Tag Archives: Exeter bus station

Can the Council be a leader?

Exeter City Council’s default position is to look inwards on itself, but it can’t show the necessary 21st century leadership until that culture changes.

Most people from the City Council who’ve read as far as this will already be outraged at what they see as a misrepresentation.  They will argue that Council consults on proposed policies, publishes information about spending and services, holds most of its committee business in public and has a network of ward councillors to feed in residents’ concerns.  Well, that’s all true.  But is it sufficient?

Let’s explore further the notion that the Council is inward-looking.  As always, examples are illuminating.

The non-development at the bus station site

I’ve blogged at length about the planned redevelopment of the bus station site [1] and the subsequent refusals of the political leadership to reconsider the publicly funded flagship leisure centre project.  This, despite rising costs, public scepticism and the plug being pulled by the private sector developers on their part of the site. A recent external peer review of the Council pointed out that the status quo is more than a bit dodgy, reaching such conclusions as [2]:

  • “many stakeholders – external and internal – are not clear on the purpose and priority of [the redevelopment project]”
  • “there is an ongoing need to engage with partners and stakeholders to reiterate the purpose and benefits of the scheme.”
  • “it may be worth the council developing contingency plans and keeping an open mind about the best use of this site (and alternative potential locations for a new improved leisure centre), in case better redevelopment proposals come forward.”

Couched in the polite language of these reviews, this is a serious slap on the wrist for the Council’s tunnel vision.

Lack of public clarity on spending plans

The 2018/19 budget for the City Council is set out in a 130-page report, including many financial tables.  So when a member of the public asked at a recent scrutiny committee what would be the impact of the 30% reduction shown in spending on advisory services, she was told that it wasn’t a reduction because the way in which accounting for overheads had been changed [3].  Our sole Green Party councillor received a similar response from the Chief Finance Officer when he asked about an apparent cut in the recycling budget.  No doubt this was explained in the small print, but there is no way a busy non-expert could easily work it out.

So I asked another scrutiny committee if they would support a rule change which required future budget tables to explain, for each budget line, whether spending changes were real changes or accounting changes, and if the former what would be the impact on services.  The response set out the various opportunities councillors had for scrutinising and questioning draft budgets in detail.  Nowhere in the response was there any suggestion that the wider public – whose money is being spent – might have an interest in understanding these tables as well.

Disrupting the community grants arrangements

Exeter Community Forum is a City Council-supported bottom-up initiative aimed at strengthening the voices of community-led organisations in the City [4].  Among its activities is the operation of the Grass Roots Grants scheme, a function delegated to the Forum by the City Council.  The grants panel includes one councillor from the Executive and is serviced by the Council’s communities programme officer.  The Chair and 3 other panel members are drawn from the Forum’s community membership.  Award decisions require ratification by the Council, so there is no loss of control over public funds.

Earlier this month, and completely out of the blue, some Labour councillors on a scrutiny committee of the Council proposed that a review should be carried out of the Grants panel “to consider whether there was a need for greater accountability and scrutinisation (sic) of its processes and to examine if a change of approach through increasing the involvement of Members was desirable” [5].  The recommendation was rubber-stamped by the Executive the following day.  No evidence was brought forward to justify the review, which by implication slurs the competence and integrity of the volunteers on the current panel.  No one, including the Council’s own programme officer and the officers of the Exeter Community Forum, was involved in any prior discussion.  But then mature informed engagement is not the Exeter City Council way.

Lack-lustre approach to improving air quality

Then we have the draft Air Quality Action Plan currently out for comment [6]. The Council proudly laid on a consultation exhibition at the Guildhall.  It consisted of half a dozen uninformative poster boards, and the usual questionnaire of the “do you agree” tick box variety, which didn’t even have a return address on it.  But perhaps the most telling example of how the Council sees itself was the first line in all the publicity: “Exeter City Council has a statutory duty to measure air pollution and to produce an Action Plan with measures to control the air quality in and around the city.”  In other words, it’s all about them the Council, and not about us the citizens.  Couldn’t they have opened with a line like “Exeter City Council is asking for your help to find new ways of making our air cleaner” ?

Top down planning policy

Public involvement in planning policy consists of being given an opportunity to comment on draft plans for which the main themes have already been agreed behind closed doors [7].

The leaking Housing Development Company

The Council’s plans to set up a Housing Development Company to build much-needed housing are public only to the extent that we know they want to set one up, and that they have commissioned further studies into the extent of private sector involvement in the company.  A FOI Act request to see the business case has just been turned down by the Council, although the peer review report had already leaked – inadvertently or not – a very useful summary of the business case into the public domain [8].

