Exeter regional democracy & governance

A guide to help potential contributors develop their understanding of democracy and governance policy and practice in and around Exeter.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

This guide is work in progress, and may require revision: please get in touch with any corrections or suggestions for additional content, including key documents.


Local, regional and national government in the British Isles has been in flux since long before Julius Caesar first arrived.

The historic counties established after the Norman conquest, mostly based on earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and shires, formed the basis of a pattern that had largely stabilised by the mid-sixteenth century and lasted until the Local Government Act of 1888, which established the recognisably modern two-tier county and borough council system.

The 1972 Local Government Act that replaced this with the metropolitan system introduced an era of incremental, often controversial and politically-motivated, reforms that have led to the UK becoming one of the most centralised democracies in the developed world.

While ancient boundaries such as rivers and watersheds still underly the lived experience of place, and much modern infrastructure still follows long-established routes along natural contours, the mechanisms by which power and wealth are garnered and distributed have become largely divorced from the land.

The decentralised Anglo-Saxon shires of Wessex, which essentially survive as ceremonial counties including Devon, Somerset and Dorset as they are today, were combined with the highly-centralised government established by William the Conqueror in Westminster and catalogued in the Domesday Book.

The Labour government of 1997-2010 had planned to introduce eight English regional assemblies to sit alongside the devolved governments it established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but only succeeded in introducing the London Assembly, with its directly elected Major.

Under the same government, nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were established, mainly for economic development purposes, in England, with corresponding bodies in the rest of the UK. While funded by several Whitehall departments to reflect their broad remit, they reported to the then Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

The South West RDA, which covered an area including Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and the West of England, was strongly criticised for profligacy, being unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable, and for covering an artificially-imposed and unnatural region that was too large for it to oversee effectively. Its head office was in Exeter.

When the coalition government came to power in 2010 it announced the abolition of RDAs as part of its austerity agenda, inviting proposals from local authorities and business leaders for replacement bodies.

These Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were set up on a voluntary basis without any public funding, with a reduced remit to help determine local economic priorities and lead local economic growth and job creation.

In a race to bid for diminishing public finance, 59 proposals were made, resulting in the 38 LEPs that are now operating.

Some coincide with densely populated urban areas with significant economic roles and strong claims to public investment in established industries, while others represent largely rural areas with low population densities and productivity to match.

A £1.4bn Local Growth Fund was established in 2012 to allocate finance to LEPs on a competitive bid basis, requiring LEPs to draw up local growth plans as a basis for negotiation.

At the same time the management of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), comprising the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF), was realigned to follow LEP planning.

The Heart of the South West LEP was formed to cover rural Somerset and Devon, including the Plymouth and Torbay unitary authorities. It is geographically the largest LEP area despite not including Cornwall or the Isles of Scilly.

However it did not represent a cohesive, distinct economic development area.

A 2016 Royal Town Planning Institute analysis of South West LEPs “in relation to delivering economic growth and their engagement with strategic planning and sustainable development” found that they would function more effectively were they coincident with functional market areas and matching local government structures, which they were not.

Meanwhile other local government changes were taking place following the abolition of the RDAs. Greater Manchester was the first of a wave of nine new combined authorities created after 2010.

Following mostly unsuccessful city mayoral referendums in 2012 (Bristol being a notable exception), these combined authorities have emerged as a means to pursue additional powers and funding in the form of “city deals”.

Further devolution followed with the creation of directly elected mayors at combined authority level, again notably including the West of England combined authority, meaning Bristol has an elected mayor at both city and combined authority levels.

These mayoral combined authorities have become the focus of significant public investment and political attention, particularly in the context of the regional “Northern Powerhouse” and “Midlands Engine” branding that has emerged.

Other combined authorities proposals, with and without mayors, have been scrapped after failing to gain necessary approval from participating local councils.

Some “devolution deal” discussions are ostensibly ongoing, however none of these so far incomplete dialogues have centred on large post-industrial metropolitan areas like those that have previously succeeded, with the exception of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, with its concentration of knowledge-based industries.

National government

Local government

In 1974 local government across England (excluding London, which had been remodelled in 1965) was reorganised into two tiers of “principal authorities”: county councils and district (or borough) councils. Rural areas also had a third tier: parish or town councils.

The largest urban conurbations were reorganised into metropolitan counties and metropolitan districts (or boroughs), though the metropolitan tiers had different responsibilities from the non-metropolitan councils.

