Tag Archives: Exeter City Council

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/

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How dense can we be?

[This post is a slightly expanded and referenced version of a five-minute presentation I gave to the Exeter City Futures Spring Connect meeting on 8 March 2017.]

There is resistance to high density housing.  Perhaps it’s in the descriptor.  More likely it’s memories of the poorly-designed high-rise blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s to which families were relocated from older inner city housing (“slum clearance” as the planners and local politicians liked to call it).  The Aylesbury estate in Walworth, south-east London, was one of the more notorious examples.  Built at a density of about 95 dwellings per hectare (dph) [1], it designed in crime and anti-social behaviour and became a byword for urban decay.  Tony Blair made his first speech as prime minister there, using the estate as a symbol of all that New Labour was going to put right.

Yet high-density housing has been with us for centuries.  Mansion flats in central London, the Georgian terraces in Bath, 19th century tenements in Glasgow and Edinburgh – these are now seen as highly desirable places to live.

My post Wider still and wider – time to call a halt explained how current house-building planning in Exeter is favouring sprawl across green fields rather than designing higher density housing within the city’s urban footprint.  Today’s post seeks to demonstrate that, within Exeter, high density housing has a long history and can be found in some of today’s most desirable areas of the city.

What are the benefits of high-density living?  Apart from reduced land-take, there are two others which coincide with Exeter City Futures own priorities.  It can help reduce domestic energy use, although the evidence here is not conclusive [2].  More obviously, it helps reduce the need to travel and therefore congestion.  If we can get our spatial planning right, we can have more people living in city centres and inner city areas, which is where people come to, for work, shopping, education and leisure.

However, I’m not going to argue in favour of high-rise accommodation.  Quite apart from being out of keeping with Exeter’s generally low roof-lines, there is good evidence that high-rise is not the most effective way of increasing density.  Courtyard developments have been shown to produce higher dph than high rise [2, again].  And there is evidence that tall buildings, say 12 stories plus, increase energy consumption.

What we have in abundance in Victorian and Edwardian Exeter are examples of low-rise high-density housing, almost all with their own front doors.  In Mount Pleasant, the average density is in the 70-80 dph range: these elegant and substantial terraced houses in Elmside are built at about 77 dph:

Picture8

And, below, the northern end of Polsloe Road at about 75 dph:

Picture1

Contrast this with the estates in the eastern end of the city.  The Newcourt development planned for 3500 dwellings at 45-55 dph.  The planning application for housing at Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumed 28 dph, less than set out in area masterplan (whicn envisaged a minimum of 35 dph). My earlier post discusses in more detail how the city council’s residential design guidelines are, or are not, applied, and I won’t repeat that here.  Suffice it to say that prejudice against high-density housing appears to be a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, and not something that is inherent in our make-up.  After all, as a recent Sunday Times article noted with glee: “Exeter is attracting a growing number of part-time commuters who can work from home, taking advantage of the excellent broadband (nearly 90% of homes can get ultrafast speeds). They’re helping to make it the fastest-growing city in the UK, pushing up house prices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the leafy, stuccoed district of St Leonard’s. It’s the place to live, and even the shabbiest period semi will set you back £600,000.”[3].  You can in fact pick up a more modest terraced house in St Leonard’s for less than that, but the price still packs a hefty “St Leonard’s premium” – and at very efficient densities.  The picture below shows a terrace at the southern end of St Leonard’s Road of 89 dph.

Picture3

What this suggests to me is that we don’t have a collective prejudice against high-density housing but that we do dislike badly designed and/or poorly located high density accommodation.  I won’t name the apartment block in the photo below but it was built in the 1950s as part of a major expansion of Exeter.

Picture2

Compare it with a similar design built in 2016, not all that far away.

Picture5

We don’t seem to have learned much about making apartment blocks attractive to look at.

We can do it, though.  This conversion on Clifton Hill contains 10 apartments.

Picture6

And we can be inspired by others.  My post A Tale of two urban extensions showed how Freiburg in Germany built interesting and liveable high-density housing.

So to overcome the problems we face of badly designed and/or poorly located high density accommodation, we need to change a few policies and attitudes.

Planners must develop policies which stop letting the volume housebuilders do what they want and which encourage small builders and co-operatives to make a greater contribution to our housing stock.  Government policy now encourages this [4] and the new embryonic Greater Exeter Strategic Plan [5] offers an opportunity to break with the past.  And can we design out the soulless “newness” that infuses new estates, with more architectural variety, mature trees, well-designed communal grass spaces?  Freiburg Vauban has done this successfully.

