Tag Archives: Devon County Council

Vision on

Exeter City Council’s Chief Executive has given an important and valuable lead in setting a new direction for the city.

The Legacy

Like many other English towns and cities Exeter’s growth and development has been erratic, sometimes managed and sometimes not.  The post-war reconstruction of the High Street was actively managed by the current council’s predecessor, Exeter Corporation, though the subsequent 1970s saw such developer-driven fortresses as the Guildhall Shopping Centre car park which wrecked Paul Street, and the unloved addition to the riverside in the form of Renslade House.  More recently, the build-what-and-where-you-like approach that passes for central government’s planning policy, combined with a weakness in Exeter’s own Local Plan, has allowed the city to sprawl eastwards in a series of uninspiring housing estates made up by volume housebuilders’ standard designs.

The City Council has had aspirations to change course, but has lacked both the powers and the political will to do so.  In 2011 it published A City Centre Vision for a Green Capital.  Included in its guiding principles are such worthy aspirations as:

  • Principle 3: Any new development in the city centre will respect the city skyline and reflect the underlying topography.   Well, the mushrooming of purpose-built student accommodation blocks around the bus station area has put paid to that.
  • Principle 6: Create an exciting mix of contemporary design and historic buildings.  Um.  Princesshay Mark 2 is good, but there’s not much else to make the heart beat faster.

There’s some good stuff in it but, at the end of the day, the vision appeared to be just that.  To some extent it informed the following year’s Core Strategy element of the current Local Plan, but there was little impetus to deliver it and no real visualisation as to how it all fitted together.

The new vision

On 26 February 2019 the City Council formally accepted a recommendation from its Executive group to adopt a new spatial vision for the development of the city [1].  There are some similarities with the 2011 vision, notably in the illustrations of how specific parts of the city could be redeveloped, perhaps not surprisingly because both visions were commissioned by the City Council from Exeter-based but nationally-active LDA Design.

But the real difference between the two visions lies in the drivers for implementation.  The 2011 vision had as a key (perhaps, the key) aim to provide a context for future transport planning.  The officer report presented to the Executive on 6 December 2011 stated:

[…] there was no clear vision for the City Centre that could assist decision makers in grappling with specific issues and site specific interventions. A long term vision for the City Centre should drive the traffic management strategy rather than vice versa.  […]  Explicitly the work has been commissioned to: Provide a development context for a City Centre Transportation Strategy and other potential studies and projects in the City Centre; and form the basis of a vision for any future City Centre Action Area.

Unfortunately, responsibility for the transport and traffic strategy lay, as now, with the unimaginative Devon County Council.  So the City Council had produced a vision to guide a strategy over which it had minimal influence.  That lack of impact is visible today.

In contrast the 2019 vision is described as a “Vision for a Transformational Housing Delivery Programme”.  Authored by the Council’s Chief Executive, Karime Hassan, it challenges the assumptions that have underpinned Exeter area planning since the days of the Regional Spatial Strategy [2].  Specifically it is intended to provide a strategic context for:

  • redevelopment of the City Council’s assets (which are extensive);
  • the production of Site Planning Statements to clarify developer expectations on sites offering scope for redevelopment;
  • investigating options resulting from the Government’s removal of the cap on local authorities’ borrowing to fund the delivery of new council housing, and
  • assisting planning responses to an acute housing land supply problem in Exeter [3].

The driver here is finding practical solutions to the city’s serious housing shortage, over which the City Council as both local planning authority and social housing developer has some clout.  Exeter is required to ensure an additional 13,100 homes over the next 20 years.  The Council has recognised that leaving everything to the private sector is no longer an option if any sort of green city is to be achieved, a point explained in a previous blog post.  This housing-driven vision looks forward to 8 specific projects, based on naturally occurring communities in the city, which would be designed with the right mixes of land for homes, shops, leisure, work space and community services (eg schools).  The smallest of the projects – South Gate, based around the top of Western Way – would generate 300 homes; and the largest – reinventing Marsh Barton to use the wasted spaces above the single storey industrial units – is to provide 5,544 homes.  These projects would be designed to encourage walking, cycling and public transport use, leading to reductions in car use.  They would move us from wasteful low density to higher housing densities, as previously advocated by this blog.

