Category Archives: Where we are now

Our planners’ cat is out of the bag

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

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

(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]  See for example my post

[2]  See my posts at and

[3]  See my posts at and


Normal service will resume on 3 January

Well, if you’ve read this sign on Exeter’s Stagecoach buses, not exactly.

With a delightful irony (whether intended or not, only the editor will know), today’s Express & Echo runs two adjacent stories on page 10.  The first is about an Exeter University-led project studying commuting patterns with the aim of reducing the city’s traffic congestion.  The survey stage of the project found that car commuters who also use public transport are 20% more likely to use public transport if they are influenced by the traffic congestion information they receive [1].

The second page 10 article explains in some detail how Stagecoach is celebrating the New Year by making “mergers, cuts and frequency changes” to Exeter area bus services.  And which group of bus users will be most affected by the changes?  Yep, commuters.  Two of the Park & Ride services are being merged and reduced to a 15-minute frequency (a year ago, the interval was 10 minutes).  The frequency on the commuter route from Crediton is being reduced from 4 an hour to 3 an hour (and the service from western Crediton from half-hourly to hourly).  Newton Abbot to Exeter services are cut from 3 an hour to 2 an hour, though passengers will doubtless feel greatly compensated by the news that their buses will in future be painted purple.

We know that the number of car journeys made by commuters into Exeter is twice that of car journeys within the city [3].  So cutting commuting is the key to cutting congestion and pollution.  Even Stagecoach say they recognise this – on publication of the group’s half-year results in October 2016, the chief executive said: “There is a large market opportunity for modal shift from cars to public transport against a backdrop of population growth, urbanisation, technological advancements, and increasing pressure to tackle road congestion and improve air quality” [4].

Clearly Stagecoach don’t believe that market opportunity exists in Exeter, despite the fact that the “backdrop” conditions for it are here in abundance.  After all, it’s the shareholder dividend that counts, isn’t it?



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

[2] Stagecoach service update information at

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


Musical Council Boundaries

When the music stops, your local council leader will be here to tell you a story [1]

First, there was “devolution” for the Heart of the South West, which wasn’t devolution at all because it would have sucked powers upwards from localities to a vast “combined authority” covering all of Devon and Somerset, including Plymouth and Torbay [2].

Then came the idea for a Greater Exeter Growth and Development Board (the GEGDB), which would be a joint strategic authority made up of Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge Councils [3].  Joint authorities are in practice run by their officers, not councillors, because the officers negotiate a common acceptable position on a given issue and then serve it up the councillors as the only available option that the four councils will agree on.

Finally (or perhaps not), proposals for a “South Devon” unitary council leaked out last week.  This would be an all-purpose council covering East Devon, Exeter, Teignbridge, Torbay and Plymouth and, possibly, South Hams (sorry, Mid Devon, you’re out), discharging all existing district council functions plus those of Devon County Council within the new unitary area.  Such evidence is there is suggests the prime movers appear to be Exeter and Plymouth, if only because they refused to back further moves to support the “devolution” proposals.

The Exeter Green Party has written to the leader of Exeter City Council asking the following questions:

  1. What mandate does the City Council have from the residents it serves to:

(a) attempt to reorganise local government decision-making structures?

(b) propose arrangements which would suck key decisions upwards from the elected representatives

of the people of Exeter to a new superior authority – the GEGDB – which would not be directly elected?

(c) propose a strategic authority – the GEGDB – which on the evidence of the 8 November paper would focus solely on economic growth to the exclusion of social and environmental considerations?

  1. When does the City Council plan to publicise its thinking and actively consult residents and businesses on whether they actually want new local government arrangements and, if so, on the form they should take and how any new body might be fully accountable to local people?


It seems clear that the option favoured by Exeter and Plymouth is the South Devon unitary authority.  Central government is believed to be offering £1 billion if the unitary is established, complete with an elected mayor.  We don’t know what the money would be targeted at – improving public services, infrastructure, or grants to businesses?  But a bribe’s a bribe.

A directly elected authority – which is what the unitary would be – is certainly preferable in democratic terms to the other options.  But it would be a huge area, currently represented by 237 councillors elected by 105 wards (and that’s without South Hams).  So a workable sized council will require a massive cull of elected members (no wonder the leaderships have been playing their cards close to their chests), leading to a weakening of the links between people and their councillors.  On present ward boundaries, based on the most recent election results, 123 of the councillors would be Tories – a small majority, which gives pause for thought as to why Labour-run Exeter is so keen on the idea?  Of course the new council could be a pathfinder, to be elected by proportional representation, which would change the political balance considerably.  Look it’s a pig up there.