Planners also need to seek out convertible space.  As the traditional “high street” retail sector declines, floors over shops offer new housing opportunities in very central locations.  The initial Greater Exeter Strategic Plan consultation invites submission of sites suitable for building [6], and it will be interesting to see if anyone does offer up space “over the shop”.

Picture7

We residents have to change our attitudes as well.  Let’s rely more on communal open space for our rest and recreation rather than tiny fenced-in gardens.  Let’s follow Freiburg Vauban in seriously reducing car use.  Let’s form housing cooperatives to work with architects and builders to design the housing we want, applying principles that respect the finite nature of the country’s natural resources.

None of this is easy.  It requires recognition that indiscriminate land use is storing up problems for the future, ranging from threats to the continued existence of some wildlife species, through maintaining ecosystems which provide us with fresh water and carbon sinks, to being able to grow the food we all need.  This recognition will come on a sufficient scale if community leaders take action to spell out the importance of change.  It’s a sad reflection that the current political leaderships in both Westminster and Exeter Civic Centre show no sign of being willing or able to step up to the task.

NOTES

1.  There are other ways of measuring density, including people per hectare or bedrooms per hectare. The dwellings per hectare measure is much simpler to calculate, and will usually understate people density because it takes no account of how many floors the building has (and in Exeter very few are single-storey).  My calculations are made using Google maps, and including gardens as part of the dwelling unit.

2.  See for example, the discussion at http://www.createstreets.com/blog/4585309664/High-Rise-Buildings-Energy-and-Density/10292499

3.  This extract was reproduced in the email edition of “Latest Council News” issued by the City Council on 14 March 2017 (and on Facebook on 13 March at https://www.facebook.com/notes/exeter-city-council/could-exeter-be-a-more-perfectly-positioned-city/1325345727503465/ ). Given that we have a housing crisis in the city, I thought it deeply insensitive that the Council should be promoting such stuff.  A complaint to the councillor responsible for communications, Ollie Pearson, has not elicited a response.

4.  See the recent White Paper Fixing our Broken Housing Market, DCLG, February 2017, in particular Step 3 on Page 19. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/housing-white-paper

5.  See www.gesp.org.uk

6.  See www.gesp.org.uk/consultations/call-for-sites/

Musical Council Boundaries

When the music stops, your local council leader will be here to tell you a story [1]

First, there was “devolution” for the Heart of the South West, which wasn’t devolution at all because it would have sucked powers upwards from localities to a vast “combined authority” covering all of Devon and Somerset, including Plymouth and Torbay [2].

Then came the idea for a Greater Exeter Growth and Development Board (the GEGDB), which would be a joint strategic authority made up of Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge Councils [3].  Joint authorities are in practice run by their officers, not councillors, because the officers negotiate a common acceptable position on a given issue and then serve it up the councillors as the only available option that the four councils will agree on.

Finally (or perhaps not), proposals for a “South Devon” unitary council leaked out last week.  This would be an all-purpose council covering East Devon, Exeter, Teignbridge, Torbay and Plymouth and, possibly, South Hams (sorry, Mid Devon, you’re out), discharging all existing district council functions plus those of Devon County Council within the new unitary area.  Such evidence is there is suggests the prime movers appear to be Exeter and Plymouth, if only because they refused to back further moves to support the “devolution” proposals.

The Exeter Green Party has written to the leader of Exeter City Council asking the following questions:

  1. What mandate does the City Council have from the residents it serves to:

(a) attempt to reorganise local government decision-making structures?

(b) propose arrangements which would suck key decisions upwards from the elected representatives

of the people of Exeter to a new superior authority – the GEGDB – which would not be directly elected?

(c) propose a strategic authority – the GEGDB – which on the evidence of the 8 November paper would focus solely on economic growth to the exclusion of social and environmental considerations?

  1. When does the City Council plan to publicise its thinking and actively consult residents and businesses on whether they actually want new local government arrangements and, if so, on the form they should take and how any new body might be fully accountable to local people?

 

It seems clear that the option favoured by Exeter and Plymouth is the South Devon unitary authority.  Central government is believed to be offering £1 billion if the unitary is established, complete with an elected mayor.  We don’t know what the money would be targeted at – improving public services, infrastructure, or grants to businesses?  But a bribe’s a bribe.

A directly elected authority – which is what the unitary would be – is certainly preferable in democratic terms to the other options.  But it would be a huge area, currently represented by 237 councillors elected by 105 wards (and that’s without South Hams).  So a workable sized council will require a massive cull of elected members (no wonder the leaderships have been playing their cards close to their chests), leading to a weakening of the links between people and their councillors.  On present ward boundaries, based on the most recent election results, 123 of the councillors would be Tories – a small majority, which gives pause for thought as to why Labour-run Exeter is so keen on the idea?  Of course the new council could be a pathfinder, to be elected by proportional representation, which would change the political balance considerably.  Look it’s a pig up there.