Moving things forward

The new housing-driven vision is an exciting prospectus.  It puts the City Council into a leadership role for place-making which would be a step-change from simply reacting to county-imposed transport policies (or county inaction) and to the volume house builders.  It aims to influence the much-delayed Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, so that we don’t end up back where we were with the old Regional Spatial Strategy.

You don’t have to agree with every detail in the vision.  Its aim is to set a direction, a new development context.  If achieved it would greatly improve the quality of life for a vast number of Exeter’s present and future residents. But if discussion about it gets steered towards practical objections from day one, it will fail.  Already the sceptics are complaining about the idea of one of the bridges in the Exe Bridges gyratory system being turned into a pedestrianised garden bridge, the chief objection being that the remaining bridge won’t cope with the traffic.  The response to that is there will be much less traffic to cope with, despite Devon County Council’s ill thought-out draft transport strategy for Exeter.

And, if the vision doesn’t cover everything, that’s because its focus is a spatial one, particularly for housing and communities.  It will sit alongside – and support – other policies, including air quality improvements, reducing cars and congestion, and other elements of a climate change strategy.

It’s an understatement to say that achieving the vision will be far from easy.  Setting aside the obvious need to lever in money, the City Council – and I mean councillors themselves – will need to adopt two essential approaches.

First, replace the understandable desire to pursue short-term and/or opportunistic projects with a commitment to a firm discipline to act only in support of the vision and to do nothing that makes its achievement more difficult.  This does, of course, assume that when councillors adopted the vision on 26 February, they meant it.

Second, get out into communities and explain why all this important. Arrange local public meetings and start a dialogue.  Explain what the vision is (more housing and a better place to live) and what it is not (a planning blueprint).  Listen to what people say about it and how it could fit in with their own aspirations.  Be ready to make changes, refine the vision. Leaving everything until the planning applications roll in is too late – we all know from experience that many people feel threatened by development and so oppose it.  We all need our elected representatives to start being grassroots advocates for our city and to encourage a shared vision for its future.

NOTES:

[1]  The City Council has set up a useful web page which brings together some key visioning and planning documents, including both the 2011 and 2019 vision documents.

[2]  Regional Spatial Strategies were produced by Regional Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies in the heyday of the Blair government’s love-in with the concept English regions. The fact that the south-west region ran from Penzance to Cheltenham and Bournemouth illustrates the nonsense of trying to plan on that scale.  For those who are curious or who would just like a wallow in nostalgia, the draft south west RSS can be found here. It was never formally adopted, because the coalition government elected in 2010 immediately dismantled the regional apparatus.

[3]  The officer report to the Exeter City Council Executive on 12 February 2019, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=45692


County declares war on City

Devon County Council is prepared to let Exeter’s residents choke on traffic fumes so that rural commuters can stay in their cars.

It’s not unusual in these straitened times for a local authority to give with one hand and take away with the other.  How else can they balance their budgets without losing all political support?  Rather more eyebrow-raising is when a county council plans to reduce private car journeys by the residents of its principal city and county town with the aim of allowing the freed-up road space in the city to be occupied by commuters driving in from the surrounding towns and rural areas.

This astonishing proposal is set out the latest Exeter Transport Strategy, produced by Devon County Council (DCC) as the highways and transport authority covering Exeter, and which is currently out for consultation.  Paragraph 1.46 states that there will be a target of 50% of all trips within the city being made on foot or by bike, an excellent aim which should reduce pollution from motor vehicles, diminish congestion and traffic noise, and generally make the city a better place to live.

So far so good.  But then we read paragraph 1.47, which needs to be quoted in full:

“This [the target] represents the most achievable way of freeing up capacity to facilitate the increase of car-based inward commuters from outside the city and complements the Sport England Local Delivery Pilot and Exeter’s aspiration to become the most active city in the country.”  (My emphasis).

This is either a mistake which slipped through the editing process, or a test to see if anyone actually reads the small print, or one of the most cynical pieces of planning policy I have ever come across.  I favour the third interpretation, and this is why.

