Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Caught short - balancing the books in a hurry

Exeter City Council has unapologetically confirmed its decision to close 13 public toilets as a money-saving measure with full knowledge of its expected effect on residents and visitors. Can we expect other spending cuts to be handled the same way?

Exeter city council   Spending cuts   Public services   Public toilets  

Despite government announcements about the end of “austerity”, Exeter City Council has to decide how to reduce its running costs by £2.4 million this year if it is to comply with its legal obligation to produce a balanced budget for 2020/21. The ruling Labour group’s manifesto for the May 2019 local elections gave no indication about how the spending cuts would be made.

There is significant public interest not only in what services will be reduced, but in the process the council will adopt in identifying them. Will a list be drawn up by officers from which councillors will be unable to deviate, or will there be open debate and some form of engagement with residents about where savings can be made and perhaps new revenue-raising avenues identified?

Exeter City Council said that despite its central government funding being cut from £12.1 million in 2010/11 to £4.4 million in 2019/20, it has managed to maintain one of the lowest council tax rates in England. In relation to preparation of the 2020/21 budget, for which the £2.4 million cuts need to be identified, a council spokesperson said:

“Staff are currently working on early budget proposals in conjunction with elected members, portfolio holders, the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive. These high-level discussions are either emerging, or have yet to take place. They will then be working across the summer to identify how to deliver a balanced budget.”

“There are many reasons why this remains a fluid figure right up to the April 2020 deadline. Depending on the nature of budget proposals, consultations would take place from the autumn as they did last year, for example, on toilet closures and community grants. Over the past five years staff numbers have reduced by over 100 whilst most public facing services have continued alongside taking on additional work, such as helping to try to solve congestion.”

Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Blackboy Road Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Blackboy Road

The council’s consultation over toilet closures bears some scrutiny. In order to balance the books for the current budget year thirteen of the city’s council-run public toilets were closed on 29 April 2019. The sequence of events leading to the closures ran as follows:

15 January 2019: Councillors on the Executive approve a public consultation on proposals to close a list of thirteen public toilets, half of all those in Exeter. No equalities impact assessment is made available at the meeting.

17 January 2019: Place Scrutiny Committee is asked to approve a draft budget for the year beginning April 2019. The budget line for public conveniences shows a proposed increase of £170,670 with an explanation in the accompanying commentary. Only the very small print of Appendix 2 reveals that the figure includes an annual spending cut of £65,000.

February 2019: A web-based consultation runs for a period of three weeks. It is less a consultation than a user survey, and limited to toilets targeted for closure. There are 526 responses, which officers describe as “relatively few”, although the 400 people who attended a 2015 consultation exhibition on the plans for a new leisure complex were deemed by the council to constitute popular support for what is now the £51.8 million St Sidwell’s Point project.

26 February 2019: Full Council approves the budget for 2019/20, which includes the £65,000 spending cut “subject to consultation”.

9 April 2019: Executive receives a report on the outcome of the consultation including a recommendation to confirm the closure plan. The spending cut has been reduced to £60,000. The report also highlights the fact that 62% of respondents used the “any additional comments” box to object to the closures, and now includes an equalities impact assessment which spells out in detail the impact of the closures on the population groups particularly at risk of urinary incontinence. Executive confirms the closure plans.

26 April 2019: A special meeting of Place Scrutiny Committee is held, following a requisition from opposition councillors to “call in” Executive’s decision to close the toilets. The call-in of an executive decision by a scrutiny committee is highly unusual, reflecting the strength of public and political feeling on the issue.

Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Whipton Village, Pinhoe Road Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Whipton Village, Pinhoe Road

The call-in debate was the first time the issue had been discussed by a wide range of councillors in a public forum, so it is worth noting some key points:

The committee chair, Councillor Luke Sills (Labour) told members that they would have to find equivalent savings elsewhere in the already-agreed budget if they wanted to reverse Executive’s decision. Some councillors sitting in the public seats who were not members of the committee commented in stage whispers that the chair was out of order since there was no requirement in the council’s standing orders for such a stipulation.