Many, many more questions.  And meanwhile energy is being diverted away from service improvements into a potentially massive reorganisation.  It still feels like the “old politics”.  For the time being, we have to await the answers to the Green Party’s highly pertinent questions.



[1] You have to have been an aficionado of BBC Radio Children’s Hour in the 1950s to understand the reference!

[2] See my post

[3] The proposals adopted by Exeter City Council’s Executive are at, page 73.


Wider still and wider – time to call a halt

We need a policy rethink on how changes to housing density assumptions can stop urban sprawl.

In 2010, after several years of study and debate, the UK’s Government Office for Science published Land Use Futures: making the most of land in the 21st century.  The product of a major exercise in evidence-gathering and analysis (including a very minor contribution of my own [1]), it had the bad luck to hit Whitehall desks just as the 2010 general election led to a coalition government that preferred a market-driven framework for land use planning.  But the project remains a thorough and important study.

The report identifies a set of sectoral pressures on land, often in conflict, which require to be managed if – to take three examples – natural resources are not to be depleted, food production capacity is to be sustained and house price inflation moderated.  These pressures are land for: water resources, conservation, agriculture, woodlands and forestry, flood risk management, energy infrastructure, residential and commercial development, transport infrastructure and recreation.  Of these, built development including transport infrastructure has the biggest irreversible impact on the natural environment.

Some development is inevitable, if only because we have a serious housing shortage.  The choices are about the location and nature of that development.  As noted in my post The Compact City, these choices are political rather than technical.  Compact development has many advantages:  less land-take, easy access to services and recreation, less dependence on transport, and so on.  But planning for compactness, at least in relation to housing, rapidly leads into talking about housing density, and this is tricky territory.

The Land Use Future study concluded that we don’t like high density housing:

Housing densities [in England] are increasing (up from 25 dwellings/hectare in 2002 to over 40 in 2007), and houses are becoming smaller. New houses in the UK are now amongst the smallest in Europe, despite strong evidence that people generally dislike living at high density [2].

Housing density in Exeter

The evidence underpinning the conclusion that people don’t like high density housing appears to have influenced Exeter City Council’s own planning policies.  A supplementary planning document (SPD) [3] states:

The City Council requires development which is efficient in land use terms but which also creates an attractive, city-living, environment. Recent trends in house building have seen the development of some dwellings which are far too small to be sustainable ( Introduction, para VI).

Reality does not always match the aspiration.  The SPD sets out minimum space requirements according to the number of bedrooms and occupants [4].  These may not be adhered to in the face of opposition from a forceful developer.  For example, a planning application for 148 new houses at what is now Hill Barton Vale initially proposed a substantial number of 2-bed houses with a gross internal floor area (GIA) of 58m² although the GIA for the smallest 2 storey house type in the Council’s SPD is 83m².  Negotiations with the planning department led to the housebuilder agreeing to increase the houses to just under 68m², a proposal accepted by councillors even though the space allocation was still 18% below the Council’s requirements [5].

This anecdote is not to knock the planning department.  The housebuilder argued that the SPD was requiring higher space standards than emerging national guidance, and would in all probability have won an appeal against a refusal by the Council.  But it does suggest that the guidance may not be giving enough weight to another of its stated goals, where it summarises the policy requirement as follows:

….for high quality, sustainable housing developments which are of sufficient density to represent efficient use of land and contribute positively to urban renewal (Design Objectives, para 1.1)

Note the acknowledgement of the importance of density.

If towns and cities are going to respond to meeting housing need other than by sprawling outwards, this suggests we need to rethink assumptions about density.  The conclusion that people don’t like high density is not sacrosanct; and it may not even be sound.  Could it be that the dislike of high density housing identified in the studies cited in the Land Use Futures report – most of which are now over 10 years old – have softened as the difficulties in funding a house purchase have become more acute?   Of course high density living has negative connotations, based on history.  1960s tower blocks destroyed communities and blighted whole areas.  There is little enthusiasm for them, and cultural resistance is still probably too great for them to be part of a widespread solution.