Typically, non-metropolitan county councils have responsibility for education, highways and transport, social care, waste disposal, minerals and waste planning.

District councils handle spatial planning, housing, public spaces, leisure facilities and waste collection.

The tidy 1974 pattern has since changed. The metropolitan counties were abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, with their functions largely falling to the metropolitan districts.

This pattern was repeated on a piecemeal basis during the 1990s and 2000s as many non-metropolitan counties and districts sought to become “unitary” authorities, thus ending the split of roles between the two tiers.

A summary of the different types of council is available from MHCLG.

All local authorities are run by elected councillors. The electoral cycle varies, with some councils up for election as a whole every three or four years, and others (including Exeter) holding elections for one seat in each three-member ward in each of three years, with no elections every fourth year to avoid clashing with county council elections.

Councillors are paid allowances which vary between authorities and in line with their responsibilities.

Since 2000 it has been possible for local authorities to adopt “executive arrangements” in place of the traditional system under which all decisions were taken by committees of the council (although the law requires that planning and licensing functions continue to be exercised through committees).

Executive arrangements are where the leader of the largest political group appoints either an executive (Exeter) or cabinet (Devon) of councillors to take day to day decisions and drive forward initiatives.

Full council meetings are then largely rubber stamps, though they may have a more dynamic role in authorities where no single political party has overall control.

All councillors are required to adhere to a code of conduct adopted by the authority, as well as the Nolan principles of public life, which apply to everyone who holds public office, including local authority officers.

Complaints that a councillor has breached the local authority’s code of conduct can be made to the council’s monitoring officer, who is usually the senior lawyer. In serious cases the complaint can be taken to a hearing of the council’s standards committee.

Councillors are supported by the local authority’s officers, who are unelected employees of the council, though perspectives vary as to whether councillors or officers run particular local authorities.

Local government finance is complex and opaque. Central government has been reducing direct revenue support to councils, replacing it with a variety of measures including retention of business rates, community infrastructure levy, new homes bonus and bidding into central funding schemes (see below).

The Local Government Association is the trade union for local authorities, and a source of useful briefings and reports on a wide range of relevant topics.

The Local Government Information Unit is a local government membership body and thinktank that also publishes a range of relevant briefings and reports.

New Local (formerly the New Local Government Network) is a membership network of 60 UK councils. It also publishes useful briefings and reports, including an excellent three part series explaining local government in England:

  1. Types of councils
  2. What do councils do?
  3. How are councils funded?

Sub-national regional governance

The arrival of the coalition government in 2010 put an end to any interest in further change to local government structures or several years: plans for Exeter and Suffolk to become unitary councils were cancelled on day one.

Instead, central government encouraged or mandated the development of “partnerships” as a means both of overcoming local government fragmentation and of minimising the government funding stream to any one local authority.

Misleadingly, this process was called “devolution”, the idea being that if organisations banded together and put forward convincing spending plans, Whitehall would “devolve” budgets to them.

The most significant, so far, of the sub-national bodies are local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). LEPs are a key channel for targeted government money. Although LEPs include some councillors on their boards the majority of members are not elected by anyone despite their responsibility for channelling public funds.

The Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (HotSW LEP) was established in 2013 and covers Devon, Somerset, Torbay and Plymouth (but notably not Cornwall, which wanted to go it alone).

It describes itself as a “thought leader influencing economic development”, but its real role is to attract investment from government and the private sector.

Historically its environmental credentials have been limited but its new Local Industrial Strategy – Whitehall approval for which has been delayed for several months – purports to promise clean and inclusive growth. The LEP champions, among other projects, the new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point.

At the beginning of 2020, the Great South West partnership (GSW) emerged from the previously unsuccessful #BacktheSouthWest initiative, bringing together the LEPs covering Cornwall, Dorset and HotSW. Local authorities, universities and business leaders are also involved.

Whether the GSW will succeed in winning government funding for regional projects where the LEPs have failed, or will go the way of previous PR exercises (or leaked initiatives such as the “Golden Triangle” of Exeter, Plymouth and Torbay), remains to be seen.

However there is evidence that the LEPs may no longer be sub-national flavour of the month in Whitehall. Larger groupings of councils, LEPs, universities and businesses are coming together to make themselves even more appealing as recipients of government money.

Sub-national transport bodies are also in vogue. Some, such as Transport for the North, have been given statutory status by government.

