Category Archives: Where we are now

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.

 

NOTES

[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 https://petercleasby.com/2016/09/30/devolution-is-not-control/

[3] The proposals adopted by Exeter City Council’s Executive are at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g4903/Public%20reports%20pack%2008th-Nov-2016%2017.30%20Executive.pdf?T=10, 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.

 

NOTES:

[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 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications or at www.quantera.co.uk/governance/publications/index.html

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

[3]  Residential Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document, available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/supplementary-planning-documents/residential-design-guide-spd/

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

[5]  Exeter City Council planning reference 14/2062/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[6]  Dph = dwellings per hectare.  The 82 dph figure is from the Monkerton and Hill Barton Masterplan available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/major-schemes/monkerton-hill-barton-masterplan/.  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 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications

[7] See the newspaper report at  http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/exeter-street-giant-advent-calendar/story-20241756-detail/story.html

[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 http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[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 http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/housing/item/3877.

[11] Clarke, P. (2007) Metricity: Exploring New Measures of Urban Density, cited in the CPRE briefing note.  Downloadable at www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanbuzz/downloads/projects_17/Metricity_Publication.pdf

[12] Available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/emerging-plans-and-guidance/  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.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The full report is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s52597/EXECUTIVE%20-%20Proposed%20Greater%20Exeter%20Strategic%20Plan%20-%2012%20July%202016%20-%20FINAL.pdf

[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 http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=4469&Ver=4

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

This post was originally published on http://www.petercleasby.com 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.

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    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.

NOTES:

[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 https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/council-news/latest-news/

Think before you Park – and Ride

There’s a long-running stink about building a fourth Park-and-Ride facility on the edge of Exeter, this time near Alphington at the junction of the A30 and A377 roads.  Devon County Council has just withdrawn its second planning application, partly because of furious local objections but also because the goals originally claimed for the scheme seems to have evaporated.

That’s not entirely surprising.  Despite P&R as a “solution” to urban traffic congestion becoming something of a no-brainer in the popular psyche, its benefits are not always realisable and there are some serious downsides.  This post looks at the evidence.

Central government policy

Government policy on P&R schemes has fluctuated over time.  Initially left as a matter entirely for local authorities, central government up to 1997 recognised their role in reducing congestion but noted that there were potential disbenefits, particularly by encouraging additional car journeys.  From 1997, central government policy actively promoted P&R schemes, though with a much greater emphasis on them as part of a coordinated package of measures to achieve modal shift aligned to local circumstances.

Following the change of government in 2010 and the replacement of previous planning guidance with the National Planning Policy Framework, references to P&R schemes disappeared.  A sole reference in Planning Practice Guidance merely suggests that existing P&R schemes should form part of the evidence base for developing local transport plans [1].

Exeter commitments

The Devon Implementation Plan for the Devon & Torbay Local Transport Strategy 2011-2016 [2] envisages a new Park and Ride (P&R) facility to serve the Alphington Road corridor, for which a planning application has been submitted.  The Plan also envisages a P&R to the north of Exeter, though no detail is available.

The Plan assumes – though no evidence is cited in support – that P&R schemes provide benefits [3], specifically:

  • Enabling increased demands for access to Exeter City Centre from surrounding areas, alongside improved inter-urban bus services and the rail-based Devon Metro.
  • Reducing congestion
  • Reducing air pollution.

The Plan states that there is strong public support for new P&R schemes.

The research evidence on P&R schemes

There is relatively little evidence about the effectiveness of P&R schemes.  A few studies were carried out in the 1990s, and these are still cited in more recent work.

There does appear to be a consensus among those who have undertaken studies that:

  • There are downsides as well as upsides to P&R schemes
  • Any P&R scheme should be developed as part of an overall package of strategic proposals, and not in isolation.
  • There is sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the orthodoxy that P&R schemes lead to reductions in car use and the associate environmental benefits.

