Tag Archives: Exeter City Futures

Really, it’s not all bad news

Once the coronavirus is fully under control, there is much to look forward to, and even some things to welcome while we’re still in lockdown; the climate emergency clock is still ticking.

Historians reckon the Black Death of the mid-14th century killed at least a third of the population of Britain. So the first bit of good news is that we’re not living in the mid-14th century.

The second is how resilient Exeter is proving to be. Key services continue to operate – waste collections, street cleaning, buses, the NHS, chemists, supermarkets, local shops. Parks are open, the lockdown seems to be generally observed, and strangers are more ready to nod or stutter a greeting when passing in the street – countryside manners prevail. This may well be the case elsewhere in England, but the rules prevent me from going anywhere else to find out.

The city council continues to conduct essential business by remote means, indeed believing itself to be the first to do so. This worked successfully until last Monday when the planning committee meeting was abandoned because Virgin Media, the internet service provider, had what are known as “outages”.

In other news, the council has been exemplary in mobilising what resources a small district council can in supporting people who need help during the emergency:

  • It has contacted all businesses in the city eligible for a business support grant.
  • It has set up Exeter Community Wellbeing to put individuals wanting support in touch with organisations and individuals that can provide it. I had my own offer to volunteer rejected by the national scheme on the grounds that it couldn’t verify my identity (after thinking about it, I found this rather reassuring). The good news is that the Exeter scheme threw up no such obstacle.
  • It has launched a £1 million community grants programme to support Covid-19 related issues with assistance from the Exeter Chiefs Foundation.
  • It is setting up a hardship fund for people experiencing financial difficulties.

And the council is doing so despite huge budgetary pressures, including losing over £1 million a month in car parking fees. It doesn’t have to do any of this, but it has rightly chosen to do so.

Although the restaurant and café trade in the city has been clobbered with enforced closures, many are offering home delivery or take-away services. As a regular at Devon Coffee in Queen Street it’s a great pleasure to find the proprietor, Justine, serving take-away coffee and cakes from the café doorway..

Wildlife is having a great time. Without being gawked at all day by humans, Hong Kong’s pandas have become relaxed enough to mate. The arrival of goats in the middle of Llandudno, filling the space vacated by holidaymakers, will be one of the iconic images of the emergency. At home here in Exeter the bird song is more audible and varied than we have ever experienced it.

Looking to the future, the opportunities – and indeed necessities – for a rethink of much of how we live, including the design of our cities, are intensified by the present crisis. But before the virus arrived there were already encouraging signs of an acceptance of change in Exeter.

Not least, the return of high-density housing to the live agenda, in the form of a planning application to build 400 accommodation units, much at high density (not the same as high-rise) on old railway land at Exmouth Junction. The project will provide car parking provision for only half of the dwellings, car sharing opportunities, electric charging points and 1,000 cycle parking spaces. It was approved as an outline scheme by the council’s planning committee on 16 March despite local objections, and stands as welcome evidence that councillors as well as officers are now serious about making Exeter a sustainable and green city. The vision outlined last year is a small step closer to reality.

High density housing was well-known to the Victorians and Edwardians, as I explained in the first-ever presentation at the first-ever Exeter City Futures Connect event in March 2017, and which I elaborated in a subsequent blog post. Ideally suited to urban brownfield land, well-designed high density housing ticks a lot of the climate emergency boxes: denser local populations make public transport more viable, good energy use, communal space, efficient use of land, only limited space for private car parking.

Which leads into the next bit of good news, from Exeter City Futures itself, in the form of a plan to turn Exeter into a Net Zero Carbon city by 2030. There are questions – to be explored another time – on why the plan took so long to develop and whether the wider community really is on board with it, but it is a substantial achievement. Published and handed over to the city council on 7 April, the preoccupation of all public bodies with the coronavirus meant the timing could not have been worse. It will be important to ensure action follows on from the plan as soon as possible, and everyone who cares about the future of our city and our planet should study it and lobby for action.

It’s not as if change is too difficult. For example, Britain’s reducing dependence on coal as an energy source continues apace: on 28 April, we notched up the longest continuous period without using coal-fired power since the Industrial Revolution, according to National Grid data.