Others, including our own Peninsula Transport, which covers all three South West peninsula counties, remain in shadow form, not having yet sought approval from central government to take on full decision-making powers.

Peninsula Transport appears to have taken over the work previously done by the HotSW Local Transport Board, an offshoot of the LEP (see Exeter regional transport and mobility topic notes).

Meanwhile, in some former metropolitan counties and other parts of the country combined authorities are playing an increasingly important role in planning and decision-making. Unlike the other sub-national bodies, combined authorities comprise elected councillors nominated by constituent councils, plus in most cases a directly elected mayor.


Devon County Council covers the historic county of Devon, except for Torbay and Plymouth which are both unitary authorities. The populations are (2018 mid-year estimates):

  • Devon County Council (DCC) - upper tier - 795,000
  • Plymouth City Council - unitary authority - 263,000
  • Torbay Council - unitary authority - 136,000
  • Exeter City Council (ECC) - lower tier district - 130,000

Exeter is the third largest of Devon’s eight districts: East Devon (EDDC) (144,000) and Teignbridge (TDC) (133,000) have greater populations, both of which are adjacent to Exeter. Mid Devon District Council (MDDC) is the third district adjacent to Exeter.

The four districts put together are sometimes known as Greater Exeter, although other working definitions of what constitutes this area compete for relevance in policy-making, including Exeter’s Travel to Work Area (TTWA), Functional Economic Market Area (FEMA) and Strategic Housing Market Area (SHMA).

The same four districts were previously also responsible for the 2017-2020 Exeter & Heart of Devon shared economic strategy.

Devon County Council has been controlled by the Conservatives since 2009. It was previously controlled by the Liberal Democrats from 1989 to 2009, apart from 2001-5 when an all-party administration was in charge.

Since 2009 the Conservatives have increased their majority and now hold 41 out of 60 seats, reflecting the prosperous and rural nature of much of the county. The Electoral Reform Society says such “one-party councils” are 50% more at risk of corruption than politically-competitive councils and more likely to waste public money because of insufficient scrutiny of procurement processes.

Devon has seven Labour county councillors, all of whom were elected by Exeter divisions (which is the county-level term for ward). Elections for the whole of Devon County Council are held every four years, in the gap created by Exeter City Council electing by thirds (see above). The next county election is due in May 2021.

Like Exeter City Council, Devon County Council operates executive arrangements with a cabinet of nine including the leader, John Hart, and Exeter county councillor Andrew Leadbetter (who is also an Exeter city councillor in Topsham ward).

The [county council’s website]((https://democracy.devon.gov.uk/) contains much information about the council itself, its spending, facts and figures, mapping and services. It is responsible for schools (other than academies), social care provision, transport and highways (including traffic regulations and on-street parking), waste disposal, libraries, flood risk management, and leads on the local nature partnership.

The council declared a climate emergency in May 2019. It set up a series of mechanisms and groups all reporting to its Climate Emergency Response Group.


Exeter is run by two local authorities in the two-tier system: Devon County Council and Exeter City Council. Despite its name, the latter is legally a district council. There are no town or parish councils in Exeter.

Exeter City Council has been consistently Labour-controlled since 2011, the party having previously been out of power after 2005. Labour’s voting support has begun to slide with losses in three city centre wards in May 2019, to the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and an Independent. The Labour vote also fell in a county council by-election in October 2019.

Labour still holds 29 of the 39 seats on the city council, meaning it will reach the Electoral Reform Society’s threshold for a one-party council next year unless the May 2020 elections produce dramatic results.

Currently six Conservatives form the official opposition and the main challenge is provided by a Progressive Group of four councillors (two Lib Dems, one Green, one Independent).

The city council operates with an executive of ten including its leader, Phil Bialyk who took over in May 2019. One of his early decisions was to change the council’s constitution to reduce the scope for scrutiny of its actions.

The council’s key responsibilities are housing and homelessness, public spaces, leisure facilities, off-road public car-parking, air quality, taxi and premises licensing, community grants, waste collection and spatial planning (see Exeter regional planning and place topic notes).

It is also a substantial landowner in the city, and is the harbour authority for the Exe estuary from the city centre to one mile off the river mouth. More information is available on the council’s website.

The council declared a climate emergency in July 2019 and has entrusted Exeter City Futures with coordinating an action plan to reach net zero by 2030.