The most recent readily available review of the evidence on P&R schemes was published in 2008[4].  Drawing heavily on earlier work in the 1990s, the study identifies three broad policy goals for P&R schemes: transport, environmental and economic.

Transport

Do P&R schemes divert people from public transport, and with what consequences?

P&R schemes are targeted at intercepting car users from routes into city centres so removing cars and reducing traffic flow between the P&R and the centre.  But the incentives – eg fares [5], frequency, comfort – to use P&R can draw people away from existing public transport services, with consequences for their continuing viability.  Research shows significant numbers of P&R users are people have switched from other public transport in this way.  Reinforcing this from the other angle, Brighton does not have a P&R system and some councilors believe this accounts for the high use of buses from surrounding areas [6].

Do P&R schemes reduce congestion?

The evidence is weak, though interception rates between 17% and 25% have been reported for Oxford’s (well-established) P&R schemes.  Devon County Council has no information about interception rates at the existing P&R sites in Exeter, and so has no firm basis with which to justify further schemes.   It seems likely that P&R will only contribute to reducing congestion levels if backed up by other stronger methods, such as reducing city centre car parking (or charging punitively for it).  Otherwise the city centre space freed up by drivers diverting to P&R will fill up with other drivers.  Road pricing or congestion charges may also be needed.

Do P&R schemes lead to more car journeys?

There is evidence that people who might once have made their entire journey by public transport switched to driving from home to the P&R site, then continuing by P&R bus.  The perceived attractiveness of P&R can also lead people to undertake journeys they would not have done in the absence of P&R.

Environmental

Broadly, reducing emissions as a goal of P&R policy depends on reducing the number of car journeys (see above).  In addition, it is necessary for the additional buses introduced for P&R services to be low-emitting if the emissions savings from car journeys are not simply cancelled out by bus emissions.

Construction of P&R sites and localised emissions concentrations from cars using the P&R can also have adverse environmental effects.

Economic

There is a general consensus that P&R can bring economic benefits to city centres.  Local authorities often cite this as a justification for introducing the schemes.   However, there can be competition implications for surrounding centres.  If people divert to the city centre from other areas, this can be beneficial if it reduces demand for out-of-town shopping centres (which in turn leads to car mileage reductions); but it can also damage the viability of district centres and smaller surrounding towns/villages.  Again, there is insufficient evidence to draw clear conclusions.

There is no clear correlation between the introduction of P&R parking places and the number of reductions in city centre parking spaces.  Where city centre parking spaces are reduced there is potential to find a more economically buoyant use for the land.

An overall conclusion

It is difficult to improve on the following statement in a 1998 briefing from the Campaign to Protect Rural England [7].  Despite being nearly 20 years old, it has not been invalidated by subsequent evidence.

Ultimately, Park and Ride schemes are probably best viewed as an interim solution. They do not eliminate car dependency and once they reach saturation point, local authorities are left with the prospect of surrounding our towns and cities with an ever increasing number of car parks. In the end, the root causes of traffic growth have to be tackled. This requires the long term process of integrating land use planning with the need to reduce dependence on the car.

 

NOTES

[1]  See http://planningguidance.communities.gov.uk/blog/guidance/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making/transport-evidence-bases-in-plan-making-guidance/ para 006.

[2]  Both documents available at https://new.devon.gov.uk/roadsandtransport/traffic-information/transport-planning/devon-and-torbay-local-transport-plan-3-2011-2026/

[3]  See para 4.5.3 of the Implementation Plan

[4]  Role of Bus-Based Park and Ride in the UK: A Temporal and Evaluative Review: Stuart Meek, Stephen Ison and Marcus Enoch, Transport Reviews, Vol. 28, No. 6, 781–803, November 2008

[5] For example, a 7-day P&R-only megarider ticket in Exeter costs £10 whereas the general 7-day megarider costs £14.

[6]  Quoted on p191 of Urban Transport without the Hot Air, vol 1, Steve Melia, UIT Cambridge, 2015.