Many, many more questions.  And meanwhile energy is being diverted away from service improvements into a potentially massive reorganisation.  It still feels like the “old politics”.  For the time being, we have to await the answers to the Green Party’s highly pertinent questions.

 

NOTES

[1] You have to have been an aficionado of BBC Radio Children’s Hour in the 1950s to understand the reference!

[2] See my post https://petercleasby.com/2016/09/30/devolution-is-not-control/

[3] The proposals adopted by Exeter City Council’s Executive are at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/g4903/Public%20reports%20pack%2008th-Nov-2016%2017.30%20Executive.pdf?T=10, page 73.

Wider still and wider – time to call a halt

We need a policy rethink on how changes to housing density assumptions can stop urban sprawl.

In 2010, after several years of study and debate, the UK’s Government Office for Science published Land Use Futures: making the most of land in the 21st century.  The product of a major exercise in evidence-gathering and analysis (including a very minor contribution of my own [1]), it had the bad luck to hit Whitehall desks just as the 2010 general election led to a coalition government that preferred a market-driven framework for land use planning.  But the project remains a thorough and important study.

The report identifies a set of sectoral pressures on land, often in conflict, which require to be managed if – to take three examples – natural resources are not to be depleted, food production capacity is to be sustained and house price inflation moderated.  These pressures are land for: water resources, conservation, agriculture, woodlands and forestry, flood risk management, energy infrastructure, residential and commercial development, transport infrastructure and recreation.  Of these, built development including transport infrastructure has the biggest irreversible impact on the natural environment.

Some development is inevitable, if only because we have a serious housing shortage.  The choices are about the location and nature of that development.  As noted in my post The Compact City, these choices are political rather than technical.  Compact development has many advantages:  less land-take, easy access to services and recreation, less dependence on transport, and so on.  But planning for compactness, at least in relation to housing, rapidly leads into talking about housing density, and this is tricky territory.

The Land Use Future study concluded that we don’t like high density housing:

Housing densities [in England] are increasing (up from 25 dwellings/hectare in 2002 to over 40 in 2007), and houses are becoming smaller. New houses in the UK are now amongst the smallest in Europe, despite strong evidence that people generally dislike living at high density [2].

Housing density in Exeter

The evidence underpinning the conclusion that people don’t like high density housing appears to have influenced Exeter City Council’s own planning policies.  A supplementary planning document (SPD) [3] states:

The City Council requires development which is efficient in land use terms but which also creates an attractive, city-living, environment. Recent trends in house building have seen the development of some dwellings which are far too small to be sustainable ( Introduction, para VI).

Reality does not always match the aspiration.  The SPD sets out minimum space requirements according to the number of bedrooms and occupants [4].  These may not be adhered to in the face of opposition from a forceful developer.  For example, a planning application for 148 new houses at what is now Hill Barton Vale initially proposed a substantial number of 2-bed houses with a gross internal floor area (GIA) of 58m² although the GIA for the smallest 2 storey house type in the Council’s SPD is 83m².  Negotiations with the planning department led to the housebuilder agreeing to increase the houses to just under 68m², a proposal accepted by councillors even though the space allocation was still 18% below the Council’s requirements [5].

This anecdote is not to knock the planning department.  The housebuilder argued that the SPD was requiring higher space standards than emerging national guidance, and would in all probability have won an appeal against a refusal by the Council.  But it does suggest that the guidance may not be giving enough weight to another of its stated goals, where it summarises the policy requirement as follows:

….for high quality, sustainable housing developments which are of sufficient density to represent efficient use of land and contribute positively to urban renewal (Design Objectives, para 1.1)

Note the acknowledgement of the importance of density.

If towns and cities are going to respond to meeting housing need other than by sprawling outwards, this suggests we need to rethink assumptions about density.  The conclusion that people don’t like high density is not sacrosanct; and it may not even be sound.  Could it be that the dislike of high density housing identified in the studies cited in the Land Use Futures report – most of which are now over 10 years old – have softened as the difficulties in funding a house purchase have become more acute?   Of course high density living has negative connotations, based on history.  1960s tower blocks destroyed communities and blighted whole areas.  There is little enthusiasm for them, and cultural resistance is still probably too great for them to be part of a widespread solution.