DCC is a Tory-led council: 42 out of 60 seats, but only 2 of the 9 Exeter seats.  The ruling group is by no means made up solely of slavish adherents to such flagship policies as “Austerity” and “Local Government Spending Cuts”.  No, it is not Mrs May, Conservative Central Office and the Ministry of Housing & Everything Else that the councillors fear.  Instead it is their constituents in rural Devon who regard it as their divine right to get into their large vehicles – so essential for country life – and drive into the middle of Exeter for business, shopping or pleasure.  They are particularly vociferous about the length of time it takes to pass through the Exeter suburbs, which are cluttered up with cars and buses being used by those pesky people who actually live in the city, not to mention all those pedestrians who slow up traffic by wanting to cross the road.  So what better move for DCC than to make life easier for their constituents by pushing the townies off the roads so as to let their chums race around the city adding to our mortality rates by polluting our local air and keeping our roads unsafe?

Exeter City Council is largely powerless on these matters.  Its Chief Executive has just presented an inspiring vision of what the city could look like in 20 years, given the right policies, strong community engagement in realising it, and the political will [1].  What DCC want to do is diametrically opposed to this.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that Devon County Council has declared war on its own county town.

NOTE:

[1]  I shall be blogging on the CE’s vision in A Green in Exeter in the next few days.

Scrutiny can work

Surveys are not always reliable.  Yet if you asked the usual representative sample how they liked to spend time, attending local authority committee meetings is unlikely to score highly.

This is understandable.  Public participation is strictly controlled.  In Exeter, members of the public can submit questions (3 days in advance) to be asked at any of the three City Council scrutiny committees; and interested parties are given speaking rights at Planning Committee meetings.  Exercising the self-discipline of sitting in silence while councillors say things you disagree with is not for the passionate.  Attempts to increase public participation in Council meetings have failed on the circular-argument grounds that people just aren’t interested [1].

Devon County Council operates with fewer constraints.  Unlike Exeter, members of the public can ask questions at full Council meetings or Cabinet meetings.

Exeter City Council’s attitude to openness is schizophrenic.  It claims to be open and transparent, and often is.  Conversely, there are some major issues on which it clams up, such as the Greater Exeter Visioning Board or the Leisure Complex business case (the latter is still in front of an adjourned Information Tribunal, and the whole project has stalled because the tenders received don’t match the budget for its construction).

So it was with no expectation of receiving anything more than a defensive brush-off that I submitted a question for response at the People Scrutiny Committee on 1 June.  The question was: “As none of the tenders for the construction of the leisure complex was within the budget for the scheme, will the Council explain why they did not estimate realistic costs for its construction before inviting tenders?”  The rules of procedure prevent supplementary questions, but do allow the questioner to speak for up to two minutes in response.  Naturally, I had prepared my response in advance.

I bowled up at the meeting, and was shown the seat to sit in when asking the question.  I read it out carefully, since the rules say that deviation from the submitted question may be penalised.  Councillor Bialyk, who is in charge of the leisure complex project and a man not known for mincing his words, launched into his response.

It was surprisingly informative.  Yes, the tenders were not in line with budget expectations.  But circumstances had changed since the invitation to tender was prepared, many due to Brexit.  Sterling was weaker.  The RICS building costs guidelines had changed several times.  There were uncertainties over labour supply in the construction industry.  In addition, one of the firms advising on the project had given poor advice, and had their contract terminated.  Other councils around the country were facing similar problems.

This is genuinely helpful information and makes the Council’s position understandable, far more so than the cryptic statement on their website: “But due to the nature of the tender returns submitted by contractors bidding for the contract, the council has announced that it needs more time to conclude the procurement process” [2].  It made my prepared response – which was critical in tone – largely redundant, and I abandoned most of it.

The City’s only Green Party councillor, Chris Musgrave, also used questioning to elicit the information that the Council planned to appoint a single operator for the Leisure Complex and all the other Council-owned leisure facilities in the city.

The lesson I draw from this is that openness works.  There will continue to be a small number of issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors, but these should be very few indeed.  Openness helps understanding, and understanding improves the quality of political debate.  We just need more people to break through the participation barrier, and start asking [3].

NOTES:

[1] See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=37916

[2] Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/a-new-bus-station/

[3] Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows:  Exeter City Council at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=444&MId=3295&Ver=4&Info=1 item 7.  Devon County Council at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/guide/public-participation-at-committee-meetings/

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.