Tag Archives: Exeter

High Street Greens

We can do so much better than the current High Street business model, and its current difficulties offer Exeter new opportunities

There’s a lot of truth in the observation that Exeter’s city centre is a “clone town”.  Along the length of the High Street and in the shopping centres at Guildhall and Princesshay, the retail frontage of the national chain stores far exceeds that of one-off local businesses.  That’s not surprising.  Exeter has long held ambitions to be the “regional capital” and having the major brands present is, whether you like it or not, a demonstration that this is a serious place with all the retail facilities that serious places are expected to provide.

This ambition underpins the Exeter’s planning policies. Unfortunately, the two main consumer sectors in the city centre – retail and food outlets – are having a fairly torrid time.  In recent weeks, we have seen national announcements galore.

  • Byron and Prezzo closing branches, and Carluccio’s calling in KPMG – Carillion’s auditors – for help.
  • The likely closure of three New Look stores in Devon, including Exeter’s.
  • The owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia announcing major losses.
  • Toys R Us and Maplin – both with Exeter branches, but outside the city centre – going into administration.

The commonly given reasons for instability in these businesses are [1]:

  • The shift to online shopping. It’s not surprising.  This week I wanted a new cover for my Samsung smartphone.  It’s not a recent model, and did any of the phone accessory shops in the city centre have what I needed?  Of course not.  I found it and paid for it on the internet in 5 minutes.  It takes a big leap of faith and logic to believe that this shift is anything other than permanent.
  • Less disposable income for discretionary spending. Inflation is up and exceeded the growth in annual earnings throughout 2017.  It’s also worth noting that despite some trumpeting in the latest report from the Centre for Cities [2] of Exeter’s success in creating private sector jobs (and, by the way, how many of these are in the gig economy?), there are some substantial downsides.  Particularly the finding that average weekly earnings in the city actually fell by 4.1% (£35 p.w) in 2016/17, the largest percentage fall of any of the 63 cities surveyed.  And the employment rate fell by 6.4% over the same period, one of the worst performances of any UK city.
  • Rising overheads. According to the BBC report, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the National Living Wage costs the industry between £1.5bn and £3bn a year.  Perhaps if businesses paid their staff properly in the first place and factored this into their business plans, the NLW wouldn’t be an issue?  The BRC also complains that business rates are “preventing retailers from delivering what their customers want in an efficient and cost-effective way.”  Haven’t business rates always been a fact of life, guys?  In the food sector, the Brexit-induced devaluation of sterling has also added to costs.
  • Over-provision. It’s simple.  Too many businesses chasing a static, or even declining, pool of customers.  Apart from the usual run of High Street businesses, Exeter also has Princesshay, Guildhall Shopping Centre, and Queen Street Dining.  These developments, and the High Street, are largely occupied by national chains, many of whom are now facing financial difficulties.  If they have to close branches, Exeter has no divine right to be spared.  Polpo in Queen St Dining, Swaroski jewellers in Princesshay, Jones the Bootmakers on the High Street and Jamie’s Italian in Bedford Square have all been and gone.  The nearest branches are usually in Bristol.  As noted above, our local economy is troubled.

It was surely recognition of these factors that informed the private sector developers’ decision last year to pull out of the scheme for redeveloping their part of the bus and coach station site.  All of the four reasons above are down, directly or indirectly, to the behaviour of businesses themselves.  Would you really invest in their performance?

So, we’re back to the city’s planners and their commitment to protecting the city centre.  Of course cities need a centre, however vibrant their district hubs may be, and Exeter is no exception.  Our best (and worst) buildings are in the centre, as are most of our entertainment venues and places where we meet.  What the planners need to start asking themselves is this:  does protecting the city centre equate to protecting its present retail offer, which may be in freefall?

The market may be ahead of them.  In the eastern Exeter, there are now three major retail developments in prospect: on surplus police land at Middlemoor, the new Moor Exchange retail park plan, and on a Western Power Distribution site.  All three are adjacent to, or close to, Honiton Road, thus setting up a new east-west retail corridor.

These edge of city developments throw down a challenge to received thinking about “protecting the city centre”.  Protect from what?  Protect from competition has been the local politicians’ and planners’ mantra [3].  Yet the City Council leadership has displayed enthusiasm verging on the orgasmic at the impending opening of an IKEA store, now under construction – not in the city centre, but on the city’s furthest eastern fringe.

The major developments proposed for the east of Exeter may in these changing circumstances actually make more sense than the knee-jerk opposition to them from many in the city.  As the city’s housing expands dramatically eastwards, there is a case to be made that Exeter’s centre of gravity has itself moved eastward.  Allowing larger shopping areas with “High Street” brands should reduce the need to make the long slog into the city centre – often by car – for people wanting to use those stores.  New purpose-built premises away from city centre congestion may allow retailers to cut operational costs and improve their long-term prospects.