The reduction in traffic has been beneficial, not just in terms of a quieter and freer environment but also in improving air quality. At the time of writing air pollution at all 165 Defra measuring sites is ranked 2 or 3, where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest. Given that there is some, though limited, evidence of a link between high air pollution and the risk of dying from Covid-19, then is this a potential virtuous circle? Not to mention the scope for reducing the number of deaths from air pollution alone, estimated by Public Health England to be between 28,000 and 36,000 each year.

The response to the virus has shown that many more of us can work from home, at least for part of a working week. The costs of homeworking in terms of reduced face to face contact, putting on weight, feelings of isolation and lack of casual networking with colleagues have yet to be measured (and doubtless many academics are already plotting suitable surveys and chasing the funding for them). But the benefits of reduced commuting and other travel, more family or leisure time, and less stress in dashing from one place to another are surely already visible, if unquantified. This could have profound implications for where we live, in what sort of accommodation, how and when we travel and the structures of work.

Exeter was recently ranked the 10th greenest city (out of 59) in the UK by the Solar Centre. Its score was heavily influenced by a very favourable statistic on recycling: on other measures such as emissions the performance was more middle of the road. The point about these surveys is not their accuracy – it’s not difficult to pick holes in the methodology – but that they show effort and potential across a range of indicators. Exeter is in the right part of the spectrum but with some challenges ahead.

The Net Zero Carbon plan sets out some paths to follow. Covid-19 is both an opportunity and an impetus to start delivering.

How to give Exeter’s climate emergency plans some welly

The coronavirus crisis has led to some reworking of the actions to develop a practical response to the climate emergency in Exeter.  This could be an opportunity to make the plans more robust.

Yesterday, 26 March, should have been the climax of public engagement activity in the development of a “roadmap” to a carbon neutral city by Exeter City Futures (ECF). What was planned was a “summit”, to be held at Exeter City Football Club – though presumably not on the pitch – at which various significant persons would outline their thoughts and then the rest of us who had registered to attend would offer our input.  The aim of the summit was to give a final steer to the roadmap, due to be handed over to Exeter City Council at the end of March. However, the summit has become a predictable victim of the coronavirus crisis.

Readers unfamiliar with key events since Exeter City Council declared a climate emergency in July 2019 will find this article in the Exeter Observer a helpful briefing.

As I noted in that article, a key weakness of the ECF Blueprint as a basis for public engagement was the absence of data to enable people to make informed choices about which of the 89 specifications for a carbon-neutral Exeter they considered the most important. Nor was such information available in the mobile “creative conversations” van from Totnes that popped up around the city, breakdowns permitting.

Since writing the article, I’ve come across some potentially very useful work carried out by Ashden, a sustainable energy consultancy, and the campaign group Friends of the Earth. Their project sets out an evidence-based list of the 31 most effective actions councils can take on climate. But this is not just a list, as in the Blueprint. It comes with a downloadable spreadsheet packed with empirical data which can be applied to each of the 31 actions for any given population. What the data does is enable anyone to rank the actions according to their effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions, factoring in costs and ease of implementation. The narrative highlights additional benefits from particular actions, such as improvements to health, resilience and equity.

Of course there’s a risk if a formulaic tool is followed without regard for local circumstances. But it’s better than anything we’ve had on offer locally, and could serve as a valuable starting point for an informed discussion of priorities.

Meanwhile, the postponement of the summit has led to some confusion. In a statement ECF stated that although the summit would not now take place as scheduled, the plan (aka the Routemap) would still be delivered to the City Council “on schedule”, in other words very soon. This raises an interesting question: if the plan can be handed over to the council without the benefit of input from the summit, then what exactly was the point of the summit?

ECF has given itself some wriggle room. Having told the Council’s Strategic Scrutiny Committee on 16 January that the final plan would be delivered to the Council’s Chief Executive by the end of March, the Net Zero Exeter website – also operated by ECF – now gives the date as being “April 2020”.

So, let’s hope that the extra time allows the Ashden work or something like it to be used to transform the Blueprint into a useful plan.

Doing Council business differently: Part 2 – Leadership

Not long ago, an Exeter city councillor on the Executive said to me that he might be called old-fashioned but he saw it as his job, having been elected, to take the right decisions as he saw them.  He was right: he is old-fashioned.

