Our position on the redevelopment of city centre and the bus & coach station site
- Exeter Green Party support sensible and affordable proposals to improve the use of the bus and coach site and the range and quality of important facilities in Exeter city centre – but Labour’s plans don’t do this.
- The new St Sidwell’s Point Leisure Centre & Pool has been planned as a project in isolation from any assessment of the City’s wider needs, andis consuming almost all of the Council's funding for capital projects.
- It is not late to influence the development of the rest of the bus and coach station site, and we want to see a much broader range of accommodation and facilities than shops and restaurants.
Despite objections and reservations throughout the city, as well as a 250% increase in construction costs, the Labour-dominated Exeter City Council has pressed on with its original plans to use to redevelop the bus and coach station site. The plans involve a Council funded new leisure complex, now costed at £43.8m - St Sidwell’s Point- and a new much smaller bus station now costed at £8m.
A new outline vision for the development of the remainder of this large site has been produced by Exeter City Council, dependent on private sector funding. This follows the previous developer's (Crown Estates) last-minute decision not to proceed with its own redevelopment scheme.
Exeter Green Party has always supported sensible and affordable proposals to improve the use of the bus and coach site and the range and quality of important facilities in the city centre. We are not convinced that Labour’s plans meet these tests. In particular:
- The total cost of the scheme to the Council is now £51.9m, and there is no guarantee this will not rise further. This means that capital funding – including Community Infrastructure Levy and New Homes Bonus - for other pressing projects, such as social housing and community facilities is being diverted to the leisure centre. Funding for Council services will be used up in paying interest on the loans taken out by the Council to build St Sidwell’s Point.
- The revisions to the detail of the leisure complex plans mean that the expected operating profit to be invested in other Council services will be significantly reduced.
- We question the wisdom of developing a leisure facility that will compete with the numerous private sector gyms: the Council should be catering for activities less well served by the private sector.
- The scheme is proceeding in isolation from any clear plan for the rest of the city centre, particularly the High Street. It is becoming clear, almost on a weekly basis, that the traditional city centre offer of large chain stores is failing, evidenced by the number of businesses in serious financial difficulty. This requires a radical rethink about the sort of city centre which is socially, environmentally and economically viable.
- Similarly, the absence - until a consultation draft was put before councillors in February 2019 -of any coherent strategy for increasing opportunities for physical activity means that St Sidwell’s Point has been developed as the city’s flagship leisure facility without a proper strategic assessment of need. The driver for it was to fill a site perceived to need redeveloping. A dispersed leisure service of smaller centres across the wider city would be better value for money, reduce the need to travel, and encourage greater use because of their proximity to where people live.
- The Council’s decision to refund car parking charges for the future users of St Sidwell’s Point shows how desperate Labour are to attract people to the new facility. Not only will this add to the running costs of the leisure complex, but the decision flies in the face of the Council’s welcome, if inadequate, attempts to discourage private cars from the city centre, for example by increasing car parking charges and their stated desire to tackle congestion and air pollution.
- The new bus station will be too small. It is barely sufficient for present needs, and will be unable to cope with the step change increase in bus services that is needed if the city’s problems with traffic congestion, carbon emissions and air quality are to be solved. There is a risk that bus operators will simply use the nearby streets for loading and unloading rather than pay the user charges at an inadequate bus station.
The Green alternatives
The Council has now signed contracts for the construction of the leisure complex and the bus station and, realistically, it is now too late to stop the scheme going ahead. However, there is still time to influence the way in which the leisure complex is operated and the private sector development of the remainder of the site
The selected operator of St Sidwell’s Point is expected to be given the responsibility for the other Council-owned leisure centres. We believe that the time has come to put an end to outsourcing this service to any form of leisure trust (which is essentially a questionable tax-minimisation arrangement) backed by a profit-driven private company. Instead, the City Council should bring back the operation in-house, providing new opportunities for public sector staff and eliminating the need to set charges to pay for shareholder profits.
An outline vision for the remainder of the site was published in November 2018. This envisages a mix of housing, offices, two hotels, flexible working spaces and a significant reduction on food and beverage outlets than envisaged in the Crown Estate scheme. We believe this is a useful basis for further constructive thought
In particular, we are arguing for:
- A modern, covered multi-use market, with associated open space, for use by local food producers and traders, and local organisations who want to have stalls, craft and cultural events and provide space for performance & leisure events such as ice skating. Space to support small, micro and pop up businesses - not the national chains -to make the local economy stronger and more resilient and to encourage people to visit for a unique Exeter experience
- Affordable and social housingwhich will help anchor the city centre with a core of residents who are out and about and have a stake in the space, and will counterbalance the massive growth in city centre student accommodation
- A traffic reduction and management plan to ensure that any new facilities are accessible by means other than private cars
- A clear and agreed strategy for the wider city centre, to inform future requirements for public transport, walking and cycling facilities, a plan for the active encouragement of small businesses and markets, and open leisure space in the High Street. In addition the strategy should define how road traffic can be constrained to the minimum necessary to service businesses; and settle the question of whether a new entertainment venue is needed and if so where
- At the same time, a clear and agreed development strategy for the rest of the city, which recognises that Exeter is no longer just a “large town” with a single centre, but is increasing greatly in size. This points to creating communities within the city boundaries which are much more self-supporting than at present, with facilities provided closer to where people live.
Above all, we believe the Council must learn from its failure to engage with communities in developing plans for the bus and coach station site, replacing token consultations with a serious programme of dialogue with residents, businesses, visitors and interest groups. Many of the Council’s problems today stem from the fact that their consultations and decisions appear to have been based on holding a few exhibitions which asked people to comment on pre-formed plans and largely ignoring the views and comments received. The planning for the remainder of the site and the wider city centre offers a real opportunity for a better approach.