And so what sort of city centre do we plan for instead?  The opportunities are endless, guided only by the principle that the centre should be low-carbon and designed for people.  Some of the ideas we can look at are:

  • Make the High Street completely traffic-free, except for an early-morning period for deliveries where there is no rear access. Buses could use the normal diversion routes when the High Street is closed for parades, and space could be provided in the redeveloped bus station for city bus services to drop/pick up passengers and do crew changes.
  • With the traffic gone, the space for people increases massively. There would be space for proper markets – not just food produce (get your greens without plastic wrapping!) but also stalls selling a diversity of locally-made products, ranging from jewellery to small furniture items, from paintings and sculpture to books and DVDs.
  • Café society in all its glory. Weather permitting, Artigiano’s shows that people like sitting outside even with the buses.  When the weather is less welcoming, apply the French model in which glass panes are brought out from the shop or café onto the pavement to provide warmth and shelter.
  • Play spaces: games for the kids, giant chess or boules for others.
  • As the big retailers move east, or go west, there will be plenty of units and pavement frontages than can be given over to new uses without involving major new construction. A policy of low rents – which the City Council as the major freeholder ought to be able to negotiate – would encourage more local businesses to emulate Fore Street.  The other attractions in the High Street should increase footfall.
  • The upper floors of the High Street buildings – often used for storage or not used at all – could be converted into apartments for a mix of rents (sorry, no students: you’re great but you’ve got enough flats already).
  • Workshops, pop-up shops, drop-in services and much more: all would have a place.
  • A permanent space for community groups to publicise themselves and win converts to their causes.

This isn’t a blueprint.  There are many if, buts and downright unknowns.  But isn’t that already true of current policy and practice?  Let’s make a change instead.



[1]   According to a BBC News analysis at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43240996

[2]   The full survey report is at http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2018/  Detailed data at http://www.centreforcities.org/data-tool/

[3]   Though a little off topic, I can’t resist quoting from the City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan, currently out for consultation (accessible via https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/summary-action-plan/ ).  In Appendix B – reasons for not pursuing particular actions – the response to the construction of a tram network is:  “No tram network is planned currently, as improvements to the bus network are proposed and the two modes would compete.”


Reclaiming our main roads for residents

It’s not only our side streets that can be made people-friendly

Traffic restraint on residential streets is not new – humps, speed limits, barriers, residents’ parking schemes, pedestrianisation, and so on.  Some of these measures have become discredited because of their impact on driving behaviour: for example speed humps encourage breaking and acceleration with consequent increased fuel consumption and noise.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a general recognition that residential streets are for people and – for as long as we have them – their own cars, even if action to develop this belief into practicable schemes is thin on the ground.

Those who live on the main roads into cities fare less well.  The A30 at its London end – the Great South West Road – was one of the capital’s inter-war major road building schemes.  Today it is a grim industrial three-lane dual carriageway corridor, with Heathrow Airport on one side and industrial buildings or open spaces on the other.  By contrast, what was the A30 at its Exeter end is the narrow East Wonford Hill, Heavitree Fore Street and then (surprisingly) Magdalen Road.  Apart from the centre of Heavitree, the road is mostly lined on both sides by housing.

Although the through traffic has alternative routes, vehicles heading for central Exeter have no choice but to use one of the main arterial roads, built for an age that could not foresee the growth of motor vehicles.  Heavitree Road has substitiuted for Magdalen Road, but Pinhoe Road, Cowick Street, Topsham Road and Alphington Road (the latter two are signposted routes from the national network) have no such relief.  All these roads are primarily residential, with some parts such as East Wonford Hill and the city end of Pinhoe Road having the houses very close to the road itself.

In my post Tackling congestion won’t make our streets liveable I suggest that tackling air pollution from traffic congestion is an essential but short-life issue.  It should not dominate our thinking at the expense of making our streets, including the main roads, liveable for people.  Yet we need, for the foreseeable future, ways of continuing to allow buses, trade vehicles and residents’ private cars to enter and exit the city centre; and until the public transport offer is improved, commuter traffic will still be with us.

Typically, an Exeter main road looks like this:


The characteristics of such roads are:

  • High volumes of traffic at peak hours, making crossing the road other than at lights or zebra crossings difficult or unsafe.
  • Traffic noise and fumes.
  • Random use of either the pavement or the road by cyclists and mobility scooters.
  • In some places (eg on Polsloe Road, Blackboy Road) the pavements are so narrow that it is impossible for people to pass without unacceptable intimacy or one of them risking life by stepping onto the road.

