In early March 2018 Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter’s Clifton Hill Sports Centre, located in the city’s Newtown & St. Leonard’s ward.
This extreme weather event set off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council’s approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.
It also led to an independent candidate from the Save our Green Space campaign standing for Newtown & St. Leonard’s in the city council elections on 2 May 2019, with the support of both the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats whose candidates decided not to contest the election.
This is a summary timeline, with apologies for omissions readers think are important. There are broadly three phases:
- from the storm to the council’s decision to demolish the sports centre and sell off the site and the surrounding green space for housing
- from the decision to sell to confirmation of the decision after a valuation report
- from the confirmation to sell to the present day.
March 2018: Clifton Hill sports centre is progressively closed as the extent of the storm damage becomes apparent.
April 2018: Rumours begin to circulate that the sports centre will not re-open. A Save Clifton Hill Sports Centre From Permanent Closure campaign begins as a Facebook group and launches a petition. The group lobbies councillors and, later, makes a plausible but unsuccessful application to Historic England to have the building listed.
3 May 2018: Exeter City Council elections. Labour retain their seat for Newtown & St. Leonard’s. Their manifesto makes no reference to future plans for Clifton Hill.
June 2018: The Save Clifton Hill Green Space campaign begins as a Facebook group. The group initially arrange afternoon and evening walks to draw attention to the value of the green space, then progress to public lobbying of councillors and building community support.
12 June 2018: Exeter City Council’s Executive approves hitherto secret proposals to demolish the sports centre and sell the entire site for housing development. The proposals are rushed through for endorsement by a full council meeting the following day. At no point has a council scrutiny committee been asked to comment, which is unusual for a project of this significance, nor has there been any public consultation. The officer report contains factual inaccuracies.
July 2018 onwards: Both campaign groups keep up a steady flow of information and lobbying points. A critique of the council’s plans is available here.
16 October 2018: a petition with 1800 signatures to save the sports centre is handed in to the city council, who then comment that it is too late to be effective.
8 November 2018: Phil Bialyk, lead councillor on the issue, acknowledges at Place Scrutiny Committee that there should have been public consultation.
November 2018: Exeter City Council admits that no structural survey was carried out on the sports centre before the decision to demolish it.
31 January 2019: A packed special meeting of the council’s Place Scrutiny Committee hears objections, in the form of questions from campaigners, to the proposals to sell the green space. The special position of the ski slope emerged at this meeting, and the committee amended the recommendation to the full council so as to exclude the ski slope from the sale of the land.
26 February 2019: A petition of 2600 signatures to save the ski slope is presented to a full council meeting, which then decides that the sale should go ahead including the ski slope area on the grounds that without achieving the maximum estimated sale price of £9m there would be insufficient funds to support other commitments already made on leisure facilities. 10% of the land area would be leased back to the council to retain as open space.
March 2019: Jemima Moore, of the Save Clifton Hill Green Space campaign, decides to stand for election as an independent councillor at the Exeter City Council elections on 2 May.