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  Devon County Council has just withdrawn its second planning application, partly because of furious local objections but also because the goals originally claimed for the scheme seems to have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.

Tinkering with transport isn’t enough

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

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

These impacts include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

We know what we need to do …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basque Declaration states:

We understand the need for transformation in order to:

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

 

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

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

Engaging communities will be a recurring theme in this blog.

 

 

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8]  https://citiesintransition.eu/

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

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/

A Green future for Exeter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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