunities – including cooking – and users of facilities for groups.  The Centre also manages a vegetable garden in the church grounds.  Their website sells the Centre far better than I can, and it’s well worth a look.

The chapel is used for services once a week by a small but faithful congregation.  Its centrepiece is a stunning stained glass window by the Bideford artist James Paterson installed in 1958, juxtaposing the murder of a grim-looking Sidwella with the 1942 bombing of the previous 19th century church on the site.  A far more flattering image of the saint – shown at the end of this post – was found in a pane from the 19th century church, lost after the bombing and only recently rediscovered and restored following a Crowdfunding appeal.

On August 1st this year the Community Centre organised a small celebration of St Sidwella’s Day, following on one the previous year on August 2nd – so no definite Sidwella Day yet.  It was a really pleasant summer evening: musicians, one a fiddler (instant plus point for me); a barbecue; a live story-teller about St Sid herself; and a tour of the building.  And chat and networking.

Compared to some of the city’s other festivals such as RespectPride and all the foodie stuff, it was a small affair, and none the worse for it.  But given the urge of the city council, the tourism industry and the wider business community to make Exeter the go-to destination of the peninsula, couldn’t we make a bit more of St Sidwella?  And why is she a figure that could command wide community support?

Her great advantage as a symbol is that so little is known about her that she could be deployed to almost any purpose.  An annual St Sidwella’s festival need not be linked to the politics of identity (as Respect and Pride are) nor to consumerism (the foodie and craft market ones).  Her religious trappings are minimal, at least today: she is not a “saint” in the sense of having been canonised, but rather a local “martyr” recognised by the local bishop, a practice which became so uncontrolled that in the 16th century the Catholic Church centralised authority for canonisations in Rome [3].  Instead, she could be seen variously as a symbol for civil society (the transfer of most of the church building to the community centre), for the natural environment (the well spring water), and through her secularisation a symbol that should not offend people of other faiths.

So why not an annual St Sidwella – or even plain Sidwella – festival that points a way towards a greener – the only sustainable – future?  It need not take the same form each year but rotate or innovate different activities.  For example, we could close key city centre streets to traffic for the day and use the space freed up for all manner of diversions.  Community entertainments, or for local groups to show off their work.  Or we could arrange open-air talks, public meetings and debates, practices that have largely disappeared into indoor meetings attended by a limited social spectrum.  Musical events – not the expensive Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert visits – but people playing their own instruments, in groups or solo, with local choirs who aren’t deemed “good enough” for cathedral concerts, or who don’t want to sing there.  Water sports on the river and canal.  The list goes on.  A key point is that everything should be free to spectators, unlike the foodie events where you pay several quid just to get past the front gate, or even Respect which introduced a £2 entry charge this year.

It needn’t stop at an annual festival.  Just as Crediton has milked St Boniface for all they think he’s worth – despite the fact that he did a bunk from Crediton to Germany as soon as he could – so Exeter could do more to promote Sidwella as a colourful part of the city heritage.  After all, we are soon to be blessed with a leisure centre called St Sidwell’s Point.  One of the Devon County Council electoral divisions in the city is now St Sidwell’s & St James.  She could even strike a blow for gender equality on the public transport system:  the three sainted railway stations are named after blokes: St David’s, St James and St Thomas, so let’s rename Exeter Central as Exeter St Sidwella’s.  She beats Exeter Live Better as a brand any day.

Sidwella could, above all, become the patron of Exeter’s movement for sustainable living.

DSC_0105 (2)

NOTES:

[1]  For those who want to know more about the Sidwella story, Hazel Harvey’s The Story of Exeter (The History Press, 2015) provides an easy overview at the beginning of Chapter 2.  I’m indebted to Hazel – the current President of the Exeter Civic Society – for the Bishop Grandisson reference, though the language in this post is my own.  More detail for those who are hooked is found in Nicholas Orme’s edition of Nicholas Roscarrock’s ‘Lives of the Saints’: Cornwall and Devon, published as volume 35 of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s publications http://www.devonandcornwallrecordsociety.co.uk/p/publications.html .

[2]  More about the church itself is at http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DEV/Exeter/StSidwell

[3]  See http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100422710