However, density in parts of the St Leonards district of Exeter reaches 82 dph [6], yet the district is so sought-after that house prices automatically acquire a hefty St Leonards premium.  Over the river there doesn’t appear to be any difficulty in selling or renting apartments without gardens but which are on or close to the river, canal or quays.  Further afield, mansion flats in central London have long been prized, despite past problems with management companies.  Location, location.

In fact, examples of high density living are found all over Exeter.  The streets of narrow terrace houses in Newtown give rise to community spirit: three years ago, many of the residents of Portland Street got together to turn the street into a giant Advent calendar [7].  Across the city, larger terrace houses have been divided into flats, to increase population density.  At Shilhay, by the eastern quayside, some 150 dwellings were built in the 1980s on a site of no more than half a hectare, but their design is so good as to attract plaudits in the Devon volume of Pevsner [8].

Yet new developments on the edges of the city are being planned as if high density is an evil to be contained.  The partially completed major residential development at Newcourt – planned to accommodate some 3,500 dwellings – is based on a range of densities in the Newcourt Masterplan from 45 dph to 55 dph.  The other major development – the Monkerton and Hill Barton scheme – is predicted to have a greater range of densities.  According to the masterplan (page 51) the range is from a high of +65 dph to a minimum of 35 dph.  Again, however, reality is different:  the planning permission for 350 houses around Tithebarn Lane in Monkerton assumes an average density of 28 dph [9].   Scarce land is being developed at densities less than assumed in the original development plans, and this raises doubts as to whether the 65 dph target will be achieved.

The question for the city’s planning policy is whether to be bolder about promoting high density housing in more places and develop positive new policies which make it work.

Another approach

National policy, such as it is, is moving towards supporting high density housing around “commuter hubs” but a consultation on the issue has not so far been translated into policy.  This builds on work carried out for the Greater London Authority’s 2011 Spatial Development Strategy, which assesses different variables – including public transport capacity – to indicate acceptable densities on development sites. The other variables are: the local context and character of different urban areas; and the number of habitable rooms per unit [10].

The GLA’s approach is seen as having limitations and research by Paul Clarke has suggested a different approach, which bases density policy around four principles [11].  These are (and I quote):

  • Intensity: the measure of an urban environment’s socio-economic needs. Density policy and use classification may restrict the appropriate mix and provision of spaces in urban areas and a new typology that reflects the current conditions of people’s behaviour and user needs is required.
  • Amenity: the measure of an urban environment’s demographic needs. There is a need to measure household characteristics, diversity and user needs in separate urban areas.
  • Autonomy: the measure of an urban environment’s democratic needs. Aligning user needs with the local provision of employment and services by improving consultation can feed into what communities view as suitable type and density of a development in an urban area.
  • Frequency: the measure of an urban environment’s dynamic and mobile population. This examines the need for accessible mobility for transport uses in urban areas. Density policy should take into account accessibility to public transport

Food for thought.  As the CPRE briefing note points out:

Despite the criticisms of the London Density Matrix, other urban areas in England can investigate the creation of similar density guidelines formed around the variables of urban context, public transport capacity and habitable rooms per unit/hectare. Ideally, additional variables such as employment density, dwelling type and tenure, site coverage, floor area ratio and building form could be included in a matrix.  The creation of such a matrix would aid in the development of brownfield land that better responds to existing urban environments and the needs of communities.

This conclusion is directed at the redevelopment of brownfield land, though the principles could apply to greenfield schemes.  In the Exeter context, the now-redundant Development Delivery Plan of 2015 [12], designed to implement the no longer fit for purpose Core Strategy, identified nearly 800 hectares of smaller brownfield land sites suitable for housing.  The average density would be 40 dph, ranging from 130 dph to 24 dph, so some of this will indeed make good use of land.  The plan recognises that additional sites will be needed, and gives preference to brownfield, stating that development must comply with other planning policies including the Residential Design SPD, discussed above.

Given the urgent need to provide additional housing, there is a strong case for changing policy to give greater weight to increasing housing density and relaxing those which inhibit it.  Building outwards does nothing to address climate change and resource use challenges, because it destroys land and usually leads to people having to travel further.  Making maximum use of space on brownfield land has to be an imperative.  But it will only provide the necessary social benefits if we change our framework for house building.

Leaving the creation of this new housing to the usual private sector developers is unlikely to be successful.  For one thing, they prefer greenfield land and would adjust their prices upwards for building on brownfield.  For another, we can see (at Hill Barton Vale, for example) that the housing built is what the housebuilder wants to build – which may not be what people want.  “Wider still and wider” is the touchstone of the housebuilders, filling the land with their off-the-peg volume housing designs.