Conservative, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors then made a series of pertinent practical points about problems faced by people who need to stop off at a toilet when travelling across the city by bus (and indeed by bus drivers themselves), as well as the difficulties faced by homeless people. They argued that the community toilets option floated by the council, under which shops and other suitable businesses would allow their toilets to be used by the public, should have been implemented before the closures, though the lack of interest shown by businesses in this idea suggested that this might not be viable. Councillor Olwen Foggin (Labour) broke ranks by declaring that she had not gone into politics to close essential public services before offering two options for raising compensatory revenue, both ignored by the committee.

Responses from lead councillor David Harvey (Labour) and the Director of Place, David Bartram, relied heavily on three points. First, that councils were required to carry out an equalities impact assessment and to note the results, but were not obliged to act on its findings even when there were negative consequences. The financial pressures on the council were sufficient to justify setting aside the impact assessment.

Second, that the police were supportive of the closures as a means of reducing anti-social behaviour. Devon and Cornwall Police subsequently said: “we are supportive of plans from Exeter City Council to close public toilets linked to drug use, and we will continue to tackle anti-social behaviour in and around the city.” The council’s proposals identified six of the thirteen to be closed as having problems with drugs use: Blackboy Road, Ennerdale Way, Fore Street Heavitree, King William Street, Musgrave Row and Okehampton Street. All but three of the rest were reported as suffering from vandalism and other anti-social behaviour.

Third, that there was no incentive to make community toilets available as long as the existing council-run toilets remained open. Officers would pursue a more targeted approach to businesses in response to the change.

No plans were offered for what would happen to the sites of the closed toilets, or for the costs of necessary maintenance in the period until disposal. Officers had been tasked to explore options.

A Labour member then proposed that since the committee was not in a position to identify alternative budget savings, it had no option but to take no further action in response to Executive’s decision. All five Labour hands went up, and that was it.

The toilets have now been closed.

Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Higher Cemetery Exeter City Council public toilet closure at Higher Cemetery

We report this series of events in detail because it represents to a major wrangle over a relatively minor sum. How shall much larger cuts amounting to £2.4 million be identified and agreed? Should there be greater public engagement earlier in the decision-making process, when there is still time for further consultation and revision?

Green Party councillor Diana Moore, who was elected last month with a commitment to supporting greater dialogue between the council and communities, argues that the whole process for setting budgets should be more transparent, with opportunities for everyone to influence them before they are finalised by councillors.

She said: “The city council now faces really difficult choices about how to achieve a balanced budget. A small group of councillors and officers, however able, cannot think of everything. Labour need to explain the cuts they are planning to the public early, and it makes sense to go out and invite ideas from residents and businesses about how to tackle these financial problems. We need a council which is willing to draw on the skills, expertise and ideas of residents.”

“Participatory budgeting is an established democratic technique for engaging people in decisions on how public money is spent. It has been used by several councils including Newcastle, Southampton and Tower Hamlets, and there is no good reason why it cannot be done in Exeter. Any well-designed approach to seeking community views on council spending would help people understand the financial pressures the council is under and why it takes the decisions it does.”

It remains to be seen whether Exeter City Council will act on these ideas or whether it will repeat the approach it has taken with the closure of public toilets.

Meanwhile, out on the streets the consequences of the closures are already evident. As the author was photographing a recently-closed convenience in respectable Whipton, a man approached, rattled on the doors, saw the sign and stated for all to hear: “I’ll have to do it on the grass, then.” And he did.


 is contributing editor of Exeter Observer and a member of its publisher Exeter Observer Ltd.

 


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News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter Labour support collapses in Heavitree & Whipton Barton county by-election

Greg Sheldon wins Devon County Council division by just 40 votes after Labour loses nearly a fifth of its previous vote share.