Separation schemes are already in use – see the cycle lane against the traffic flow on Paris Street.  However the lack of physical barriers enforcing separation weakens their impact.  The new cycle lane being built on Cumberland Way near the Met Office has such physical separation and is a welcome step forward.  Cumberland Way is wide enough to allow two lanes of traffic in addition to the cycle lane.

Yet this doesn’t do much to make the road more “liveable”, to overcome the adverse characteristics of main roads highlighted above.  For that, we need something like this:


What you see here is a primarily (but not solely) one-way street for motor traffic, with generous two-way provision for everyone else.   Vehicle drivers who live locally, ie in a side street off the main road, and who are arriving against the main flow of traffic, won’t want to drive around a large one-way system (see the final part of this post) to get to their homes, and nor should we want them to generate extra noise and fumes by having to do so.  Hence the idea of an airport-style car park barrier with vehicle licence plate recognition technology: residents simply provide proof of residence to the local authority to register their vehicle and the barrier lets them through.  A fixed barrier at the far end prevents vehicles from rat-running, and they may need to drive onto the “non-vehicle path” to avoid larger vehicles coming the other way or to unload/pick up.  An exception to the fixed barrier may be needed for buses to pass against the main traffic flow.

But what of those narrow main roads that can only manage two lanes of traffic as they are?  How do we bring in separation schemes there?  Take, for example, the west end of Pinhoe Road, so narrow that parking is prohibited on both sides.  This is a major route in and out of the city centre, so it clearly needs to accommodate traffic.  A possible solution is this:


In other words, the same principles, but with one of the “non-vehicle paths” taken out.

By now, readers’ objections are mounting.  Two issues in particular are nagging away: parking; and the evils of one-way streets.

Let’s take parking.  None of us has the right to park outside our house on a public road.  Sometimes there isn’t room without obstructing traffic.  Or there’s a double yellow line.  Or another car is parked there.  So the absence of parking provision on these new-style roads is not adding to challenges that already exist.

Next, one-way streets.  Much beloved of traffic planners in the 60s and 70s, main road one-way streets became more like race tracks, with pedestrians hemmed in behind safety barriers.  Drive into central Brighton from the north if you want a taste of it.  But those one-way streets are a nightmare because they were designed to speed up traffic.  What we need now are one-way streets which allow the traffic to flow, thus avoiding congestion and fumes, but to flow at controlled low speeds of say, 20 mph maximum.

And below is how part of a one-way system might work.  The aim is to reduce volumes of traffic on individual main roads – by making them one-way – and to improve the environment for residents of those roads by reducing the space for motor traffic and increasing the space for other users.  Barriers would be needed in side streets to prevent rat-running to escape the one-way restrictions.


OK, this is not fully worked out.  It’s a possible model to add to the options for making our cities and towns places where motor vehicles are less important than liveable spaces.

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.


[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


Normal service will resume on 3 January

Well, if you’ve read this sign on Exeter’s Stagecoach buses, not exactly.

With a delightful irony (whether intended or not, only the editor will know), today’s Express & Echo runs two adjacent stories on page 10.  The first is about an Exeter University-led project studying commuting patterns with the aim of reducing the city’s traffic congestion.  The survey stage of the project found that car commuters who also use public transport are 20% more likely to use public transport if they are influenced by the traffic congestion information they receive [1].

The second page 10 article explains in some detail how Stagecoach is celebrating the New Year by making “mergers, cuts and frequency changes” to Exeter area bus services.  And which group of bus users will be most affected by the changes?  Yep, commuters.  Two of the Park & Ride services are being merged and reduced to a 15-minute frequency (a year ago, the interval was 10 minutes).  The frequency on the commuter route from Crediton is being reduced from 4 an hour to 3 an hour (and the service from western Crediton from half-hourly to hourly).  Newton Abbot to Exeter services are cut from 3 an hour to 2 an hour, though passengers will doubtless feel greatly compensated by the news that their buses will in future be painted purple.

We know that the number of car journeys made by commuters into Exeter is twice that of car journeys within the city [3].  So cutting commuting is the key to cutting congestion and pollution.  Even Stagecoach say they recognise this – on publication of the group’s half-year results in October 2016, the chief executive said: “There is a large market opportunity for modal shift from cars to public transport against a backdrop of population growth, urbanisation, technological advancements, and increasing pressure to tackle road congestion and improve air quality” [4].

Clearly Stagecoach don’t believe that market opportunity exists in Exeter, despite the fact that the “backdrop” conditions for it are here in abundance.  After all, it’s the shareholder dividend that counts, isn’t it?