Given that there are both advantages and downsides – actual and perceived – to higher density living, engaging people in designing their own environment should have much greater priority than now.  Freiburg’s high density Vauban is a success because the developers and volume housebuilders were kept at bay, replaced by high levels of community participation in housing design and co-operative builders.  People may welcome the opportunity to trade off a life in lower density housing on the edges of the city for a well-designed apartment or high density house much closer in – but no one has really asked us.  The “Autonomy” point in Clarke’s four principles has never carried much weight in England.

And, as again in Freiburg, high density housing needs access to community facilities and attractive public transport – the private car becomes a serious hindrance when land space is at a premium, not least because the requirement for parking spaces.  Talk of “commuter hubs” is not directly relevant to Exeter’s in-city density planning because most traffic is generated from outside the city, though I aim to explore this in a later post. But extending the penetration and the frequency of the bus network into new city developments will improve mobility options; and the higher the housing densities the greater the potential market for bus travel.

Increasing densities need not be restricted to brownfield.  Although the pass has been sold for much of the major housing development area in to the east of Exeter’s central area, there are still substantial development phases at Monkerton not yet planned in detail.  Together with the more central brownfields, there is scope here for designing and implementing creative policy change.

The decision to draw up a new strategic plan to replace the Exeter Core Strategy provides an opportunity for a radical policy rethink based on a real public debate about options.  That opportunity should be seized.

 

NOTES:

[1]  This is a vanity reference, because it’s not directly relevant to the theme of this post.  The paper in question is Defra Land Use Project – Demonstrator Case Studies, available at as Discussion Document Dis5 at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications or at www.quantera.co.uk/governance/publications/index.html

[2]  Page 24, with additional detail and supporting references on page 188.

[3]  Residential Design Guide Supplementary Planning Document, available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/supplementary-planning-documents/residential-design-guide-spd/

[4]  In the Building Design section, paras 9.38-9.40

[5]  Exeter City Council planning reference 14/2062/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[6]  Dph = dwellings per hectare.  The 82 dph figure is from the Monkerton and Hill Barton Masterplan available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/major-schemes/monkerton-hill-barton-masterplan/.  There is some debate as to the best measure of density: dwellings, households or people per unit of space:a useful summary is a paper for the Land Use Futures study by Professor Katie Williams entitled Space per person in the UK: A review of densities, trends, experiences and optimum levels, downloadable from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140108140803/http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight/our-work/projects/published-projects/land-use-futures/reports-and-publications

[7] See the newspaper report at  http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/exeter-street-giant-advent-calendar/story-20241756-detail/story.html

[8] See page 427 of Devon, by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, 1991, The Buildings of England series, Yale University Press.

[9] Exeter City Council planning reference 14/1090/02, searchable at http://pub.exeter.gov.uk/scripts/Acolnet/planning/acolnetcgi.gov

[10]  The Campaign to Protect Rural England – which has done some good work in protecting Urban England – has produced a briefing note entitled Better Brownfield as part of its Housing Foresight series.  The briefing, on which I have drawn in this post, which includes at section 3 a very helpful review of new approaches to using housing density measures.  Available at http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/housing/item/3877.

[11] Clarke, P. (2007) Metricity: Exploring New Measures of Urban Density, cited in the CPRE briefing note.  Downloadable at www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanbuzz/downloads/projects_17/Metricity_Publication.pdf

[12] Available at https://exeter.gov.uk/planning-services/planning-policy/emerging-plans-and-guidance/  Policy DD7 refers.

Small but significant: Exeter City Council’s energy measures

I didn’t pick it up at the time, but a recent Exeter City Council report reminds its readers that the Council won a national award earlier in the year for its Renewables and Energy Efficiency Programme.  The Local Government Chronicle’s Environment Award was won by the Council for an “ambitious programme of projects to achieve energy reduction, to generate renewable energy and to be an energy-neutral council” [1].

Somewhat bizarrely, typing the programme’s name into the search engine on the Council’s website generates a “no results found” response, but progress reports to members of the Council show that the programme is being effectively delivered through a small team of two people. Solar PV on roofs of council-owned buildings such as car parks and the livestock centre have made a particular impact.  Work on battery storage, to build on this, is planned, as is the use of smart metering [2].

In the great scheme of things this is small beer.  But it is an important signal: the Council is giving a practical lead on climate change issues, as well as achieving some small financial savings.

Senior management have said that if the team could be expanded, much more could be achieved.  It would be a good use of our money if Council members agreed.