[7]  Park and Ride – Its role in local transport policy, CPRE, 1998.

No revolution yet, then

The window of opportunity for kick-starting a renaissance of local government in Exeter came and went yesterday.  The ruling Labour group increased its seats on the city council to 30, out of a total of 39.  The Tories have 8, and the Lib Dems 1.

There are three points worth making on this.

First, the revision of ward boundaries last year worked to Labour’s advantage.  For example, the St Leonard’s ward which previously returned one Tory and one Labour councillor was abolished by splitting it in two with both parts then attached to strongly Labour wards.  The result was the loss of the Tory councillor.

Second, disillusion with our local politicians is such that the turnout was only 39%, down from 69% in 2015 when the city council and Parliamentary elections were held on the same day.  This means that Labour’s dominance of the council relies on the support of a mere 17% of the electorate.

Third, the absence of any system of proportional representation in England’s local government outside London means that the true intentions of voters are not carried through into the results.  On a simple proportional split of the actual vote in Exeter, Labour would have had 18 seats instead of 30, and the Greens would have had 4 seats instead of none.

So it’s business as usual, and the purpose of this blog remains as relevant as ever.

The next post will start the exploration of how we can change to achieve the vision.

Off the buses

How the Old Politics sowed discord where there should have been harmony

In my previous post I set out an explanation for the failure of the “old politics” in Exeter’s local government.  I noted: a combination of working behind closed doors, letting the political party system inhibit new thinking, and failing to show leadership on behalf of the community. In this post I outline how Exeter City Council managed to turn what could have been a positive and uncontroversial project into a winter of discontent – and create a political issue in the full Council elections on May 5.

To detail every twist and turn of the story would undoubtedly try any reader’s patience (as well as my own), so here is the simplified narrative of the Exeter bus and coach station site redevelopment plans.

The background (yes, it’s a bit dull)

The present bus station occupies what property people would call “a prime site” in the centre of Exeter.  It’s a dismal place, serving the country buses and long-distance coaches.  Half of the site is given over to a bus park for overnight stabling, and the bus maintenance depot is on an adjacent site.  The City Council has long held an ambition to produce a better “gateway to Exeter”, a view shared by most residents.

A proposed redevelopment in the previous decade foundered with the financial crash.  The council’s key planning document, the Core Strategy [1] adopted in 2012, continued to earmark the site for redevelopment – mixed use, including retail.  In the same year the council produced a set of “Development Principles” for the site [2].  This set out clearly the council’s view that the redevelopment would be led by the private sector, to include a “new and enhanced” bus station to be paid for by the development plus any available public funding, and “a landmark building” next to the roundabout at the south end of the site.  The site would cover not only the existing bus station and overnight stabling area but also the bus maintenance depot.  Diagrams in the booklet gave no hint that there would be any impact on Paris Street – a main northwest-southeast route across the city.

There’s much more, but that’s enough detail for now.

Roll forward to late 2014.  The developers bowl into town with some outline plans and set up a consultation in an empty shop.  Well, calling it a consultation is perhaps stretching the meaning of the word. They produced some coloured drawings and a tick-box form of loaded questions which were either fatuous, obvious or impossible to answer intelligently [3].  Since about three-quarters of those commenting thought the plans were a good idea, it was no surprise to see an application for outline planning permission arrive on the council’s desk in July 2015.  It proposed a mixed-use development of shops (hang on, isn’t High Street retail in decline thanks to online shopping?), restaurants (gosh, another Pizza Hut), a new cinema (a few yards from an existing one), a bus station, and a leisure centre.  The bombshell was a proposal to close Paris Street to traffic, accompanied by reams of transport consultants’ documentation incomprehensible to the non-expert.

The story now breaks down into three discrete elements: the leisure centre; the closure of Paris Street; and the new bus station.