Whether councillors like it or not, the paternalistic or top-down model of local governance is no longer fit for purpose.  The stories in the Where We Are Now section of this blog demonstrate this.  Faced with sustained expenditure cuts imposed by a central government hostile to the concept of public services and the ever-increasing dominance of “out-sourced” services operated for private profit, local government needs more than ever to win the trust -and support – of its citizens and demonstrate its commitment to serving communities.

My previous post on Engagement sets out one key strand in the process of regaining trust.  But that is unlikely to happen without a change in the concept of leadership by councils.  In a book [1] that should be mandatory reading for all council leaderships – politicians and officers alike – Professor Robin Hambleton argues persuasively that the traditional “city boss” must be replaced by a leader who facilitates rather than dictates.  He argues for a form of leadership that is dispersed rather than centralised, mobilising talents and expertise outside the council to collaborate on developing and implementing a “place-based” vision.  He warns of the risks to cohesive and sustainable communities of the “place-less” organisations, such as national land developers, major retail chains and others whose loyalties are to themselves and their shareholders rather than to local residents, businesses and environments.  The Exeter City Council’s leadership’s enthusiasm for IKEA is likely to as misplaced as its belief in the private sector being the lynchpin of the bus station site redevelopment.

The World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs have collaborated on a guidebook [2] for city leaders who want to encourage innovation.  It recognises that technological change which is simply imposed from above will not generate the benefits sought by that change, and proposes forms of policy co-ownership in shaping the future.  In particular it foresees a model in which the nature of political trust changes, from a commitment to fulfilling promises (delivering policy objects) to a commitment to openness, transparency, inclusiveness and shared ownership (delivering policy processes).

All this is highly relevant to Exeter City Council’s ambition be in the vanguard of innovative cities.  The partnership with Exeter City Futures in delivering a transformation agenda is a hopeful beginning [3] but we have yet to see how it will play out.  Meanwhile, there is little evidence of the top-down approach being supplanted:  an emerging project tells us that the city’s mantra is “Exeter. Live Better”, though it’s not clear that those of us who live here wake up every morning reciting it; and – more seriously – the ruling group this month rushed through a decision to demolish a Council-owned sports facility and sell off the land – potentially including open green space – for housing without any pretence of public engagement [4].

Political leaders can lead.  But in 21st century democracies the divergence between leading and telling needs to grow more strongly than ever.  One of the most valuable forms of local political leadership is to lead on the identification of issues for debate, and perhaps even lead the debate itself.  Yet it has to be an inclusive debate, which shows the council is listening, responding and developing key policies and plans which are visibly shaped by that debate.

There are rumours of an impending change in the leadership of the Exeter City Council’s ruling group.  This is an opportunity for a transformation to a more inclusive and facilitative leadership style, and it isn’t tokenism to suggest that the most suitable new leaders reside within the group’s female membership.  Watch that space.

 

NOTES

[1] Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, Robin Hambleton, Policy Press, 2015.

[2] Citizen-Driven Innovation: A guidebook for city mayors and public administrators. World Bank and the European Network of Living Labs, 2015. Available via http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/629961467999380675/Citizen-driven-innovation-a-guidebook-for-city-mayors-and-public-administrators

[3] See https://www.exetercityfutures.com/news/exeter-city-futures-strengthens-partnership-exeter-city-council/

[4] See https://exeter.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/sport-and-leisure/our-leisure-facilities/clifton-hill-sports-centre/

Doing Council business differently: Part 1 – Engagement

In several previous posts, brought together in Can the Council be a leader?, I have illustrated why I believe Exeter City Council needs to change its political and administrative culture if it is to succeed in harnessing the energy and talents within the city to make it a truly liveable place in the 21st century.  I’m not suggesting Exeter’s  council is unique in needing to change:  I focus on it because I live in and care about Exeter.

In this and successive posts, I suggest ways in which the Council can change, using four headings:

  • Engagement
  • Leadership
  • Openness
  • Governance

This first post addresses what could be done to engage better with the communities the Council exists to serve.

Why engage?