 

NOTES:

[1]   https://www.lgcplus.com/home/lgc-awards-2016/environment/7002814.article

[2]   The latest progress report can be downloaded from http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=634&MId=4843&Ver=4 item 13.

A Tale of Two …urban extensions

In my post on the Compact City, I noted the different choices made by Freiburg and Exeter in their approaches to balancing the need to provide new homes against the need to protect the natural environment.  To illustrate how these choices played out in practice, what follows is a brief study of how the two cities have managed urban extensions.

Freiburg

Within Freiburg’s southern city boundary is the district of Vauban, built on the site of a former French army barracks about 3km from the city centre [1].  Planned and developed between 1994 and 2014, with building work starting in 1998, the district was designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living.  Its population at the end of 2014 was 5,600, or 2.5% of the city’s total population.  Covering some 40 hectares, the whole district is easily walkable from one end to the other.

The city council bought the land from the German federal government, and so had effective control over land use decisions.  In planning the development, however, the council worked in a formal partnership with communities, through a purpose-built organisation known as Forum Vauban, a vehicle for articulating community views and for influencing the types of housing, traffic and energy plans and ensuring the development of a community centre for social services.

The City Council and the Forum took steps to ensure that the Vauban community was indeed “green”.

  • Energy-efficient housing was mandated, including over 100 buildings to PassivHaus standards. Solar energy is a major contributor to energy needs, and was designed into some of the buildings from the start.  Rainwater is captured on flat roofs.
  • Preference was given to co-operative housebuilders. Though there was some privately-built housing, the major housebuilding firms were excluded from Vauban.
  • The district is designed to provide some 600 jobs: in shops, schools, businesses and community services. This does not appear to have stopped commuting, but it is a better jobs to houses ratio than in many other places.

160628 Vauban Mitte

Transport planning has been managed seriously and proactively.  In particular:

  • Cars are not banned, but they must be parked in a community car park on the edge of the district, not beside houses and apartments. Households without cars don’t have to pay towards the community car park upkeep.  Car-sharing through a car club is on offer.
  • The excellent tram service was integrated into the development at an early stage, with services running from 2006. Trams to the city centre and beyond run on dedicated tracks along the district’s main central road, every 7-8 minutes.  The trams – and the buses – are run by a municipally-owned company.
  • Bicycles are in common use. The whole district is flat, there are few cars to create conflicts with cyclists, and ample parking for cycles both at the main tram stops and in residential areas.

160628 Vauban culdesac

Vauban looks modern but it doesn’t “feel” like a new town.  Its main street has ample shops and businesses, there are plenty of people walking and cycling.  The architecture is varied and well located around green spaces.

Though not designed to the same green standards, another major urban extension in Freiburg is the district of Rieselfeld [2].  Larger than Vauban, at nearly 10,000 residents on a 70-hectare site, it was also built on brownfield land – a former sewage works – without breaching the city boundaries to encroach on green space.  In Riesefeld too, the tram system was an early piece of infrastructure and now runs at the same frequency as in Vauban, taking 15 minutes to the city centre.

Both these developments are real expressions of Freiburg’s planning policy “It is quite clear: the more residential areas constructed on the outskirts of a city, the greater the negative ecological consequences. The prime directive of the city of Freiburg is therefore to keep the need for new areas to an absolute minimum.” [3].  In pursuing this goal, the city’s planners have not been afraid to plan for high-density living:  Vauban’s population is currently 137 people per hectare, the highest by far of any of the Freiburg city districts, and the density in Rieselfeld is 100 per hectare.  The average for the city as a whole is 49 [4].

Exeter

The policy response to Exeter’s housing need has been, reasonably enough, to get more houses built.  The key planning document, the Core Strategy (no longer as key as it was, but that’s another story), commits to an increase of at least 12,000 dwellings within the city boundaries between 2006 and 2026.  As a result, major developments of several hundred houses have grownn and are growing up on the city’s fringes, particularly to the east, pushing against the city’s administrative boundary.

Many of these developments are housing-driven, with little by the way of the services that make life tolerable.  In a growth area in the east of the city, a proposal for a shopping centre was refused by the city council on the grounds that it could have an adverse impact on trade in the city centre.  To be fair to the council, the proposal was a bit OTT, and plans for a more modest district shops and services centre would probably have been approved.  Meanwhile the residents are as far away for easily accessible shops as ever, yet another example why planning is too important to be left to “the market”.