[1] There are other very interesting findings.  For details see the Engaged Smart Transport project at http://www.commute-exeter.com/results/

[2] Stagecoach service update information at https://www.stagecoachbus.com/promos-and-offers/south-west/exeter-area-timetable-changes-from-3-january-2017

[3] Findings of a study by Trevor Preist, promoted by Exeter Civic Society and Transition Exeter.

[4] http://www.stagecoach.com/media/news-releases/2016/2016-12-07.aspx


We need new approaches to mobility, now

In a previous post I suggested that our mobility patterns – driven by past and current spatial and transport policies – were contributing significantly to a range of environmental and social problems.  I questioned whether incremental changes based on current transport models would deliver the radical changes needed if Exeter were to become a clean, healthy, vibrant and sustainable city.

It’s clear there is no magic bullet.  We have to start from where we are now, with a legacy of spatial planning that has allowed the city to sprawl (to accommodate the types of housing housebuilders are prepared to build).  The sprawl has been accompanied by a planning policy which seeks to avoid creating competition to the commercial interests of the city centre, thus ensuring that people living in the outlying areas have to travel to the city centre for much of their shopping and employment needs.  Even if there were the political will for an immediate change in spatial planning policies in favour of housing design and location which reduce the need to travel, it would still be decades before the legacy ceased to be a constraint.

So what can we do?

We have no real alternative but to retrofit mobility polices to what we have now.  What follows is more of a mind dump than a comprehensive plan [1].  But then this is only a blog post.  These are however the types of issue we need to consider as viable ways forward, and not simply dismiss them on cost grounds.  Austerity won’t last for ever, so all the more reason to plan now.

First, start seriously reducing demand for travel

It’s ludicrous to think we can go on as we are.  In 2013, almost 70% of the UK workforce commuted to work by car during peak times, with the average driver spending 124 hours stuck in gridlock annually. One estimate sets this to rise to 136 hours in 2030, equivalent to 18 working days a year [2].  Not only does this waste time and money and consume natural resources in the way of fuel, it also damages our health.  Government calculations suggest 169 people die in a year in “Greater Exeter” as a result of air pollution from particulates – the stuff found in traffic fumes [3].  And then there’s the impact on traffic-driven infrastructure on our public realm, of which Western Way – separating the Quays from the city centre – is probably the worst example.  So, no pressure, then.

We can and should reform spatial planning with a new emphasis on higher density living to reduce sprawl and easier and/or nearer access to services and jobs – my post The Compact City is relevant here, and I’ll develop the ideas in a later post.  Relocation of essential services and recreational facilities in parts of the city which are badly served will also contribute.

Second, make it more difficult to travel by private car into the city

There are at least three audiences to address here: inward commuters from outside the city; people coming from outside and from the suburbs to the city centre for shopping, leisure and eating (and don’t all those new processed food eateries in “Queen Street Dining” make you want to ….?); and people moving around inside the urban area.  Hopefully the Commute Exeter study being led by the University of Exeter [4] will generate some useful data on commuting to inform judgements on the scale of the measures required.  But some simple steps would send out important signals as well as have an immediate impact.  For example:

  • Block off more streets, particularly residential ones, to through traffic. Apart from cutting down rat-running, limiting cars to residents’ own vehicles will give priority to pedestrians and cyclists, and lead to an immediate improvement in the local quality of life and of the environment.  Cost: capital works and signage.
  • Reduce the width of main roads available to cars, by installing a mix of bus lanes, wide cycleways and broader pavements (the last being increasingly necessary to cope with personal mobility aids). Cost: capital works.
  • Cut the number of car-parking spaces in the central area (and ensure that residents’ parking schemes in the surrounding areas are enforced to prevent displacement of car parking). The brutalist multi-stories could be demolished and converted into much-needed affordable housing or green space, as could the open-space car parks. Think of the transformation in the Paul Street/North Street/Mary Arches area!  Cost: self-financing
  • Increase car parking charges for the remaining car park spaces, but with a discount or free pass for cars operated by car clubs. Cost: nil.
  • Use available powers to introduce workplace parking levies, not just in the city centre, but beyond, with the revenue going to support transport improvements, including a “Boris bike” cycle hire scheme for Exeter [5]. A workplace levy scheme is already in operation in Nottingham, with one planned for Cambridge [6]. Cost: administration, to be financed from the scheme.
  • Enforce existing traffic restrictions, with exemplary fines: drivers are increasingly ignoring exclusions of vehicles from particular streets which were put in place to stop rat-running through the central area. Cost: additional enforcement staff, to be paid for from fines.
  • Change traffic light priorities so that cars are held up while buses are given priority. Cost: minimal

Key benefits of making life difficult for the private car are a reduction in pollution and congestion and an improvement in the quality of the public realm.  But it also takes us further down the path of reclaiming the streets for people, whether as walkers, cyclists or using personal mobility aids.

