Clifton Hill sports centre, in Exeter’s Newtown & St Leonard’s ward, was closed in March 2018 after heavy snowfall caused a major leak in the roof. Local residents heard rumours that it might not re-open and began campaigning to save the place from closure. Then, when Exeter City Council suddenly decided to demolish the building and sell the whole site, they determined to save the nine acre green space in which it sits too.
Despite presenting several popular petitions, demonstrating at the council’s Paris Street offices and firing a fusillade of objections at its Place Scrutiny Committee, local residents and leisure facility users have been unable to make councillors rethink their decision. Along the way, the council has admitted that a public consultation should have taken place, a structural survey was not carried out before their decision and that building maintenance was hindered by the council’s own contract with the sports centre operator.
The ballot box is now the focus of frustrated campaigners, who have put forward an independent candidate to contest the ward in the upcoming local elections.
Jemima Moore thinks Exeter Labour, who currently hold all three seats in the ward, is ignoring local voters: “During the past year, I have met hundreds of people who feel betrayed by the current Labour city council, and its decision to close the Clifton Hill sports centre, sell the green space and effectively close the ski club. Thousands of Exeter residents signed petitions and attended demonstrations to make their voices heard and were ignored time and time again.”
Perhaps more worryingly for the party, she adds: “I would normally vote Labour and that’s what made it most frustrating for me. I feel Labour shouldn’t be selling off publicly owned space to private investors. I feel that it’s not what I voted for. It’s not Labour values.”
And she’s not alone: her campaign team reports that many voters in the area bring up the same issues on the doorstep, saying they no longer think the council is acting in their interests. It’s this wider sense of disenchantment with the local Labour party that she says has affirmed her decision to stand as an independent: “While attending council meetings as part of the group trying to save the Clifton Hill green space, I was shocked by the state of city politics. We need greater openness, honesty and integrity among councillors”.
Clifton Hill is only one of several green spaces in the area that are being sold to property developers. Campaigners in neighbouring St Leonard’s, now joined with Newtown since Exeter’s ward boundaries were controversially redrawn in 2016, have been vocally opposed to plans to concrete over part of Bull Meadow Park for use by cars. And the private sale of land belonging to Exeter Deaf Academy at Mount Radford Lawn, opposite St Leonard’s primary school, is expected to deprive the ward of another green lung immediately beside busy Topsham Road.
Jemima Moore says air quality and vehicle congestion are also major issues for the city. “Exeter desperately needs its green spaces. Outside my house there are illegal levels of air pollution. We have a backdrop of huge declines in biodiversity and climate change. We know that outdoor space is crucial for people’s health and wellbeing.”
“The thing that made me most angry was that the Labour councillors originally voted to sell despite many of them not knowing about size of green space behind the Clifton Hill sports centre, or that the proposal included selling off the land used by the golf driving range and ski slope.”
The fact that Exeter Place Scrutiny Committee decisions to oppose development at both Clifton Hill and Bull Meadow Park were subsequently overturned by the council’s Executive hasn’t helped the perception among voters that Exeter’s democratic standards have declined. Local campaigners say they are fed up with city councillors saying one thing to them in private then voting another way in public.
Since then, Exeter Labour have distributed a campaign leaflet in Newtown & St Leonard’s which, under the headline “Clifton Hill site - green space to be saved”, presents a council decision to retain 10% of the sports centre site as green space as “a significant concession for the community”. This resident’s reaction is typical:
Just received comms from @exeterlabour requesting my vote. Following the outrageous handling of Clifton Hill green space situation, they must be joking! I hope the people of Exeter finally tell Labour where to go. Good luck to @JemimaMoore4 and all other candidates of substance.— Sean Callard (@MrCallard) April 18, 2019
To add credence to her grassroots credentials, candidates for both Exeter Greens and Exeter Liberal Democrats have decided to stand aside to make way for Jemima Moore’s community campaign, turning this ward election into something of a test of what many see as Exeter’s tribal voting tendencies.
Without a Labour incumbent (the party’s candidate, Carol Whitton, is Devon County Councillor for St David’s & Haven Banks) and with the Conservative candidate (Jago Brockway) apparently trying his luck in Newtown & St Leonard’s after failing to win in Priory in 2018, it seems Jemima Moore has a firm community base to strengthen her case.
While local concerns about the fate of the Clifton Hill site are never far away when campaigning in the ward, Jemima Moore identifies St Sidwell’s Point capital spending as the ultimate driver of the decision to sell a key public asset to private developers.
“I do recognise there have been cuts from central government, but at the same time Labour is stubbornly pushing ahead with its new leisure centre and bus station at St Sidwell’s Point. It’s a £51.8 million vanity project that the city can’t afford. I haven’t come across anyone in Exeter who feels that that’s what they want. Looking after the facilities that we’ve already got would be a greener and more cost effective approach than pulling buildings down and replacing them from scratch.”
“Last year, the people of Newtown and St Leonard’s were ignored. That’s what led me to stand as a candidate, to show the Labour councillors that it’s not OK not to listen to the people that they represent.”
Next week we shall find out how many of the ward’s voters agree.