The exeter digest

Exeter Digest #5: Second Harlequins "co-living" block? - Arts centre opens despite CityPoint threat - City of Culture bid - Parliamentary boundary review

In the fifth edition of our newsletter we review key stories from the past few weeks and announce the return of our community journalism training courses and workshops.

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TOP STORIES

THE PBSA THAT DARES NOT SPEAK ITS NAME

Exeter City Council approved plans to redevelop Harlequins shopping centre last year despite vehement opposition from residents, campaigners and conservation charities. Since receiving formal consent for the scheme the developer has submitted a revised application to return to an earlier, rejected, vision for the site which will replace the planned hotel with a second “co-living” block.

The developer says coronavirus impacts since its 2019 planning application justify the scheme’s reversion to wholesale co-living. But the hotel remained throughout major changes made to the plans in the months after the pandemic began, and was still at their centre when the application was decided last autumn.

A revised economic impact assessment now discounts the scheme’s claimed benefits and observers remain convinced the co-living blocks are student accommodation in all but name.

Read the full story or join the conversation on Twitter.

IN CITYPOINT’S SHADOW

Parts of Exeter city centre are experiencing an unplanned renaissance as small shops and cultural venues move in to fill empty units on Paris Street and Sidwell Street, but the council still intends to demolish and redevelop the area.

Outline plans for what was once to be Princesshay II and is now known as “CityPoint” are being framed around massive build to rent blocks, on the basis of “very strong investor demand”, and hotels, offices and a brand new civic centre to house the council.

Despite the threat of redevelopment a community arts centre has recently opened in a disused building on Sidwell Street. Positive Light Projects has transformed its three floors into artist studios, gallery space, a photography studio, offices and meeting space for local groups.

First of a series in which Exeter Observer will look at businesses and projects in the area and consider their compatibility with the CityPoint redevelopment plans.

Read more on our website or join the conversation on Twitter.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

UNIVERSITY DROPS ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS WITH COUNCIL APPROVAL

A follow up on our coverage of the university’s plan to demolish 30 buildings to construct ~50,000m2 of new student accommodation, adding another 1,250 student bedrooms to its Streatham campus.

The university describes the project as “an opportunity to develop an exemplar of environmentally sustainable buildings” but both it and the city council have dropped their published policy commitments to minimum construction standards for the development. Both organisations make lofty claims about world-leading climate ambitions but it appears neither plan to practice what they preach on the ground.

EXE VALLEY GREEN SPACES AND HERITAGE HARBOUR SITE UNDER THREAT

Exeter Civic Society and the progressive group of Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent city councillors have raised the alarm at the prospect of development on green spaces beside the River Exe and a heritage harbour site in the city’s historic canal basin.

Bonhay Meadows, New Haven Field and the site of Exe Water Sports Association and the Ride On bicycle recycling project are all in the sights of the city council’s “Liveable Exeter” development scheme.

OTHER NEWS

FREE TO THOSE WHO CAN AFFORD IT

Torbay Council, Torbay Development Agency and Exeter City Council have “joined forces” to bid for 2025 UK City of Culture status, with their eyes on a prize of £300 million in claimed economic benefits.

The bid is said to be inspired by the “closely connected coastal and city destinations” despite Brixham and Exeter being an hour and a half apart by public transport. A “cultural corridor” to “link the city to the sea” is proposed, presumably running down the A380 and showcasing the new Kingkerswell bypass.

Andy Burnham dreamt up the quadrennial designation when he was culture secretary after seeing how much money flowed into Liverpool during its stint as 2008 European Capital of Culture. Ben Bradshaw, his successor at DCMS, announced the first competition the following year. Its previous winners were Derry in 2013 and Hull in 2017. Coventry is the current title holder.

Runners and riders for 2025 apparently include Bradford, Chelmsford, Medway, Southampton and Cornwall. Plymouth is also rumoured to be considering a bid, offering the prospect of a SW peninsula playoff.

Lancashire withdrew its county-wide “virtual city” bid from the competition last month after deciding that underwriting the project by up to £22 million was “too great a financial risk”.

The Tees Valley Combined Authority, which was first to throw its hat into the ring for the 2025 competition back in 2015, put down £1.8 million to prepare its bid before also withdrawing earlier this year. It concluded that costs of up to £25 million were a bit steep for “someone to give us a pat on the head and give us a fancy title”.

A shortlist of six applicants will be notified in September and the winning bid announcement is expected by the end of the year.

BONANZA ON THE BUSES?

There was no shortage of hyperbole to accompany last Sunday’s opening of Exeter’s glamourous new bus station. Certainly having four walls and some doors gives it the edge on the open-sided structure it replaced, but it’s not clear what makes its design “state of the art”, particularly as it doesn’t meet the BREEAM Excellent environmental construction standards required by the city’s core planning policies since 2013.

This didn’t deter city council leader Phil Bialyk, a former bus driver, as was his predecessor Pete Edwards, from extolling the new station’s virtues, which include departure screens and, to the relief of many, public toilets.