Third, improve the bus transport offer

This is a major undertaking, but is now urgent.  A recent report identifies the weaknesses in the current deregulated bus service model which operates in England outside London [7].  In brief, the model pits private sector profit maximisation against the public interest, and guess which currently wins, with poor value for money for the taxpayer and the bus passenger.


  • There needs to be a rebalancing of the relationship between local authorities and near-monopolistic private bus operators. The Bus Services Bill currently in Parliament will enable certain local transport authorities to introduce franchising of bus services, thus giving communities greater influence over service provision.  The rub is that franchising can only be introduced if the bus operators agree.  Local authorities are prevented from setting up their own bus companies, but not-very-arms-length social enterprises could be feasible.
  • Speed up bus services. This means cutting down on private car-led congestion (see above) but also putting in bus priority lanes and speeding up boarding and disembarking (see below).  A culture change to the continental model of trusting people to buy tickets (and hitting them hard with fines for cheating) rather than checking everyone on entry would also help.
  • Conventional buses are generally unattractive. Most are uncomfortable – try sitting in an airline seat on a city bus without bashing your knees.  They can be crowded, slow, late, erratic and infrequent.  The Park & Ride buses, with better seats, a regular and frequent service interval, and with limited stops appear generally successful – though P&R itself is not a panacea (see my post on this).
  • City buses need to be redesigned to allow faster entry and exit for passengers, and to make standing easier, as well as increased accommodation for mobility aids and buggies. This may require some differentiation of buses for particular passenger groups.
  • More flexibility of routes is highly desirable. It’s great if you live on or near a bus route, but no fun if you don’t.  Evening and Sunday services don’t reflect the fact that people want to travel at these times as well.
  • Country buses will only attract people out of their cars if they are more frequent and more flexible. Bearing in mind the rural nature of the Exeter hinterland, imaginative approaches such as minibuses (or even cars) circulating around villages and feeding into a fast bus service to the city (or a train) have a role here.  Secure bicycle parks at feeder points should encourage those who are fit enough to cycle from the remoter places.

Future innovation

There is no shortage of more radical approaches.  The driverless vehicle is attracting considerable enthusiasm [8], though I’m still sceptical enough to see it as a technology fix in search of a problem to solve.

Of greater interest is the concept of MaaS – Mobility as a Service.  In this vision of the future, both individual private car ownership and reliance on a single transport mode fall away to be replaced by a menu of personalised multi-modal travel options, using data to provide information about the fastest or cheapest or least congested or disablement-friendly way of getting from A to B [9].  Ever-innovative Helsinki has plans to move down this road [10].



[1]  This post focuses on Exeter’s roads and not on rail.  Though this opens up a charge of non-joined-up thinking, there are serious constraints on the ability of the rail network – even with new investment – to make a major difference to our mobility challenges.  I’ll review this in a separate post.

[2]  From a study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Business Research Economic and Environmental Cost of Traffic Congestion in Europe & the US.(2014) – see http://inrix.com/press/traffic-congestion-to-cost-the-uk-economy-more-than-300-billion-over-the-next-16-year

[3]  See Public Health England statistics at www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf page 17.  The figure is a total for Exeter, Teignbridge and East Devon districts.

[4]  See www.commute-exeter.com

[5]   Now known as Santander Cycles – https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling/santander-cycles. The estimable Co-Cars, a social enterprise car club based in Exeter is setting up an electric bike hire scheme – see www.co-bikes.co.uk. This will be great for those of us who’d like to cycle but are put off by the city’s hills.

[6]  Nottingham: http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/transport-parking-and-streets/parking-and-permits/workplace-parking-levy/  Cambridge: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/cambridge-8217-s-8216-workplace-parking-levy-8217/story-29316857-detail/story.html

[7]  Building a World-class Bus System for Britain by Transport for Quality of Life, May 2016, available at www.transportforqualityoflife.com/ .  The Extended Summary is excellent.

[8]  A report on pilot schemes is at www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30316458

[9]  For a useful introduction to MaaS, see a July 2016 report from the Transport Systems Catapult, Exploring the Opportunity for Mobility as a Service in the UK, available at https://ts.catapult.org.uk/intelligent-mobility/im-resources/maasreport/

[10]  www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jul/10/helsinki-shared-public-transport-plan-car-ownership-pointless



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.


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].


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.



[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/



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.


[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.