A characteristic of Exeter’s housing developments is that they sprawl, often onto greenfields.  Despite fine words in planning documents, it seems to be impossible to impose any sort of density requirement on house-builders through the planning system, and to prevent the gradual (and not so gradual) erosion of unprotected green space.  It’s common knowledge that housebuilders prefer building 3-4 bed “executive homes” with garages and gardens, because they will make greater profits than from building 1-bed apartments.  It’s also common knowledge that they prefer building on green space rather than brownfield – previously developed – land.

One consequence of Exeter running out of developable space has been a new settlement, Cranbrook, over the boundary in East Devon.  Started 5 years ago, currently at 1,300 homes, it is planned to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, all on greenfield land.  This new town has very little to do with East Devon’s own housing need, and everything to with Exeter’s: as late as September 2015, a report to Devon County Council concluded that decisions needed to be taken on “whether Cranbrook would constitute a standalone development in the future or an urban extension of Exeter, linking with other developments taking place in its vicinity as part of a wider growth corridor” [5].

Cranbrook is modestly described in East Devon’s Local Plan [6] as follows: “[the} efforts in delivering this self-sufficient, low-carbon new town, the first stand-alone settlement in Devon since the Middle Ages, have won national acclaim.  A sustainable community located close to real employment opportunities, among them a significant number of highly-skilled jobs, will be an exemplar for green travel.”

Ho hum.  A quick, and admittedly not comprehensive, comparison with the green district of Vauban raises a few questions about these claims.

  • First, and crucially, there are no car restrictions in Cranbrook. Almost every house has a garage or a car parking space, so there is no incentive for the residents to use public transport.  This is not surprising because, second comparison, public transport is sparse.  There is a train once an hour from the new station – opened two years late – west to Exeter or east to Honiton and beyond.  The bus service to Exeter is half-hourly most of the day.

160807 Brooks Warren(1)

 

  • Cycles are a rare sight. On a weekday morning there was one parked at the railway station.

160817 Stn bike park weekday(2)

  • Vauban has its central spine, walkable from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but the overall shape of the place is rectangular.  Cranbrook is a linear sausage, planned to become even longer in the future.  Both are the products of the site allocated by the planners:  Vauban based on a former barracks, Cranbrook squashed in between a railway line to the north and a former trunk road to the south.  The planners’ density assumption for Cranbrook is 40 dwellings per hectare (excluding green space) [7]

Like Vauban, Cranbrook has a district heating scheme, which is laudable.

Cranbrook’s housing design has been largely left to the developers and house builders.  Apart from the broad locations of housing set out in the Local Plan, there is – perhaps surprisingly – no development plan for the town.  East Devon District Council is currently preparing one, which won’t be adopted until mid-2017 [8].  There is something to be said for not designing a place in full until there are sufficient residents to generate worthwhile public input; but it leaves a great deal to house-builders at the outset.  And, unlike Vauban, the big house-builders are all that’s on offer: Bovis, Taylor Wimpey, Charles Church and Persimmon all strut their stuff.

That said, there have been serious efforts to provide affordable housing.  In the first development phase, 300 houses were offered at social rents or on shared ownership terms, and a further 100 at below market prices on the grounds that their rooms are 20% smaller than average. [9].

It’s probably unfair to judge the “feel” of Cranbrook at this stage.  It’s still being built, and it’s dwarfed by housing.  Yet I’ve met people who live there and rave about it.  Let’s just say it’s got a very long way to go to be a green exemplar, though with intelligent planning and strong local leadership it could get there.

 So what?

These differences between Freiburg and Exeter reflect in large measure wider social and political differences, in particular the embracing by the UK’s – or at least England’s – political classes of market-driven doctrines over the past 30 years.  This contrasts with the “managed social economy” approach prevailing in Germany and much of the rest of the EU.  Whether England’s bosses will ever realise that the market is not the solution to everything is at present unanswerable.

Meanwhile there are lessons in the Exeter-Freiburg comparison, which I will elaborate in future posts: how plans are developed, and community engagement; the relationship between local government and the private sector, and the former’s relationship with central government; the involvement of social and co-operative enterprises; and investment in transport.

 

NOTES:

[1] The website www.vauban.de provides a wealth of information about the origins of the district, some of it in English (though much needs updating).  Freiburg City Council’s website is authoritative but mostly in German: for Vauban, see http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208732.html. The Google translation tool at [..] makes a valiant if not wholly successful effort at rendering German planning-speak into English planning-speak.

[2] See the entry in Freiburg City Council’s website at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208560.html (in German)

[3] English text available at http://www.greencity-cluster.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Downloads/Environmental_policy_Freiburg.pdf. Page 9 refers.