Key issues

  • A raft of planning issues (see Exeter regional planning and place topic notes)
  • Lack of common approach on transport issues between ECC and DCC (see Exeter regional transport and mobility topic notes)
  • Unclear how the climate emergency work led by both councils will join up
  • Air quality is still poor in some areas of the city
  • The leisure complex on the bus station site has pre-empted a huge amount of the city council’s capital spend programme
  • ECC needs to make a further £3.7 million in revenue savings over the next three years
  • The financing and viability of Exeter City Living, the council-owned house building company, remains uncertain
  • A lack of openness on some issues: use of working groups and non-statutory joint boards to avoid public scrutiny
  • Excessive redaction of supplier information to conceal identities of people/companies being paid for commercial services
  • A “commercialisation” strategy which councillors have in effect delegated to officers

Journalist interests

  • Impacts everyone - taxes, charges, public services (schools, care, waste), place-making
  • But not everyone understands the structures and knows how/when to intervene to influence decisions
  • Decision-making can be opaque: behind closed doors, in partnerships, highly technical, with only superficial scrutiny and/or understanding by elected representatives
  • Public interest journalism has an important role to play in scrutinising, informing and calling out when necessary

More guides

Guides covering other Exeter regional policy and practice areas are also being prepared.

Recent stories
Independent local business on Paris Street, Exeter

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Prospects improve for pop-up Paris Street and Sidwell Street tenants wanting to stay on development site

Council leader Phil Bialyk says it will be "some years" before planned CityPoint redevelopment affects repurposed retail units, and that council "would want" to accommodate artistic and cultural initiatives and independent local businesses "should they wish to remain".

Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018

Interview  ⁄  Climate & environment

Greta Thunberg calls on world leaders for honesty at COP26

An interview with climate activist Greta Thunberg on the eve of the COP26 summit published in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration.

Clifton Hill sports centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Council plans to scrap affordable housing requirement for Clifton Hill sports centre site redevelopment

Council-owned and financed developer cites unpublished report which values council-owned land for student housing despite council decision ruling out this use.

Liveable Exeter Place Board agenda October 2020 redacted

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

City council outsourcing Exeter local government to unaccountable Liveable Exeter Place Board

An Exeter Observer investigation of Liveable Exeter Place Board has found that it is a de facto decision-making and governance body which exercises public functions with the potential to affect everyone who lives and works in Exeter.

Exeter city centre from Exeter Cathedral roof

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Freedom of Information requests reveal Liveable Exeter Place Board "chumocracy" overseeing the city

Despite the significance of Liveable Exeter Place Board's role in determining the city's future, its members are selected and appointed on a secretive, informal basis.

Peninsula Transport vision document cover image

News  ⁄  Transport & mobility

30 year plan for SW transport outlined in consultation document

Strategic vision places investment in roads ahead of decarbonisation despite acknowledging the region's high car dependency rate.

Recent stories
Independent local business on Paris Street, Exeter

Prospects improve for pop-up Paris Street and Sidwell Street tenants wanting to stay on development site

Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018

Greta Thunberg calls on world leaders for honesty at COP26

Clifton Hill sports centre

Council plans to scrap affordable housing requirement for Clifton Hill sports centre site redevelopment

Liveable Exeter Place Board agenda October 2020 redacted

City council outsourcing Exeter local government to unaccountable Liveable Exeter Place Board

Exeter city centre from Exeter Cathedral roof

Freedom of Information requests reveal Liveable Exeter Place Board "chumocracy" overseeing the city

Peninsula Transport vision document cover image

30 year plan for SW transport outlined in consultation document

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Featured stories
Bar chart showing 2020 pollution incidents per 10,000km2 for the nine privatised water companies in England

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

South West Water misses pollution targets for tenth year running

Environment Agency says regional company's performance "drags down the whole sector's reputation" as report places it at bottom of annual assessment league table while company pays out millions in shareholder dividends.

Harlequins revised redevelopment scheme illustrative elevation

News  ⁄  Planning & place

Harlequins developer plans to scrap hotel to build second "co-living" block on shopping centre site

Existing planning approval will be factor in decision to return to earlier, rejected, vision which would mean 378 studios and "cluster flat" rooms along Paul Street.

Positive Light Projects - Sidwell Street entrance

Analysis  ⁄  Arts & culture

Positive Light Projects opens community arts centre despite CityPoint redevelopment threat

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 uncertainty remains as the council still plans to demolish and redevelop.