In the age of deference, it was enough to elect MPs and councillors, then leave decision-making to them, informed by central and local government professional staff.  That age has passed, but a readiness in some quarters to leave the elected representatives to get on with things persists – though driven more by apathy and despair at the quality of our governance rather than by any deferential attitudes.  Where the pip squeaks is when a council – and it is usually a council – takes a decision that upsets, inconveniences or affects the quality of life of individuals.  The fact that these decisions appear to come out of the blue brings our governance further into disrepute.

Good engagement between decision-takers and communities helps address this.  Decisions are supported by a much richer and locally-specific evidence base; and communities feel engaged with the decisions and more understanding of the factors affecting it.  It is a part of a wider necessary democratic renewal.

What is engagement?

Real engagement with communities – whether they be residential, business, sports, public service, local interest groups and so on – is not something that comes naturally to Exeter City Council.  The Council claims that it consults on many issues; and so it does.  The problem is that “consultation” doesn’t tick all the boxes, as the following table shows:

CONSULTATION by Council ENGAGEMENT with communities
Asks for comments (often as multiple-choice answers) on a proposal that has already been worked out in detail. Council explains the issue (eg, problem to be solved, development to be pursued) and seeks views on how best to solve/advance it before putting forward proposals.
Feedback, when it occurs, is limited to summary of voting numbers and some identification of common concerns.  No or minimal explanation of how the consultation has influenced the final decision. A continued dialogue is maintained, with the Council explaining how the engagement process has influenced their thinking, followed by a willingness to continue to engage as proposals evolve.
Respondents are self-selecting, often confined to those with a developed interest in public affairs or happen to be in the High St and drop into an exhibition. Participants are actively sought out by the Council.
Consultation exhibitions are typically on one day, in the city centre, and consisting of a few explanatory boards and an encouragement to fill out the response form there and then. Flexible arrangements for engagement events are mutually agreed
There is limited scope for individual or community learning – essentially an isolated activity, although some organised groups do prepare considered responses Opportunities arise for people/groups to improve their understanding of issues and for action learning (see comment below on the Heavitree project)

 

Engage on what?  Macro or micro?

There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that too many people only wake up to the consequences of a policy decision when it hits them personally.  Planning applications are a common example (see below) but so are school and hospital closures [1], car park charges increases, park closures for special events, new student accommodation, and so on.  The common thread here is the event is invariably a consequence of a policy decision taken a year or more ago, with minimal consultation, let alone engagement.   Who remembers the Car Parking Strategy when the charges go up in line with it? [2].

Then there are the really macro policies, above all the pursuit of economic growth.  It spills out of every strategy, it’s the justification for housebuilding, it underpins policy support for the steady spread of the city eastwards into the Business Park, the Science Park, the Skypark, the large retail sites (including IKEA, arriving any time now) and the consequent loss of open space and increased traffic.  The City Council’s Chief Executive wrote in the local paper last week [3] that Exeter is striving to be “world class” and that we all share in this endeavour.  Perhaps we do, and perhaps being “world class” is a good thing; but when did anyone last take the trouble to explain what it means, how far achieving it is dependent on continued economic growth and – crucially – ask us if that a future we all want?

Constraints on engagement

Good engagement is not cost-free: staff time, meeting costs, and intellectual effort are all impacted by it.  The choice for the Council is whether these modest costs are outweighed by the benefits of good engagement.  Nor is engagement free of time constraints, though the Council’s aim should be to build engagement into their project planning as an integral element (not just a line at the end saying “public consultation”).

Engagement on planning applications presents particular challenges, because of the time limits for taking decisions.  What is important here is that planning policy – the yardstick against which individual planning decisions are taken – is drawn up using good engagement principles in place of the present outrage in which planners give themselves 18 months or more to draft a plan and expect those of us whose lives will be affected by it to comment in 6 weeks [4].  Small surprise that there are storms of protest from Pinhoe when an application for another 150 houses comes in.

Who does the Council engage with?

The list is endless, though the constraints noted above impose practical limits.  But engagement is not about talking to the usual players, such as the NHS, the University and the Chamber of Commerce – they employ people whose job it is to influence the Council.  Real engagement involves a wide range of interested parties, some of whom will be organised single-interest groups with an understanding of lobbying.  Others will not be so organised, will have multiple interests and will need to be sought out and engaged.  But the key is for the Council to work out at the beginning who will be impacted by what it is thinking of doing, and being them into the process from the start.