The Leisure Centre

Behind closed doors, the council had been working on a plan for the “landmark building”.  As information dribbled out, it became clear that this building was to be a leisure centre, consisting largely of a swimming pool, funded wholly by the council at a cost of £26m.  This led to objections from swimming clubs who wanted an Olympic-size pool (“Tell them to go to Plymouth” was one response from the Civic Centre), from the substantial lobby that wanted the site used for a theatre, and from people who could think of better uses for £26m (for example on public services).  The business case for the leisure centre was – and still is – secret, so there has been no independent scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the council’s claim that it would be run at a profit [4].

As criticism mounted, the Leader of the Council started making statements that the rest of the redevelopment could not go ahead without the leisure centre, though no explanation was forthcoming as to why this should be the case (secret deals with the developers spring unworthily to mind).  A consultation of 400 responses, in which 81.5% supported the leisure centre, was held up by the Leader as proof that the council was right and the people were behind him.  Well, about 0.3% of the people were behind him.

The Tories have stated that if they win next month’s election, they will scrap the plans for the leisure centre.

The closure of Paris Street

There is much to be said on environmental grounds for excluding traffic from a city centre through route.  Unfortunately the developers’ traffic management plans involved rerouting much of the traffic through residential areas and past a school.  The well-informed residents of St James – who produced the second-ever statutory neighbourhood plan in England – quickly spotted that their area would be most affected.  The developers’ traffic assumptions were challenged, not only by the residents, but also by Devon County Council, the highway authority, which awoke in time to send the plans back for reworking.

At one point there seemed a real possibility that Devon County Council would be St James’ saviour because of its concerns over the impact on the city’s traffic network.  Sadly, a supine meeting of the county’s Development Management Committee green-lighted the revised proposals, despite an officer’s report which did not offer any evidence to support a recommendation to approve the plans [5].

The developers offered no life-line, making it clear that if Paris Street was not closed, they would not proceed with the development.  The council put up no fight about this.

The bus station

The first (and the revised) outline planning application showed a bus station with 12 bays, down from the present 16.  The result of this is that the National Express long-distance coaches are likely to have to park on adjacent streets, which will be a really welcoming experience when arriving from London at ten past one in the morning.  It could be worse – a leading city councillor has suggested that the coaches need not come into Exeter at all, and pick people up at the Park and Ride by the M5 motorway. Since the P&R services do not run at night, it’s not clear what happens to city passengers wanting to catch the 4.25 am to London.

Worse is to come.  Because the bus station is crammed into a corner of the site (and incidentally further from the High Street than it is now), getting buses in and out will be tricky.  So much so that the bus company will have to employ a banksman – someone who guides drivers in and out – which will be unwelcome news to cost-conscious Stagecoach management.

Although the Development Principles envisaged the site would include the bus maintenance depot, the planning application excluded it.  Instead, in a side deal, the site has been offered for a 600-bed student accommodation block.

And finally.  Despite the commitment in the Development Principles about the development paying for the new bus station, the council tax-payers of Exeter received as a Christmas 2015 present the news that they, not the developers, would be paying for the bus station.  £6.25m as a first estimate, and doubtless rising along with construction costs.

And what happened next?

Guess.  On 20 January 2016, the full City Council met and approved the outline planning permission, including giving itself permission to build the leisure centre [6].  The number of people wanting to attend the meeting was so great that the Guildhall could not accommodate them all.  Despite the volume of well-argued objections received, the council leadership pressed on with its plans, having given no sign over the previous 2 years that it was interested in listening to any other views.

A subsequent consultation exhibition on the detailed plans led to 63% of respondents objecting to the whole development.  This brought forth a scolding from the council’s Chief Executive and Growth Director (no prizes for guessing his agenda) to the effect that the 63% were all rather silly people because the principle of the development had already been settled, on 20 February.  The Chief Executive and Growth Director told the local paper that he was kept awake at night thinking about the redevelopment.  A letter in the next issue suggested that the CE&GD’s sleeplessness was because the plans were flawed.

We now await the outcome of the May 5 election.

So what went wrong?