New Haven Field in Exeter's Riverside Valley Park

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

River Exe green spaces and heritage harbour site threatened by "Liveable Exeter" development scheme

Exeter Civic Society and Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors raise alarm at prospect of Exeter City Council development in river valley park and historic canal basin.

Devon Pension Fund fossil fuel holdings

Analysis  ⁄  Climate & environment

Devon Pension Fund fossil fuel investment position exposed by Shell and BP AGM votes

Shareholder support for Paris Agreement-compatible goals increases but fails to prevent continuing oil and gas exploration, extraction, production or consumption as experts intensify warnings that emissions reductions goals will be missed.

Exeter City Council 2021 election results ballot share percentage by ward

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Did Exeter's local elections results tell a Labour success story?

Exeter Labour lost just one seat in the city council elections and held all seven of its county hall seats, but on closer inspection its performance was more mixed than these headline results imply.

Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

Comment  ⁄  Economy & enterprise

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

Exeter City Council's Chief Executive uses statistics to show the city in a good light, but in doing so presents a picture which omits important information about the city's true position.

Train at Okehampton Station in 2015

News  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Okehampton to Exeter "Dartmoor Line" passenger rail service reinstatement confirmed

£40 million Department for Transport "Restoring your Railway" funding to enable trains every two hours by end of this year, with plans to increase to hourly service during 2022. Stakeholders combine to get South West infrastructure needs onto Whitehall agenda.

Maclaines Warehouses beside Exeter ship canal

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Maclaines Warehouses development tests Exeter Heritage Harbour status

Decisions taken behind closed doors in favour of commercial interests threaten maritime and waterway heritage vision for Exeter’s historic quay, canal and canal basin.

Global lockdown pollution level changes

Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

I'm a climate scientist – here's three key things I have learned over a year of COVID

A leading climate scientist's perspective on what the community has learned over the past year about the interactions between the pandemic and the current and future global climate.

Exeter Guildhall needs repairs

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

£37.5 million council maintenance backlog caused by underinvestment to be part-funded by asset sales

Exeter City Council has allowed property assets to deteriorate while prioritising new schemes including the £44 million St Sidwell's Point leisure centre, forcing it to identify assets for sale to pay its outstanding repair bills.

Exeter City Council offices on Paris Street

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Council pushes back on Liveable Exeter Place Board scrutiny following membership change

Exeter City Council has responded to an enquiry about disproportionate Church of England representation on the Liveable Exeter Place Board by accusing Exeter Observer of promoting a "partisan narrative" and claiming our public interest reporting "bears no resemblance to fact".

Harlequins shopping centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

First Liveable Exeter homes are substandard "warehousing for people" which is student accommodation "in all but name"

Harlequins shopping centre redevelopment approved by Exeter City Council includes 251 co-living units in seven storey tower block despite widespread opposition from conservation charities and community campaigners who have since appealed to the Secretary of State to call in the decision.

St Sidwell's Point development site outline aerial view

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter City Council executive members take direct control of city planning decisions

Council's executive now possesses majority on city planning committee, with council leader and planning portfolio holder also included despite national guidance, offering basis to challenge decisions and increasing democratic deficit.

Net Zero Exeter 2030 plan proposals vs Exeter territorial emissions vs Exeter carbon footprint bar chart

Analysis  ⁄  Climate & environment

Is the "Net Zero" Exeter plan fit for purpose? Part I: Exeter's carbon footprint

Exeter City Futures' carbon reduction plan ignores over a million tonnes of carbon emissions and massively underestimates the challenges facing the city. First in a series examining its flaws by Fridays For Future youth climate activists.

Food retailers at Queen Street Dining in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Unelected Liveable Exeter Place Board created to oversee city from the shadows

Exeter City Council has convened an unelected board that meets in private, does not publish its discussions or decisions and is taking responsibility for major policies which will determine Exeter's future.

Department for Transport New Road Layout for Social Distancing coronavirus road sign

Analysis  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Coronavirus exposes council failure to deliver Exeter transport plans

Devon County Council's failure to deliver overdue Exeter transport strategy and cycling and walking plan has led to an inadequate response to government demands for emergency coronavirus road layout changes.

Pulling Road Pinhoe Exeter zero carbon housing development site plan

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter's first "zero carbon" housing development includes 96 car parking spaces for 40 homes

Exeter City Council has approved plans to develop land at Pinhoe with a parking ratio of 2.4 cars per household as part of an "exemplar scheme for future residential development in the city" while accepting that zero carbon construction comes "at a cost to the provision of affordable housing".