For this, new mechanisms are not always necessary.  Area-based community associations exist around the city, but they vary in both ambition and effectiveness.  Given a helping hand, all could become forums for bringing together interested members of their community to discuss emerging issues with councillors and officers before ideas become set-in-stone proposals.  Set up attractive events, designed to encourage people to get engaged.  These can be city-wide or local, depending on the task in hand.

There is also a huge amount of professional expertise around the city to be tapped into.  Retired doctors, policy analysts, service managers, engineers and academics are just some of the people who could be engaged in helping the Council work its way through issues.  They would not be paid but would have the time, free of the distractions and self-interest involved in earning a living.  They would be far better value for money than the firms of consultants to which the Council is so addicted.

One caution.  The people in the Council who need to do the engaging are the people responsible for the issue in question.  Having people who understand communications and event management is useful, but their role is behind the scenes.

Can any of this work?

The Heavitree Community Partnership, involving the City Council, Exeter City Futures, the University and – above all – local residents and schools – is a possible pointer to a better future [5].  The jury is still out on its longer-term impacts, but there is evidence of genuine engagement on how to solve traffic problems in the city as well as spin-offs in learning techniques for the residents (eg how to measure air pollution).  It may not be the exact model for every situation but it is hugely promising.

To scale up Heavitree, or something like it, into the normal way the Council conducts its business will require new approaches to leadership, to be discussed in a future post.

NOTES

[1] Schools and health are handled by Devon County Council and the myriad NHS bodies respectively; but the principle is the same.

[2] The City Council’s Car Parking Strategy 2016-2026 does demonstrate some consultation bordering on engagement (see pages 15-18), with a 70-strong stakeholder workshop.  Users were represented by a small (20 respondents) focus group selected by a market research company.

[3]  Express & Echo, 26 April 2018, page 21.  The paper’s website – Devonlive.com – defeats my attempts at finding the online version of the article.

[4]  Although there are encouraging signs that pressure for a longer consultation period on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan is bearing a little fruit.  8 weeks, rather than 6, is being proposed in a report to councillors (page 30).

[5]  A report on the project was presented to the City Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee on 8 March 2018.

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/

Up for a transport challenge?

The Exeter City Futures challenge fund approach to making the Exeter area congestion-free is not for the faint-hearted.

Exeter City Futures (ECF) is a community interest company with a mission to make Exeter and the surrounding area sustainable for the future.  Their first goals are to make the area congestion-free and energy-independent by 2025.  Not much time then, so it’s good to see a concrete initiative coming forward.

ECF has just launched a specific challenge as part of the congestion-free goal. The website [1] states:

A group of employers based at Exeter Business Park have expressed a requirement for an alternative transport choice for commuting to their offices so they can reduce the number of private cars arriving at site.

We’re offering an amazing opportunity for an early stage start-up to develop and deploy a service that is as attractive and flexible as the private car and presents a viable and investable business model for growth.

Can employees travel to work via a responsive, on-demand minibus service? Can it take you from where you want, to where you want, when you want, all for the price of a bus fare?

Are you up for the challenge? If you have a concept that has potential to deliver a successful service, then apply now.

The website gives details of the support available to the selected concept, which is significant, including £15,000, a 17-seat minibus and lots of mentoring and access to data.  The plan is that the concept is worked up into a saleable proposal (“incubated”), with the potential to scale up.

Now I’m far too relaxed to be pitching for this sort of thing myself, but it strikes me that the prescriptive nature of the invitation might be designed to attract only those who like a mission near-impossible (and why not?).  In particular, why is a minibus service the preferred solution?  It seems to rule out alternative packages such as a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) [2] approach involving different transport modes and providers which could achieve the same goal, if the right partners could be found (though perhaps the idea of Stagecoach participating in a MaaS is a bridge too far [3]).  Less elaborately, what about a simple behaviour-change model in which staff at the business park are charged for parking but receive a bus season ticket in return?  OK, the half-hourly B bus doesn’t quite meet the “on-demand” requirement.