[4] These figures refer to population per hectare of developed land (“besiedelter Fläche”), so are less prone to distortion from large areas of greenspace in an area.. They are from page 34 of the 2015 edition of the excellent 300-page compendium of statistics published by Freiburg City Council, available at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/site/Freiburg/get/params_E1938626907/906571/statistik_veroeffentlichungen_Jahrbuch_2015-NIEDRIG.pdf  .

[5]  See para 9 of the report at http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_cs1519.html

[6] Available at: www.eastdevon.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/local-plan-2013-2031/

[7]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/planning-libraries/evidence-document-library/chapter8.1-housing/hsg012-cranbrookexpansionoptions.pdf

[8]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook/

[9] More detail at http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook-new-community/

 

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 2

In a previous post I highlighted the flamboyantly named Greater Exeter Visioning Board, announced with a fanfare of trumpets and then shifted off into the dark shadows of proceedings held behind firmly closed doors.  This post reports the uncomfortable outcome of my further investigations.

Having been told by Exeter City Council that the minutes of the Visioning Board were not made public, I asked some more questions.  The City Council’s answers are below.

Q1: Under what authority the board was established and who agreed its terms of reference?

A1: A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed by the Leaders and Chief Executives of Exeter City Council, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council in November 2014.  The Memorandum of Understanding is not a legally binding document but all parties use all reasonable endeavours to comply with the terms and spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding. 

Q2:  The reasons for its decision not to publish agendas and minutes?

A2:  Many of the issues that are discussed at the Board relate to the growth of the Greater Exeter area.  It is considered that the board needs to be able to have open discussions through which they can develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions.  Disclosure of these discussions may inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice, or the offering or requesting of opinions for consideration. 

Q3:  Whether it reports its proceedings to councillors and, if so, what opportunities are open to councillors to scrutinise its work?

A3:  Council Leaders and Deputy Leaders from each of the three authorities sit on the board.

Q4:  If it does not report its proceedings to councillors, to whom is the board accountable?

A4:  See above.

Answer 3 was a little less than forthcoming, so I checked the website (again) to see if anything about the Visioning Board had been reported to any minuted meeting of a Council committee.  Nothing found.  I asked the Council if I was missing something, and the reply was that no such reporting back could be traced.

So, there we are.  A body that is set up to “develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions” about the growth of Greater Exeter has been meeting in secret for over a year, with its members not even reporting back to the councillors they lead.  It’s possible that the Exeter City Council members have been keeping the mysterious Planning Member Working Group informed, but since its proceedings are also secret, we do not know.

Having spent 30 years as a Whitehall civil servant, I’m ready to agree that politicians and officials need the space to discuss ideas openly without press and public in the room.  But what is astonishing about the Visioning Board is that it was set up with a blaze of publicity, a formal MoU and regular monthly meetings.  And it appears to have been taking decisions in secret that could have major implications for Exeter.

So what’s next?

We can at least now speculate what the Visioning Board was up to.  On 12 July, the City Council’s Executive (the lead councillors) discussed a report by the Assistant Director City Development which set out proposals for establishing:

“a joint strategic plan for the Greater Exeter area which would be prepared in partnership between East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council with assistance from Devon County Council. The plan would cover the geographical area of the 4 partner authorities (excluding the area of Dartmoor National Park) but would be limited in scope to cover strategic issues and strategic allocations within those areas with local issues to be considered through linked local plans prepared by each partner authority for their area.” [1]

This was nodded through and then approved by the full Council on 26 July.

In a future post I will explore the challenges for serious public engagement presented by this form of joint working.  For the moment, let’s just say that the gestation of this proposal behind closed doors, and the underlying assumption that joint planning is a technocratic issue rather than something which asks the communities what sort of Greater Exeter we want (if indeed we want one at all) does not augur well.

Or is there another agenda?

Of course, I might be completely wrong, and the Greater Exeter Visioning Board has been discussing something completely different.  But if so, what?  A Greater Exeter Unitary Authority perhaps?  There is an obvious link between the joint strategic plan proposal and the so-called “Devolution” bid for spending powers to be transferred from central government to the “Heart of the South West”, made up of Devon County Council, Somerset County Council, Torbay Council and Plymouth City Council [2].  The district councils like Exeter are at present secondary players in this, a position with which Exeter for one is not comfortable.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The full report is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s52597/EXECUTIVE%20-%20Proposed%20Greater%20Exeter%20Strategic%20Plan%20-%2012%20July%202016%20-%20FINAL.pdf

[2]  I will have more to say about the “Devolution” bid in a later post .  Meanwhile a useful update is at item 76 of the minutes of the Exeter City Council Executive meeting on 12 July, at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=4469&Ver=4