Once the coronavirus is fully under control, there is much to look forward to, and even some things to welcome while we’re still in lockdown; the climate emergency clock is still ticking.
Historians reckon the Black Death of the mid-14th century killed at least a third of the population of Britain. So the first bit of good news is that we’re not living in the mid-14th century.
The second is how resilient Exeter is proving to be. Key services continue to operate – waste collections, street cleaning, buses, the NHS, chemists, supermarkets, local shops. Parks are open, the lockdown seems to be generally observed, and strangers are more ready to nod or stutter a greeting when passing in the street – countryside manners prevail. This may well be the case elsewhere in England, but the rules prevent me from going anywhere else to find out.
The city council continues to conduct essential business by remote means, indeed believing itself to be the first to do so. This worked successfully until last Monday when the planning committee meeting was abandoned because Virgin Media, the internet service provider, had what are known as “outages”.
In other news, the council has been exemplary in mobilising what resources a small district council can in supporting people who need help during the emergency:
- It has contacted all businesses in the city eligible for a business support grant.
- It has set up Exeter Community Wellbeing to put individuals wanting support in touch with organisations and individuals that can provide it. I had my own offer to volunteer rejected by the national scheme on the grounds that it couldn’t verify my identity (after thinking about it, I found this rather reassuring). The good news is that the Exeter scheme threw up no such obstacle.
- It has launched a £1 million community grants programme to support Covid-19 related issues with assistance from the Exeter Chiefs Foundation.
- It is setting up a hardship fund for people experiencing financial difficulties.
And the council is doing so despite huge budgetary pressures, including losing over £1 million a month in car parking fees. It doesn’t have to do any of this, but it has rightly chosen to do so.
Although the restaurant and café trade in the city has been clobbered with enforced closures, many are offering home delivery or take-away services. As a regular at Devon Coffee in Queen Street it’s a great pleasure to find the proprietor, Justine, serving take-away coffee and cakes from the café doorway..
Wildlife is having a great time. Without being gawked at all day by humans, Hong Kong’s pandas have become relaxed enough to mate. The arrival of goats in the middle of Llandudno, filling the space vacated by holidaymakers, will be one of the iconic images of the emergency. At home here in Exeter the bird song is more audible and varied than we have ever experienced it.
Looking to the future, the opportunities – and indeed necessities – for a rethink of much of how we live, including the design of our cities, are intensified by the present crisis. But before the virus arrived there were already encouraging signs of an acceptance of change in Exeter.
Not least, the return of high-density housing to the live agenda, in the form of a planning application to build 400 accommodation units, much at high density (not the same as high-rise) on old railway land at Exmouth Junction. The project will provide car parking provision for only half of the dwellings, car sharing opportunities, electric charging points and 1,000 cycle parking spaces. It was approved as an outline scheme by the council’s planning committee on 16 March despite local objections, and stands as welcome evidence that councillors as well as officers are now serious about making Exeter a sustainable and green city. The vision outlined last year is a small step closer to reality.
High density housing was well-known to the Victorians and Edwardians, as I explained in the first-ever presentation at the first-ever Exeter City Futures Connect event in March 2017, and which I elaborated in a subsequent blog post. Ideally suited to urban brownfield land, well-designed high density housing ticks a lot of the climate emergency boxes: denser local populations make public transport more viable, good energy use, communal space, efficient use of land, only limited space for private car parking.
Which leads into the next bit of good news, from Exeter City Futures itself, in the form of a plan to turn Exeter into a Net Zero Carbon city by 2030. There are questions – to be explored another time – on why the plan took so long to develop and whether the wider community really is on board with it, but it is a substantial achievement. Published and handed over to the city council on 7 April, the preoccupation of all public bodies with the coronavirus meant the timing could not have been worse. It will be important to ensure action follows on from the plan as soon as possible, and everyone who cares about the future of our city and our planet should study it and lobby for action.
It’s not as if change is too difficult. For example, Britain’s reducing dependence on coal as an energy source continues apace: on 28 April, we notched up the longest continuous period without using coal-fired power since the Industrial Revolution, according to National Grid data.
The reduction in traffic has been beneficial, not just in terms of a quieter and freer environment but also in improving air quality. At the time of writing air pollution at all 165 Defra measuring sites is ranked 2 or 3, where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest. Given that there is some, though limited, evidence of a link between high air pollution and the risk of dying from Covid-19, then is this a potential virtuous circle? Not to mention the scope for reducing the number of deaths from air pollution alone, estimated by Public Health England to be between 28,000 and 36,000 each year.
The response to the virus has shown that many more of us can work from home, at least for part of a working week. The costs of homeworking in terms of reduced face to face contact, putting on weight, feelings of isolation and lack of casual networking with colleagues have yet to be measured (and doubtless many academics are already plotting suitable surveys and chasing the funding for them). But the benefits of reduced commuting and other travel, more family or leisure time, and less stress in dashing from one place to another are surely already visible, if unquantified. This could have profound implications for where we live, in what sort of accommodation, how and when we travel and the structures of work.
Exeter was recently ranked the 10th greenest city (out of 59) in the UK by the Solar Centre. Its score was heavily influenced by a very favourable statistic on recycling: on other measures such as emissions the performance was more middle of the road. The point about these surveys is not their accuracy – it’s not difficult to pick holes in the methodology – but that they show effort and potential across a range of indicators. Exeter is in the right part of the spectrum but with some challenges ahead.
The Net Zero Carbon plan sets out some paths to follow. Covid-19 is both an opportunity and an impetus to start delivering.