So, seen in that light, the minibus service outlined in the invitation is a worthwhile goal in its own right, however tough.  If I were judging the final proposals – whether they’d been through the incubation route or submitted direct – I’d be looking for the following assurances:

  • A business plan that makes use of smart technology to keep costs down and customer convenience up, so that the service offers a real alternative to the private car.
  • A method of generating income that enables the operator to manage troughs in demand.
  • An operating model that demonstrates reliability in the service, including the use of smart technology to maximise the efficient use of minibuses in line with customer requirements.
  • Similarly, a model that demonstrates resilience: number of minibuses, responsibility for operating and maintaining the fleet.
  • Non-exploitative employment conditions for staff and/or contractors.
  • Regulatory issues identified and resolved, eg need to involve Traffic Commissioners, use of bus lanes.
  • Potential to scale up so that large parts of the city would be covered by this transport model, which requires a good understanding of commuting and other travel patterns.
  • Who other partners – customers and providers – in scaling up might be.
  • Realistic assumptions about how many private cars could be taken off the road at each phase of expansion.
  • And, as a prejudice of my own, the opportunity for developing a social enterprise rather than shareholder value business.

There’ll be other issues to resolve.  It all sounds great fun, but also very hard work.  Let’s hope the bright and savvy people out there will make a go of it.  And congratulations to the Exeter City Futures team for generating the opportunity.

NOTES:

[1] https://www.exetercityfutures.com/programme/open-for-application/

[2] For an explanation of MaaS, see http://maas-alliance.eu/

[3] That said, it’s encouraging to see Stagecoach South West moving in the right direction with the introduction of a smart phone app through which passengers can buy day tickets and just show them to the driver on the phone rather than scramble for cash (and delay the bus).  Details at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/news/south-west/2017/january/mobile-ticketing-launched-across-stagecoach-south-west

Let’s support the thinkers

Change – particularly difficult or contested change – needs a clear purpose if it is to stand any chance of acceptance.  Why should I leave my comfy car at home and stand on a freezing railway station waiting for a delayed and crowded train?  Why should I turn down the central heating in those parts of the house which the warmth from the multi-fuel stove doesn’t reach?  Why shouldn’t I fully participate in the annual orgy of consumption that is Christmas?

The answer, of course, depends on whether you believe we can go on plundering the planet’s resources.  Climate change deniers think we can, but they’re not looking at the evidence.  The overwhelming consensus among people who know what they’re talking about is we need to change our consumption habits.  But we need help.

Public authorities have generally been slow to promote innovation.  That’s not surprising, even though depressing, because politicians are risk-averse.  So we need new approaches to encouraging change.

Exeter City Futures is a new kid on the block.  It’s a not-for-dividend community interest company, with a small staff of bright people [1].  They are exploring options for making Exeter a sustainable city, starting from the premise that our current level of energy use is too high for the planet’s continued existence and that the level will increase by 50% unless we intervene to change things.  Unlike large cities where turnaround times are going to be up to 50 years, Exeter is sufficiently small for ECF to believe that significant change can be achieved within 10 years.

Sensibly, ECF is not trying to do everything.  At least initially, there is a focus on two goals for Exeter: to become energy-independent, in the sense of generating its own managed energy needs; and to reduce traffic congestion to zero.  Because transport – or more accurately our mobility needs and urges – is a key driver of energy use (40% of the total according to ECF using government figures), and because it occupies a central place in spatial planning, that’s what this and some subsequent posts will discuss.

A key element of the ECF analysis is that we use our resources inefficiently.  Congestion exists because there are too many private vehicles, which sit parked for much of the day doing nothing.  The aim should be to design a system where all vehicles are in use all of the time moving people to their destinations.  It’s worth recalling that the public sector railway industry spotted this decades ago:  those of a certain age may recall railway sidings full of carriages that were only wheeled out at summer weekends for the extra traffic.  Well before privatisation, the sidings became grass or houses or supermarkets, and the carriages were long gone to the breaker’s yard.

