Tag Archives: CPRE Devon

Our planners’ cat is out of the bag

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

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

(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]  See for example my post https://petercleasby.com/2015/03/02/the-trouble-with-this-election-is-that-the-voters-might-think-for-themselves/

[2]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/11/14/wider-still-and-wider/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2017/03/27/how-dense-can-we-be/

[3]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-1/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/

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.




[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/