To pick up the question posed at the beginning:  why did Exeter City Council fail to unite the communities in support of what had the potential to be a worthwhile major project?  How did things go sour?

My own answers are these.

First, the council and the developers came up with the plans, presumably in conjunction with each other behind closed doors, and then defended it against all comers, despite the volume of evidence that the development would create as many problems for Exeter’s residents as it might solve.

Second, this die-in-the-ditch approach led to the leisure centre in particular being labelled a council leadership vanity project, to be delivered at any cost.  At no stage was there any willingness to accommodate reasoned objections.  The party system imposed discipline on Labour councillors who were forced to defend the project and vote it through (though one had the strength of mind to vote against it in support of his constituents).

Third, the so-called consultations were a joke.  They were designed to get the answers the council and the developers wanted, and they usually succeeded.  None of the questionnaires gave people the opportunity to say what sort of retail mix they wanted, nor to put forward alternative uses for £26m of public money.  The option of giving the existing bus station a makeover has never figured in the council’s public thinking.  There was no engagement with people.

Fourth, when the planning application was open for consultation, the result was a welter of well-argued objections, freed from the constraints of tick-box questionnaires.  Had the council allowed a more open approach to the earlier consultations, issues might have been identified earlier

Fifth, the council displayed remarkable weakness in failing to challenge the developers, on behalf of its residents, about the proposal to close Paris Street.  The developers demanded and the council agreed, and hard luck on the residents of St James (and indeed the rest of us when the city gridlocks in the run up to Christmas).

It would be good to think that the council has learned from this, and that those who practise the “old politics” are chastened by it.  It would be good to think it.

NOTES:

[1]  For those with stamina, the Core Strategy is at www.exeter.gov.uk/media/1636/adopted-core-strategy.pdf

[2]  See www.exeter.gov.uk/media/2037/bus_and_coach_station_development_principles_nov_2012.pdf

[3]  The questions, with commentary, are set out the first part of a post on my other blog at www.petercleasby.com/2014/12/11/how-to-fix-a-consultation/

[4]  The Information Commissioner has accepted for investigation a complaint from me that Exeter City Council is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act by not publishing the business case on request.

[5]  The offending paper is at http://democracy.devon.gov.uk/Data/Development%20Management%20Committee/20151125/Agenda/pdf-PTE-15-66.pdf

[6]  The paper put to the Council summarising the proposal and the extensive objections received is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s49543/150791%20Report%20HS%20Final.pdf

The Old Politics no longer serves us well

Local authorities should be the cornerstone of local democracy, but they are failing to respond to a changing society.  This post, and those immediately following, aim to show at least some of the reasons for this failure and to illustrate the scale of change needed in local governance without which initiatives from others in the community won’t fulfil their potential.

The voting figures really do tell it all.  If our local politics was seen as important by the wider public, we wouldn’t have low turnouts in elections.  From 2010 to 2014 the turnout for Exeter City Council elections ranged from 31% to 43%; in 2015 the coincidence of a general election on the same day raised turnout to 69%.

Research following the 2010 general election found that the two most commonly stated reasons for not voting were that people didn’t believe their vote would make any difference, and that parties and candidates were all the same [1].  The Hansard Society’s latest annual survey of political engagement found that only one-fifth of respondents felt they had some influence over local decision-making, a record low for the survey [2].

This massive disconnection between people and mainstream politics is not news.  Exeter City Council is, with a few exceptions, competent and efficient.  Its staff are helpful and as open as they feel able to be.  But, like so many other local authorities, it fails to capture popular enthusiasm for its role: it’s dull and unimaginative.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, since expenditure cuts have reduced staff numbers to the point where those remaining have their work cut out to deliver essential business – space for creativity is at a premium.

Yet that is far from being the whole explanation for the great disconnect.  I suggest that the causes lie in three overlapping factors, shown below (and there may well be others).

  • The tendency to develop policies and plans behind closed doors
  • The deadening effect of traditional party politics.
  • The weakness of local authorities in relation to other players.