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Exeter City Council cuts executive decision-making scrutiny

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter City Council cuts scrutiny of executive decision-making

Constitutional changes proposed by Exeter City Council will make it more difficult to hold the ruling political group to account.

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Exeter Global Climate Strike demonstrator holding placard

Analysis  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter youth climate strikers launch Green New Deal for Devon

Fridays For Future Exeter have published a detailed vision of a more equitable future that calls on elected representatives across the county to recognise the climate crisis as a symptom of a dysfunctional political economy.

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Exeter Global Climate Strike Bedford Street crowd

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Thousands march in Exeter for global climate strike as millions mobilise worldwide

Fridays for Future Exeter led 3500 people on a climate crisis demonstration through the city backed by dozens of organisations on the eve of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.

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Rhian Keyse speaking at Exeter UCU's anti-casualisation campaign launch

News  ⁄  Education & skills

Education union challenges university to address widespread casualisation of teaching staff

Exeter University & College Union (UCU) launched an anti-casualisation campaign on Friday as a prelude to negotiation with the University of Exeter over academic staff contracts.

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Exeter anti-government protest Devon for Europe speaker

Comment  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter protest misses its mark by mixing its messages

One of Exeter's biggest ever street demonstrations combined anti-Brexit and pro-democracy concerns to produce a confused protest against government policy.

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Exeter Extinction Rebellion funeral march climate crisis High Street

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Mock funeral march brings Exeter city centre to a sombre standstill

Extinction Rebellion campaigners brought the gravity of the ecological emergency home to Exeter on Saturday in a funereal procession commemorating wildlife loss caused by climate change.

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Exeter City Council public toilet closures Exeter Live Better hoarding

Comment  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter could do better - was there no alternative to closing so many public toilets?

Exeter City Council did not need to close thirteen public toilets to balance the books. The money to keep them open was available in reserves, but no mention of this option was made during public decision-making by councillors or officers.

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Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Cricklepit Mill

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Preston Street Union rolls out the red carpet

The Exeter-based artists explore migration driven by the city's historic wool trade in new work commissioned by RAMM.

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Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestors with banner

Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate - the floodgates are open

Exeter is one of the smallest cities in Britain, yet it has produced some of the country's biggest youth strikes. Climate activist Sophie Sleeman recounts the story so far and explains what it means to the young people who are creating a global wave of change.

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Photo of The Jambassadors by Gabe Riedlinger

Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Jambassadors feature in pop-up Jazz Toast at Barnfield Theatre

Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

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Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye exhibition at Exeter RAMM

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Extreme Imagination - Inside the Mind's Eye

University of Exeter research fellow Dr Matthew MacKisack guides us through a RAMM exhibition that explores works by artists, writers and makers with widely varying visual imaginations.

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Molly Scott Cato at the European Parliament

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Is EU membership essential to our ability to deal with the climate emergency?

Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West, visited Exeter during her re-election campaign to explain why the EU and its Green Group is leading the way on a wide range of progressive policies.

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Exeter College students in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Barnfield Theatre

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Playing with gender expectations at Barnfield Theatre

An Exeter College interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transforms it into an enchanting contemporary gender-adapted tale.

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Front elevations of proposed development at Mount Radford Lawn

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Mount Radford Lawn development proposals conflict with St Leonards community vision

Exeter Deaf Academy hopes to sell a school playing field to developers who plan to build luxury homes. Local residents have other ideas about how best to use the land. A dispute is looming over an historic green space driven by prospective profit from planning gain.

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Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

A new collaboration between X-Plore Youth Devon, Exeter College LGBTQ+ society, Natalie McGrath of Dreadnought SW and Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter explores gender and sexual diversity across time, place and culture by reimagining objects from the RAMM collections.

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Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

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Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

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, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

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Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

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Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

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Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

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Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

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Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

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Exeter St James period housing stock

Comment  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

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Historic Exe Bridge traffic

Comment  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

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