However, density in parts of the St Leonards district of Exeter reaches 82 dph [6], yet the district is so sought-after that house prices automatically acquire a hefty St Leonards premium.  Over the river there doesn’t appear to be any difficulty in selling or renting apartments without gardens but which are on or close to the river, canal or quays.  Further afield, mansion flats in central London have long been prized, despite past problems with management companies.  Location, location.

In fact, examples of high density living are found all over Exeter.  The streets of narrow terrace houses in Newtown give rise to community spirit: three years ago, many of the residents of Portland Street got together to turn the street into a giant Advent calendar [7].  Across the city, larger terrace houses have been divided into flats, to increase population density.  At Shilhay, by the eastern quayside, some 150 dwellings were built in the 1980s on a site of no more than half a hectare, but their design is so good as to attract plaudits in the Devon volume of Pevsner [8].

Yet new developments on the edges of the city are being planned as if high density is an evil to be contained.  The partially completed major residential development at Newcourt – planned to accommodate some 3,500 dwellings – is based on a range of densities in the Newcourt Masterplan from 45 dph to 55 dph.  The other major development – the Monkerton and Hill Barton scheme – is predicted to have a greater range of densities.  According to the masterplan (page 51) the range is from a high of +65 dph to a minimum of 35 dph.  Again, however, reality is different:  the planning permission for 350 houses around Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumes an average density of 28 dph [9].   Scarce land is being developed at densities less than assumed in the original development plans, and this raises doubts as to whether the 65 dph target will be achieved.

The question for the city’s planning policy is whether to be bolder about promoting high density housing in more places and develop positive new policies which make it work.

Another approach

National policy, such as it is, is moving towards supporting high density housing around “commuter hubs” but a consultation on the issue has not so far been translated into policy.  This builds on work carried out for the Greater London Authority’s 2011 Spatial Development Strategy, which assesses different variables – including public transport capacity – to indicate acceptable densities on development sites. The other variables are: the local context and character of different urban areas; and the number of habitable rooms per unit [10].

The GLA’s approach is seen as having limitations and research by Paul Clarke has suggested a different approach, which bases density policy around four principles [11].  These are (and I quote):

  • Intensity: the measure of an urban environment’s socio-economic needs. Density policy and use classification may restrict the appropriate mix and provision of spaces in urban areas and a new typology that reflects the current conditions of people’s behaviour and user needs is required.
  • Amenity: the measure of an urban environment’s demographic needs. There is a need to measure household characteristics, diversity and user needs in separate urban areas.
  • Autonomy: the measure of an urban environment’s democratic needs. Aligning user needs with the local provision of employment and services by improving consultation can feed into what communities view as suitable type and density of a development in an urban area.
  • Frequency: the measure of an urban environment’s dynamic and mobile population. This examines the need for accessible mobility for transport uses in urban areas. Density policy should take into account accessibility to public transport

Food for thought.  As the CPRE briefing note points out:

Despite the criticisms of the London Density Matrix, other urban areas in England can investigate the creation of similar density guidelines formed around the variables of urban context, public transport capacity and habitable rooms per unit/hectare. Ideally, additional variables such as employment density, dwelling type and tenure, site coverage, floor area ratio and building form could be included in a matrix.  The creation of such a matrix would aid in the development of brownfield land that better responds to existing urban environments and the needs of communities.

This conclusion is directed at the redevelopment of brownfield land, though the principles could apply to greenfield schemes.  In the Exeter context, the now-redundant Development Delivery Plan of 2015 [12], designed to implement the no longer fit for purpose Core Strategy, identified nearly 800 hectares of smaller brownfield land sites suitable for housing.  The average density would be 40 dph, ranging from 130 dph to 24 dph, so some of this will indeed make good use of land.  The plan recognises that additional sites will be needed, and gives preference to brownfield, stating that development must comply with other planning policies including the Residential Design SPD, discussed above.

Given the urgent need to provide additional housing, there is a strong case for changing policy to give greater weight to increasing housing density and relaxing those which inhibit it.  Building outwards does nothing to address climate change and resource use challenges, because it destroys land and usually leads to people having to travel further.  Making maximum use of space on brownfield land has to be an imperative.  But it will only provide the necessary social benefits if we change our framework for house building.

Leaving the creation of this new housing to the usual private sector developers is unlikely to be successful.  For one thing, they prefer greenfield land and would adjust their prices upwards for building on brownfield.  For another, we can see (at Hill Barton Vale, for example) that the housing built is what the housebuilder wants to build – which may not be what people want.  “Wider still and wider” is the touchstone of the housebuilders, filling the land with their off-the-peg volume housing designs.