 

Closed doors

Most Exeter City Council meetings open to the public start at 5.30pm.  A colleague and I wanted to attend a meeting of the Council’s Executive – the committee of councillors responsible for direction of the various Council services – and turned up at the Civic Centre about 5.15pm.  The main access door was firmly locked, so we walked around the building looking for another way in.  No luck.  We went back and banged loudly on the main door, which eventually brought a member of staff to allow us in.  We were asked to wait in the reception area.  Shortly after the meeting was due to start an officer appeared through a doorway and shouted out “Are there any public here?”.  We were then shepherded into the committee room, a bit like prisoners entering the dock.

Is this the behaviour of an organisation that actively welcomes people to its meetings? [3].

Perhaps this is a trivial illustration, but it is consistent with the behaviour of the City Council over a wide range of its business.  Despite protestations of openness, the reverse is more often true.  Some specifics:

  • The website does indeed contain papers and minutes for all council and committee meetings that are open to the public, which is most of them for most of the time. But what you see on the website is generally the finished product.  The proposal – for a strategy, policy, project or whatever – has been worked on by officers, consulting other parts of the council and other organisations – the “partners” – as necessary, and is the finished product to be approved by councillors.  These internal processes are invisible to outsiders.  Papers for decision always end with a section headed “Any other options?”.  Some officers make use of this, but key papers, particularly finance ones, invariably state “None”.
  • The culture is to keep as much of this background activity away from outsiders as is possible. There is currently a lively public debate about whether too much of the city centre is being handed over to public-built “luxury” student accommodation.  The Council has no policy for managing this, other than to let the market lead, though they recognised an emerging problem and commissioned an academic expert to write a report on the options.  This has been available since the end of last year, but only councillors and officers have access to it.
  • Another example is the way in which the City Council, along with other local authorities in the south-west, responded to the government’s proposal for devolution. The first most of us knew of what was afoot was when the consortium of councils issued a press release announcing that their devolution bid prospectus had been sent to Whitehall.  It gives the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership significant influence over what ought to be democratically-led decisions about spending, and envisages some sort of “combined authority” over Devon and Somerset to exercise the powers devolved from central government.  No one ever asked the people of Exeter, and beyond, whether we want to be part of such an arrangement.
  • Even at the published level, there’s a climate of non-disclosure. Council minutes of meetings do not identify councillors other than lead members.  So we read that “a member” said this, and “another member” said that, but we don’t know who they are.  It would be interesting to know, for example, the identity of the councillor who said that “councillors were elected to represent their residents and the majority of the public were too busy to attend Council meetings” [4].  I’ll come back to him or her in a later post.
  • The Council points to its readiness to consult on key issues. They did indeed carry out an excellent public consultation in 2014 to help them decide where to make budget cuts [5].  But all too many recent consultations have been tick-box affairs, or events held during working hours when many people cannot attend.  Alternative options are never canvassed.  The key point is that people are being asked to say what they think, often simplistically, about a proposal that has been worked on so much behind closed doors that what the public think has ceased to have relevance.

Party politics

The Labour party has controlled the City Council since 1995, though the period 2004-2012 was one in which Labour ran a minority administration.  They are tired and short of new ideas.  The Corbyn effect has had no visible impact on Labour councillors’ views, and the city’s MP, Ben Bradshaw elected in 1997, is openly hostile to his leader.  In next month’s elections Labour’s vote-winning proposal to solve Exeter’s transport problems is to set up a “Transport Board”, to join all the other boards and committees trying to do the same thing.  Exeter Labour has gone stale.

Had the Conservatives or LibDems been in power for a similar period, it is highly likely that they would exhibit the same symptoms.

The staleness is not surprising.  Local political parties are run by small groups of people, with a limited pool to draw on for elected office.  It is in any case by no means self-evident that we need party politics in local government at all.  A cohort of elected independent thinkers could bring much-needed radical thinking about policies and, crucially, how the council relates to the people it is there to serve.  Those who follow politics have all seen examples of councillors voting in line with the party whip against their personal judgement or their constituents’ views.

