Tag Archives: Greater Exeter Visioning Board

Our planners’ cat is out of the bag

Consultation on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) looks like being an expensive and time-wasting ritual.

Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.

(From The Retired Cat by William Cowper, 1791)

Last week CPRE Devon arranged a public meeting to discuss the emerging Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP).  The room was packed with over 160 people, thus giving the lie to those who believe that people aren’t interested in spatial planning.

The formal presentations – one from the Growth Point and one from the GESP team – didn’t add much to the store of existing knowledge.  After all, the Plan doesn’t exist yet, so how can anyone say anything about it?  What we did discover is that the GESP timetable is slipping badly:  at one time their website stated the consultation draft would be out in January 2018, but today’s timetable is that it will appear in “Autumn 2018”.  We also discovered something else that I don’t think we were meant to discover, about which more in a moment.

The last platform speaker was the East Devon MP, Sir Hugo Swire.  I don’t usually have a lot of time for his views [1] but on this occasion he said some sensible things.  Like pointing out that writing a plan to predict our needs 22 years hence – the plan is to cover the period up to 2040 – is an unrealistic endeavour given the pace of technological change which affects social behaviour, service provision and employment patterns.  Or reminding us that there is brownfield land for housing within and immediately around Exeter which could be used up without building on green fields and forcing people to commute even further into the city’s employment zones.  And having a pot at the volume housebuilders and their standard house designs which are out of keeping with any of our vernacular architectures.  He then joined in the area’s favourite sport of bashing Exeter City Council’s ruling Labour group.

After the coffee break and the departure of the MP we were treated to a party political broadcast, masquerading as a question, from the Labour county councillor for Alphington and Cowick.  Then I caught the Chair’s eye and asked two questions.  The first related to my hobby-horse on housing density [2] which attracted no response from the platform or anywhere else except from an audience member who seemed not to understand the difference between high density and high rise.

The second was on the GESP planning process.  I have a rule that I don’t publicly criticise civil servants or local government officers by name, on the grounds that unless they’ve gone rogue they are doing their political bosses’ bidding.  So I shall simply refer to the recipient of my question as The Planner.  Prefacing my remarks with a well-received (by the audience) statement that planning in this country was done to us, not by us, I asked The Planner whether he thought the paltry 6 weeks being allowed for comment on the GESP consultation draft was fair.  The Planner said it was indeed fair, on the grounds that people never responded until right at the end of the consultation period however long it was.

Stumped by the non sequitur of the reply, my supplementary question was that they should at least now publish the completed evidence studies commissioned in support of the plan.  That way, those of us who couldn’t pay for armies of consultants to read the stuff could do some preparation ourselves before the consultation draft came out.  And this is where the cat’s head became visible in the opening of the bag.

The Planner paused for thought, presumably recognising the reasonableness of the question.  He then conceded that it might be possible to publish some studies, but not those which would give any clues as to what would be in the draft plan.  Hang on, I said, from a sedentary position– the Chair was a man of tolerance and wisdom – you’re saying that some planning policies have already been decided and the evidence has been commissioned to back up those decisions?  You’re putting words into my mouth, said The Planner, but I didn’t hear him deny it.

So now we know what the secretive Greater Exeter Visioning Board [3] was doing two years ago.  It was deciding the outline content of what is to become the GESP.  And the evidence was then commissioned to back up those key decisions, not to expose them to challenge.  It’s an easy process:  you just tell the consultants what assumptions and constraints to build in, and you end up with an impressive-looking piece of “evidence” that will be a wow at a public examination of the plan.

I wasn’t alone in complaining about the 6-week consultation period.  A practitioner far more experienced than I am commented that the mandatory period used to be 12 weeks, and 8 weeks was regarded as the minimum for best practice purposes.  How were organisations whose committees met every 6 weeks going to prepare their comments?  That cut no ice with The Planner either.

Interestingly,  Exeter’s chief planning officer recently told our Green Party councillor that the 6-week period was necessary because the GESP had to be produced as quickly as possible so that the City Council could put in place a new local plan to replace the current one declared by the Planning Inspectorate as not fit for purpose.  Being not fit for purpose means that developers can build pretty much where they like.  Well, the delays in producing the first GESP draft don’t exhibit much of a sense of urgency.  Given that the main content of the GESP has already been decided, why don’t we just skip all the expensive and time-consuming process of producing a formal, approved strategic joint plan?  Just tell the district councils what they’ve already secretly decided between themselves and they can then amend their local plans to conform.  As things stand, we’ll have developers running riot in Exeter until 2022 at the earliest.

No, that’s not very democratic is it?  Not in the spirit of engaging communities in deciding their own futures.  But until the attitudes exhibited by The Planner and his bosses are set aside, democracy and engagement don’t look having any place in our planning system.  Has no one learned the lesson of the Brexit referendum – which is what happens when people feel locked out?

NOTES

[1]  See for example my post https://petercleasby.com/2015/03/02/the-trouble-with-this-election-is-that-the-voters-might-think-for-themselves/

[2]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/11/14/wider-still-and-wider/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2017/03/27/how-dense-can-we-be/

[3]  See my posts at https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-1/ and https://agreeninexeter.com/2016/08/05/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-2/

Advertisements

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A4:  See above.

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

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

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

So what’s next?

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

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

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

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

Or is there another agenda?

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

 

NOTES:

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

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

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

This post was originally published on http://www.petercleasby.com on 16 May 2016

It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements.  Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage.  Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.

But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy.  And here in Devon, we have a fine example.

On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon [1].  The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”.  A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”.  The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.

Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure.  The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.

In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board.  Nothing at all.  So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it.  Nothing at all.

Next step, ask the council.  After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception .  However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.

So, here we are.  A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.

Open government, indeed.  I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability.  Watch this space for their response.

 

NOTES

[1]  The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/    The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.