Given that there are both advantages and downsides – actual and perceived – to higher density living, engaging people in designing their own environment should have much greater priority than now.  Freiburg’s high density Vauban is a success because the developers and volume housebuilders were kept at bay, replaced by high levels of community participation in housing design and co-operative builders.  People may welcome the opportunity to trade off a life in lower density housing on the edges of the city for a well-designed apartment or high density house much closer in – but no one has really asked us.  The “Autonomy” point in Clarke’s four principles has never carried much weight in England.

And, as again in Freiburg, high density housing needs access to community facilities and attractive public transport – the private car becomes a serious hindrance when land space is at a premium, not least because the requirement for parking spaces.  Talk of “commuter hubs” is not directly relevant to Exeter’s in-city density planning because most traffic is generated from outside the city, though I aim to explore this in a later post. But extending the penetration and the frequency of the bus network into new city developments will improve mobility options; and the higher the housing densities the greater the potential market for bus travel.

Increasing densities need not be restricted to brownfield.  Although the pass has been sold for much of the major housing development area in to the east of Exeter’s central area, there are still substantial development phases at Monkerton not yet planned in detail.  Together with the more central brownfields, there is scope here for designing and implementing creative policy change.

The decision to draw up a new strategic plan to replace the Exeter Core Strategy provides an opportunity for a radical policy rethink based on a real public debate about options.  That opportunity should be seized.



[1]  This is a vanity reference, because it’s not directly relevant to the theme of this post.  The paper in question is Defra Land Use Project – Demonstrator Case Studies, available at as Discussion Document Dis5 at or at

[2]  Page 24, with additional detail and supporting references on page 188.

[3]  Residential Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document, available at

[4]  In the Building Design section, paras 9.38-9.40

[5]  Exeter City Council planning reference 14/2062/02, searchable at

[6]  Dph = dwellings per hectare.  The 82 dph figure is from the Monkerton and Hill Barton Masterplan available at  There is some debate as to the best measure of density: dwellings, households or people per unit of space:a useful summary is a paper for the Land Use Futures study by Professor Katie Williams entitled Space per person in the UK: A review of densities, trends, experiences and optimum levels, downloadable from

[7] See the newspaper report at

[8] See page 427 of Devon, by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 1991, The Buildings of England series, Yale University Press.

[9] Exeter City Council planning reference 14/1090/02, searchable at

[10]  The Campaign to Protect Rural England – which has done some good work in protecting Urban England – has produced a briefing note entitled Better Brownfield as part of its Housing Foresight series.  The briefing, on which I have drawn in this post, which includes at section 3 a very helpful review of new approaches to using housing density measures.  Available at

[11] Clarke, P. (2007) Metricity: Exploring New Measures of Urban Density, cited in the CPRE briefing note.  Downloadable at

[12] Available at  Policy DD7 refers.


Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 2

In a previous post I highlighted the flamboyantly named Greater Exeter Visioning Board, announced with a fanfare of trumpets and then shifted off into the dark shadows of proceedings held behind firmly closed doors.  This post reports the uncomfortable outcome of my further investigations.

Having been told by Exeter City Council that the minutes of the Visioning Board were not made public, I asked some more questions.  The City Council’s answers are below.

Q1: Under what authority the board was established and who agreed its terms of reference?

A1: A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed by the Leaders and Chief Executives of Exeter City Council, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council in November 2014.  The Memorandum of Understanding is not a legally binding document but all parties use all reasonable endeavours to comply with the terms and spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding. 

Q2:  The reasons for its decision not to publish agendas and minutes?

A2:  Many of the issues that are discussed at the Board relate to the growth of the Greater Exeter area.  It is considered that the board needs to be able to have open discussions through which they can develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions.  Disclosure of these discussions may inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice, or the offering or requesting of opinions for consideration. 

Q3:  Whether it reports its proceedings to councillors and, if so, what opportunities are open to councillors to scrutinise its work?

A3:  Council Leaders and Deputy Leaders from each of the three authorities sit on the board.

Q4:  If it does not report its proceedings to councillors, to whom is the board accountable?

A4:  See above.

Answer 3 was a little less than forthcoming, so I checked the website (again) to see if anything about the Visioning Board had been reported to any minuted meeting of a Council committee.  Nothing found.  I asked the Council if I was missing something, and the reply was that no such reporting back could be traced.

