Exeter City Council declared a climate emergency on 23 July 2019, despite having rejected a proposal to do so just five months earlier.
Nowhere in council minutes is there an absolute commitment to a date by when the city would be carbon neutral, but 2030 is the working assumption held by Exeter City Futures, the council’s chosen vehicle for mobilising the necessary changes.
A 2030 target was also reinforced by the council leader, Phil Bialyk, during the 2020/21 budget debate on 25 February.
Although the pace of activity has recently quickened, Exeter City Futures has been around since 2015, initially as an offshoot of Oxygen House, an Exeter-based capital investment business, but today operating as a Community Interest Company.
The company’s board consists of Glenn Woodcock (its founder) and representatives of the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, University of Exeter, Exeter College and Devon County Council. The board is chaired by Exeter City Council’s chief executive and growth director, Karime Hassan. Its website contains a brief history of its development.
The city council has so far contributed well over £300,000 in financial support for Exeter City Futures. Payback has not always been visible, but the 2030 target has led to a greater focus on what needs to be done to move to a carbon-neutral state.
There are now twelve goals which Exeter City Futures says “reflect the shared priorities of the city”, a claim based on the “extensive engagement and listening activities” it has carried out over the past three years.
The goals are grouped into four themes - energy, mobility, sustainability and capability - which serve as the framework for two recent publications intended to advance the action programme.
The first of these, Exeter key facts 2019, is a compilation of indicators grouped under the four themes, plus some general information about population, employment, crime and so on.
The objectivity of the booklet is undermined, presumably inadvertently, by the stark opening statement: “Exeter is no doubt a successful city”.
This value judgement sits uncomfortably with a later statement that eight of Exeter’s priority areas (the twenty areas with the highest inequality levels) are among the top 20% most deprived areas in the country.
That said, this is a welcome example of Exeter data being put in context, in this case a national comparison.
However, all too often in this document figures are included without any temporal or spatial comparison.
The bald fact that Greater Exeter consumes 10TWh of energy annually may mean something to someone, but without an explanation – for example whether it is typical of, higher or lower than the norm for similar settlements – it is meaningless to most of us.
The second publication, Blueprint for a Carbon Neutral Exeter by 2030, has generated a degree of excitement almost on a par with the opening of IKEA Exeter in May 2018.
According to Dr Liz O’Driscoll, managing director of Exeter City Futures, the document “sets out a specification for all the things that Exeter will need to have in place to be carbon neutral”.
In comparison with many other cities going down this road it is particularly detailed, putting forward 89 specifications deemed essential to enable the stated aim.
About twenty have quantifiable targets, others are specific about what the end result looks like.
Apart from occasional whimsical ambition - “Exeter shall be named as a single-use plastic-free city” - the specifications are challenging and relevant, though occasionally sinister: “Exeter shall have developed systems which enable and manage behavioural change”.
The document would have been more likely to win minds as well as hearts if more of the specifications were substantiated by evidence and, better still, such evidence had been used to indicate degrees of priority.
For example, which steps would be relatively cheap, which would have the greatest impact on carbon emissions and which would be likely to meet popular resistance?
In fairness, Exeter City Futures is not making excessive claims for the document. A recent tweet said: “Most of what is in our Blueprint for #NetZeroExeter is already known; but at the start of a major transformation it’s important that everyone is clear on the scale of the task we face together.”
Not only is the task colossal, the crunch will come very soon according to the plans drawn up by Exeter City Futures and the council.
On 26 March a Net Zero Exeter “Mobilisation Summit” will provide the opportunity for public input into how the Blueprint should be turned into an action plan that is described as a “roadmap”.
Liz O’Driscoll told the council’s Strategic Scrutiny Committee on 16 January that she was committed to delivering the roadmap to the council’s chief executive by 31 March, just five days after the summit.
Achieving the targets set out in the blueprint will require major changes. Some will be costly, some will require behaviour change, and our attitudes to growth and consumption will need shock treatment.
Liz O’Driscoll told The Ecologist that the task is now “not about working out what to do, but working out what is standing in our way”.
However significant issues remain unexamined. The relationship between the Exeter project and the county-wide climate emergency response being led by Devon County Council is not defined, and it is not clear whether the two initiatives will pursue independent pathways or converge.
And many discussions that have informed both have taken place behind closed doors. Blueprint consultation meetings have been held with city councillors and business interests but attendance was by invitation only and their outputs have not so far been made public.
The Devon Climate Emergency Response Group and its several sub-groups have been meeting without press or public present and the proposed Citizen’s Assembly has yet to convene, will be held in private and will not be able to decide what to discuss or who to call as witnesses when it does.
At the opposite end of the openness spectrum, the Exeter group of the youth climate movement Fridays for Future is promoting a Green New Deal for Devon which recognises the integral importance of global social and economic justice.
The Exeter City Futures blueprint does acknowledge some of the movement’s ambitions but, as reported by Exeter Observer, young people demonstrating at County Hall on 14 February were critical of it, if not always fairly.
Exeter Observer asked the city’s opposition parties to comment on the blueprint, but only Exeter Green Party responded.
A spokesperson said: “The final blueprint must clearly set out which and what combination of the many measures recommended will bring about the greatest reductions in carbon emissions in the shortest time and the investment required to achieve this.
“And to ensure it doesn’t remain a wish list the Labour-led council must use all its powers to remove barriers and change systems which limit action.
“In particular there is an urgent need to revise Exeter’s Local Plan so developers aren’t in the driving seat. We need a planning framework for housing and infrastructure that builds homes and communities able to sustain low carbon living.”
At the same time, Exeter Labour Party support for Exeter City Futures reached new heights at the recent city council budget debate.
Labour councillor after Labour councillor stood up to criticise the opposition Progressive Group, an alliance of Green Party, Independent and Liberal Democrat councillors, for submitting a budget amendment that would have reduced council funding to Exeter City Futures to instead pay for a full-time climate change officer who would be directly employed as council staff.
Meanwhile, for the past fortnight, Exeter residents have been offered the chance to take part in “creative conversations” at various locations around the city where they were invited to share “thoughts, feelings and ideas” about the road to carbon neutral.
These have taken place in a rather cramped converted van provided by Totnes-based arts organisation Encounters, the carbon emissions of which did not seem to feature in the discussion.
One member of the public was deterred from entering by their assumption that the van was for children’s entertainment. The author did not find it at all conducive to serious consideration of system change.
Those who did take part were invited to choose from a list of the 89 actions specified in the blueprint then write down their priorities on a cardboard disc to be fixed to a cork board.
The author, being a shy person, would have welcomed more encouragement to engage in creative conversation from the Encounters staff.
No doubt the value of the conversations that did take place will be revealed when the van has completed its rounds.
The purpose of real community engagement - as distinct from consultation - is to directly engage people in debate. Inviting people to determine carbon reduction priorities without providing any of the information necessary to make an informed choice is akin to inviting them to pin a tail on the donkey.
True engagement involves discussion between many participants in which initial assumptions are challenged and refined in the light of additional information and debate.
Whether the past four years of preparation have been worth it now depends on the outcome of the mobilisation summit in three weeks’ time on 26 March.