 

These illustrations of how the City Council does its business are not meant to suggest the organisation is inefficient.  Indeed, deciding things internally and pushing them through with a minimum of public involvement can be held up as an efficient process: low input, big output.  But it is most certainly far less effective in achieving Council and community priorities.

It’s the lack of real community engagement that seems central to the Council’s problem.  All the examples above show that the Council is set in a way of doing things that relegates community engagement to a low priority, if indeed it acknowledges it all.  Nor is this an issue confined to Exeter: the Local Government Association found that across England satisfaction with levels of council-community engagement was relatively low compared to other satisfaction indicators [9].  The survey identified that the four most popular changes councils could make were:

  • Explain more clearly how it is using your money
  • Make it clearer how residents can get involved in decision-making
  • Demonstrate more clearly how it is acting on residents’ feedback
  • Explain more clearly its decisions when they affect you

These are very modest changes, though very much in the right direction.  Yet Exeter City Council could – and should – go much further.  Its vision for the city is [10]:


Our Economy

  • A prosperous city
  • A learning city
  • An accessible city

Our Society

  • A city with strong communities
  • A city that is healthy and active
  • A safe city

Our Environment

  • A city that cares for the environment
  • A city with homes for everyone
  • A city of culture

This is a good vision, and if realised would be transformative.  To get there, strong civic inclusive leadership will be needed.  A style of leadership which is far removed from the current ways of doing public business and which will overcome not only the inwardness culture but also the “old politics” I described in The Old Politics no longer serves us well.  Over the next couple of months, and drawing on the strengths that do exist in Exeter City Council, I will try to set out what this leadership might look like.

 

NOTES:

[1] See Off the Buses and Scrutiny can work.

[2] From the report of the Exeter Corporate Peer Challenge, one of a programme of reviews sponsored by the Local Government Association, is available at item 35 of the minutes of the Executive meeting on 13 March 2018 at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=5305&Ver=4

[3] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 12 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4.  To get the full question and response, you need to download the pdf of the “Printed Draft Minutes”.

[4] For information on the Exeter Community Forum, see http://exetercommunityforum.net/who

[5] People Scrutiny Committee, 12 March 2018, item 16 of minutes at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=626&MId=5976&Ver=4

[6] See https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/

[7] See my post Our Planners’ Cat is out of the Bag.  Further evidence that GESP is already done and dusted is on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above) where Exeter’s housing need is summarised.

[8] Also on page 9 of the Corporate Peer Challenge (see note 2 above)

[9] See survey findings at https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Feb%202017%20Resident%20Satisfaction%20Polling.pdf pages 15-16.

[10] As set out in Exeter’s Sustainable Community Strategy 2009, aka the Exeter Vision.  It is no longer available on the Council’s website, but is referenced as Appendix 5 of the Core Strategy adopted in 2012 (https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/local-plan/core-strategy-development-plan-document/ ).

Good listening

A couple of recent events suggest that Exeter City Council may be starting to listen seriously to its communities after all.

First, another bus station story.  While the new bus station is being built – and we all assume it will now go ahead – on the existing bus station site, there will need to be somewhere for the buses to drop off and pick up passengers.  The Council floated the idea of converting a nearby car park, known as the Triangle, into a temporary bus station.  From an environmental perspective, this would have the great merit of reducing the number of car parking spaces in the city centre and, once the temporary bus station was no longer needed, the area could be used for something socially useful like affordable housing or green space.

Anyway, the Council floated the idea and held a public meeting to discuss it.  The local residents did not like it one bit, and said so.   Very quickly, the Council dropped the idea and decided that the buses could use the nearby main streets for their business instead.  So, brownie points to the Council for (a) making it clear that the idea was tentative and not a worked-up proposal and (b) acting on what it heard.

Of course cynics would say that the Council never wanted to lose the car park spaces at the Triangle, in line with its policy of encouraging people to shop in the city centre, and so the whole exercise was arranged to achieve the result that it has.  But I prefer to think that it was just a good and welcome example of the Council thinking out loud, for a change.

The second bit of good news was on the fringes of the city, in upper Pennsylvania.  When new housing was built there in the 1970s, an area of green space was handed over to a Public Open Spaces Charitable Trust whose object is to “hold various pieces of land as a public open space to the intent that the same may at all times hereafter be available to and be used by the public at large for the purpose of recreation” [1].  Despite that, the trustees put the land up for sale at auction, which means that public access could be restricted by a future owner.  The locals were, rightly, outraged.  The City Council stepped in and offered a grant of £5,000 to purchase the land [2].  In the event the community were able to purchase it for £1,500 and so ensure continued use as public open space.

NOTES:

[1]  Source, Charity Commission website, charity number 328402.

[2]  See Exeter City Council news release on Request for purchase of land at Sylvania Valley at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/council-news/latest-news/

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