So, there we are.  A body that is set up to “develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions” about the growth of Greater Exeter has been meeting in secret for over a year, with its members not even reporting back to the councillors they lead.  It’s possible that the Exeter City Council members have been keeping the mysterious Planning Member Working Group informed, but since its proceedings are also secret, we do not know.

Having spent 30 years as a Whitehall civil servant, I’m ready to agree that politicians and officials need the space to discuss ideas openly without press and public in the room.  But what is astonishing about the Visioning Board is that it was set up with a blaze of publicity, a formal MoU and regular monthly meetings.  And it appears to have been taking decisions in secret that could have major implications for Exeter.

So what’s next?

We can at least now speculate what the Visioning Board was up to.  On 12 July, the City Council’s Executive (the lead councillors) discussed a report by the Assistant Director City Development which set out proposals for establishing:

“a joint strategic plan for the Greater Exeter area which would be prepared in partnership between East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council with assistance from Devon County Council. The plan would cover the geographical area of the 4 partner authorities (excluding the area of Dartmoor National Park) but would be limited in scope to cover strategic issues and strategic allocations within those areas with local issues to be considered through linked local plans prepared by each partner authority for their area.” [1]

This was nodded through and then approved by the full Council on 26 July.

In a future post I will explore the challenges for serious public engagement presented by this form of joint working.  For the moment, let’s just say that the gestation of this proposal behind closed doors, and the underlying assumption that joint planning is a technocratic issue rather than something which asks the communities what sort of Greater Exeter we want (if indeed we want one at all) does not augur well.

Or is there another agenda?

Of course, I might be completely wrong, and the Greater Exeter Visioning Board has been discussing something completely different.  But if so, what?  A Greater Exeter Unitary Authority perhaps?  There is an obvious link between the joint strategic plan proposal and the so-called “Devolution” bid for spending powers to be transferred from central government to the “Heart of the South West”, made up of Devon County Council, Somerset County Council, Torbay Council and Plymouth City Council [2].  The district councils like Exeter are at present secondary players in this, a position with which Exeter for one is not comfortable.



[1]  The full report is at

[2]  I will have more to say about the “Devolution” bid in a later post .  Meanwhile a useful update is at item 76 of the minutes of the Exeter City Council Executive meeting on 12 July, at


Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

This post was originally published on on 16 May 2016

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.



[1]  The East Devon announcement is at    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.


Good listening

A couple of recent events suggest that Exeter City Council may be starting to listen seriously to its communities after all.

First, another bus station story.  While the new bus station is being built – and we all assume it will now go ahead – on the existing bus station site, there will need to be somewhere for the buses to drop off and pick up passengers.  The Council floated the idea of converting a nearby car park, known as the Triangle, into a temporary bus station.  From an environmental perspective, this would have the great merit of reducing the number of car parking spaces in the city centre and, once the temporary bus station was no longer needed, the area could be used for something socially useful like affordable housing or green space.

Anyway, the Council floated the idea and held a public meeting to discuss it.  The local residents did not like it one bit, and said so.   Very quickly, the Council dropped the idea and decided that the buses could use the nearby main streets for their business instead.  So, brownie points to the Council for (a) making it clear that the idea was tentative and not a worked-up proposal and (b) acting on what it heard.

Of course cynics would say that the Council never wanted to lose the car park spaces at the Triangle, in line with its policy of encouraging people to shop in the city centre, and so the whole exercise was arranged to achieve the result that it has.  But I prefer to think that it was just a good and welcome example of the Council thinking out loud, for a change.

The second bit of good news was on the fringes of the city, in upper Pennsylvania.  When new housing was built there in the 1970s, an area of green space was handed over to a Public Open Spaces Charitable Trust whose object is to “hold various pieces of land as a public open space to the intent that the same may at all times hereafter be available to and be used by the public at large for the purpose of recreation” [1].  Despite that, the trustees put the land up for sale at auction, which means that public access could be restricted by a future owner.  The locals were, rightly, outraged.  The City Council stepped in and offered a grant of £5,000 to purchase the land [2].  In the event the community were able to purchase it for £1,500 and so ensure continued use as public open space.


[1]  Source, Charity Commission website, charity number 328402.

[2]  See Exeter City Council news release on Request for purchase of land at Sylvania Valley at