Prince Charles visited the new station earlier in the week, which prompted a minor media flurry, although none of the coverage we saw pointed out his abiding interest in the CityPoint redevelopment site.

Stagecoach South West will operate the new facility but several of its services, those of other companies, and National Express and Megabus coaches will continue to use street stops in the area to pick up and drop off passengers.

PRIORY VS PINHOE

Initial proposals for changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries which will come into force in late 2023, and so are likely to affect the next general election, are currently out for consultation. Changes intended to make Parliament more representative by reducing variations in voter numbers between seats will reduce the Exeter constituency’s complement and entail moving its current boundary westwards.

At the moment all Exeter City Council’s electoral wards form the parliamentary constituency except parts of Priory, St Loye’s and Topsham. These are divided by the current parliamentary boundary, although few people live in the section of Priory that is over the border, much of which consists of Ludwell Valley Park.

The proposed changes would involve moving the remainder of these three wards out of Exeter. This would avoid the current ward split and reduce the Exeter constituency electorate of 80,676 to 71,713, firmly into the desired range. Another 11,512 Exeter electors already live in the East Devon constituency.

The Ordnance Survey’s election maps site shows the current arrangements and the boundary commission’s website the proposed new boundaries.

These changes would mean that the Exeter constituency would lose the lion’s share of Priory ward, which the Labour Party dominates in local elections. Cue Exeter City Council’s July Executive meeting, at which alternative proposals were agreed for submission to the boundary commission consultation.

The committee report relied on the same number of voters residing in Priory and Pinhoe, somewhat simplifying the situation, to present the possibility of keeping Priory to jettison Pinhoe instead.

Arguments in support included concern about which constituency gets the RD&E, which is apparently in the “urban heart of the city”, but Pinhoe’s history as a two-way Labour-Conservative marginal did not feature among them. Nor did the committee focus on the feelings of the residents of the rump of St Loye’s, many of whom may not be delighted by the prospect of Simon Jupp as their MP.

The consultation on the initial boundary change proposals closes on Monday but there’s no need to panic if you’ve got better things to do this weekend than pore over maps and ponder the city’s psephology: a secondary consultation is planned for early 2022.

COMMUNITY JOURNALISM TRAINING RETURNS

Exeter Observer was about to begin its third community journalism training course when the pandemic torpedoed our development plans back in March last year. Notwithstanding the still-shifting sands we are planning to pick up where we left off this autumn, in a large, well-ventilated city centre venue which enables effective indoor social distancing.

Our courses are designed to help potential contributors quickly develop core journalism skills and produce publication quality content, with support from our experienced editorial team. We also offer complementary workshops on specialist topics including how to use Freedom of Information requests and other transparency legislation to hold local institutions to account.

Our community journalism training is accessible, practical and free. Find out more here.

ON THE AGENDA

SW TRANSPORT NETWORK CONSULTATION

Peninsula Transport, the shadow sub-national transport body formed by the five South West peninsula transport authorities recently published its vision for the future of transport in the region. It intends to frame a full regional transport strategy which will plan and prioritise strategic infrastructure across the peninsula for the next thirty years. Plymouth City Council is gathering feedback and comment until 17 September.

NEW LOCAL PLAN CONSULTATION

Exeter City Council’s Executive outlined the first formal steps towards a new Exeter Local Plan at its meeting earlier this month. An eight-week public consultation will start in September which will consider an Issues consultation document (officer report here) and a new Statement of Community Involvement (officer report here).

The first outlines the key issues the new local plan is intended to address, and is presented alongside the “Exeter 2040 Vision” and “Liveable Exeter” property development scheme. The second outlines the ways in which the public, organisations and “other interested parties” are involved in city planning processes. Both will be amended following the consultation and brought back for approval by council members before being used as a basis on which a formal draft Exeter Local Plan will be produced next year.

ON OUR READING LIST

HOUSE OF CARDS

Transparency International’s recent report into the prevalence of property development interests among major Conservative Party donors found that 20% of the donations it received in the decade to 2020 came from companies and individuals with a substantial interest in the residential housing market.

It also found that while government ministers held 669 meetings with 894 separate interest groups to discuss housing issues between January 2017 and March 2020, the statutory register of consultant lobbyists included additional information on just three of these groups.

Meanwhile the FT has been working on its own analysis [paywall]. It found that the party has been given at least £17.9 million by donors with property interests in the two years since Boris Johnson became PM, one quarter of the total donations it received during that period. Rumour nevertheless has it that Robert Jenrick’s department is frantically trying to “de-Cheshamise” the planning reform bill before its expected publication in the autumn.

NET ZERO LOCALGOV?

Also this month, the National Audit Office followed up on December’s Achieving Net Zero report, in which it highlighted the critical role local authorities would have to play in decarbonisation, with an examination of the effectiveness of central government collaboration with councils around the issue.

It identified “serious weaknesses” in the government’s approach, stemming from a “lack of clarity”, “piecemeal funding” and “diffuse accountabilities” which are creating “significant risks”. Sound familiar?

HELP POWER THE PUBLIC INTEREST JOURNALISM EXETER NEEDS

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