So the ECF approach is to develop carrots that will change social norms, so that – for example – owning your own car is seen as odd behaviour.  This is where MaaS (Mobility as a Service) comes in.  Taken to its full potential, you would buy a mobility package like you buy a mobile phone package.  Depending on what you pay for, you could have public transport and/or private car journeys on tap, without having to own a car.  It’s beginning to happen in Helsinki.

There are other approaches which don’t go the whole hog to MaaS.  For example, driverless cars – which are legal in the UK, though not in most of the rest of Europe – enable you to spend driving time working or thinking or looking out of the window or talking to your partner.  And the technology means that the hire car will come to you, saving that tedious journey to go and pick it up.

On air quality, electric vehicles have greatly improved.  Affordable electric cars can hold a 100-mile charge, which would cover about 3 days of commuting in and out of Exeter.

Journey information is a mis-used term.  Think of all those pretty LCD signs that used to adorn the bus stops in the centre of Exeter.  Or the invitation to text a bus stop code to find out when you might be on your way.  Sadly, all they told you was when the next bus was due, not when it was actually coming.  New panels are now appearing, hopefully with real time information.  Knowing when your bus or train is coming is key to encouraging people to rely on public transport.

Simple things, like tickets (or smart cards) that can be used on buses and trains.  London’s Oyster Card is brilliant, and the challenge is to do it in a fragmented transport system like Devon’s.  But it makes life easier, and making life easier is an important carrot to get people out of their private cars.

ECF are looking at these options, and more.  They deserve encouragement, though they’ll need to carry people with them at the same time.  The local authorities will need to open their minds to radical thinking and be prepared to take a few risks.  Carefully chosen demonstration projects should help.

Nothing is straightforward.  Devon is a large rural county.  If you can make the train service from, say, Honiton to Exeter more attractive, how do you make it so compelling that people who have to drive from their rural homes to get to Honiton don’t just decide to carry on in the car to Exeter?  Any answers?

Funding is the elephant in the room.  I’ll look at this in future posts.

NOTES

[1]   This post draws shamlessly – and selectively – on two presentations by ECF.  One by Glenn Woodcock, the CEO, to the Exeter Civic Society on 18 June; the other by Stephen Dunphy, the mobilty issues lead, at an ECF seminar on 23 June.

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

A Green future for Exeter?

This blog is about Exeter – what needs to change, what needs to be conserved, and how what’s needed can happen.  Much of what I will write is, I hope, applicable to other similar communities; and indeed to some that are very different.

It’s written from a Green perspective, though it does not always follow adopted Green Party policy. Nor do I speak here for the Green Party, despite being an active member in Exeter. Much of the content will be familiar to local Party friends and colleagues, because it reflects our shared belief that society should be organized for the common good respecting the limitations of the planet and not for the convenience of the financially privileged.

The starting pistol for this blog was fired twice during January.

On 20 January we witnessed a pyrrhic victory of the ruling Labour group on Exeter City Council who – despite extensive and well-informed opposition from community groups – gave outline planning approval to a deeply flawed scheme for redeveloping the city centre bus and coach station site. At this stage the details are not important: suffice it to say that the development will do nothing to help create the sustainable community we need. It is a triumph of the increasingly redundant “old politics”, which I will describe in the next two posts on this blog.

Then, a week later, the Exeter City Futures project was formally launched. Under the strap line of “Our City, Our Say” – though who “our” is in this context might be debated – the project promises to “reimagine” the city’s future, using data analytics and technology to identify solutions for a sustainable city and draw in capital investment. The project is run jointly by the city council and Andromeda Capital an Exeter-based company which invests in projects with essentially green ideals. How this project might evolve, and how the people of Exeter and wider Devon can influence it, will be reviewed in a future post.

First, though, where are we heading? What could the Exeter of the future be like? To provide an “anchor” for this blog, to give it a sense of purpose, I’ve set out here my own take on that future.  This isn’t a masterplan, and it may evolve during the life of the blog.

Much of this particular future can be achieved within the existing powers available to local government, aided by some substantial attitude and behaviour changes by all who live and work in Exeter. The one flight of fancy is that central government has been persuaded – perhaps by the work of the emerging Exeter City Futures project – to designate Exeter as an “Innovation Zone” which allows some creative modification of national tax and accountancy rules.

If any of this interests you, do add comments or click “Follow” for updates.