The party system inhibits original thinking about the needs of the local area.  Local parties are constrained by their party’s national policies, which means that politically acceptable solutions to problems remain within that central box.  Thinking outside the box is not encouraged, at a time when the world has never been more in need of new radical policies.

Weakness

Local government is weak.  Central governments from the Thatcher administrations on have diminished its responsibilities, constrained its funding, and forced it to privatise public services.  Local discretion is seen by Whitehall as a way of passing the buck when things go wrong, not as an essential means of making sense of national policies on the ground.  County and unitary councils are about to be stripped of their schools, and district councils like Exeter have had their planning functions corroded by the developer-is-always-right approach of the National Planning Policy Framework (as serially amended by the Chancellor).  Nationally-enforced reductions in council housing rents will in time make it impossible for a council to afford to hold a housing stock.

It’s fair to lay much of the blame for a council’s weakness at central government’s door.  Yet local authorities have lain back as the punishments are dished out to them.  Developers generally get what they want, unless the officers can find a cast-iron case against: councillors are made fearful by the cost of an appeal by a developer to the Secretary of State against a rejected planning application, or developers simply threaten not to proceed.  Privatised services reduce accountability to the public they serve, since the provider’s accountability is to the contract, and nothing else.

What councils like Exeter have failed to do is to rally popular support behind them.  Central government and its friends in big business ride roughshod over councils because they believe that most people don’t care.  And most people don’t care because councils have failed to engage – really engage – their communities in what they do and the decisions they take

Instead, Exeter City Council regards us as “customers”.  There is a lead councillor for “customer access”, the front office of the Civic Centre is the “Customer Service Centre”.  This language reduces what should be the pivotal democratic authority in the city to the level of a shop.  Do councillors really see themselves as store managers, whose relationships with the city’s people have become transactions?

This loss of recognition that people are central to everything a council does shows up in various ways.  I sat through a Devon County Council committee discussion on traffic congestion in Exeter.  Traffic jams at a key roundabout was a major concern, and the “problem” was seen as the presence of a nearby pedestrian crossing.  There seemed to be no recognition that the real problem was the cars, not the people.  This was a committee whose remit was to deal with highways and traffic, and so their views were shaped by that perspective.

When councils get it wrong, they are further weakened.  Exeter City Council recently consulted on a proposal for a Public Spaces Protection Order, the effect of which would be to make it easier to clear homeless people off the city’s central streets, presumably because their presence didn’t fit the image the Council likes to present to inward investors and tourists.  A wave of well-informed criticism followed, putting the Council firmly on the back foot, so much so that the proposal has been kicked into the long grass.  The Council looks stupid.  Why didn’t they judge the public mood before putting the plan forward?

So what next?

This is not a hopeless situation, as I will suggest in later posts.  But first, we need to be clear about what needs fixing.  This post has suggested three key issues; the next post will give a practical example of how the three issues converged, in the debacle surrounding the redevelopment of the Exeter Bus and Coach Station site.

 

NOTES

[1]  Research by Survation.  See a summary at http://survation.com/apathy-in-the-uk-understanding-the-attitudes-of-non-voters/

[2]  Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 12, 2015, page 7, available at http://www.auditofpoliticalengagement.org/media/reports/Audit-of-Political-Engagement-12-2015.pdf

[3]  The City Council could learn from Devon County Council, a short mile away, where people are welcome, armed with a pass but unescorted, to go to the committee room before the meeting starts, to have a cup of tea or coffee there and chat with any officers or councillors who may be around.

[4]  During a debate on whether the public should be allowed to speak at council meetings.  Exeter City full Council meeting, 24 February 2015, item 12. http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=114&MId=4087&Ver=4

[5]  More detail in the second part of my post at https://petercleasby.com/2014/12/11/how-to-fix-a-consultation/