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How did the GESP vision crumble?

After more than four years, it looks as if the vision for a Greater Exeter Strategic Plan is dead in the water because at least one of the four partner councils involved has pulled the plug.

A full meeting of East Devon Council has endorsed a recommendation of the authority’s Strategic Planning Committee to withdraw from the plan, known as GESP, citing a range of concerns including a lack of consultation with the public and with councillors themselves, and a feeling East Devon was being asked to absorb too many new homes.

Mid Devon Council could follow suit, and Teignbridge’s involvement is ‘on pause’ while it considers the impacts of East Devon’s move. Of the four participating authorities, only Exeter has agreed to progress.

So how did we get here, how did the vision crumble away?

Exeter is the economic powerhouse in the Devon County Council area. But it is running out of space, for economic growth and for the new homes that help support it.

There isn’t a great deal of available green space or previously developed land that can be suitably repurposed for housing, factories, warehouses or offices in anything like the numbers it’s said are needed. It’s clear that the most recent areas of growth have been on the edge of the city, actually outside its boundaries. Think of the Amazon and Lidl warehouses close to the airport (in East Devon) and the new homes springing up near Marsh Barton (in Teignbridge).

So while a lot of development is taking place just outside Exeter – which is where a lot of people want to live – there’s no overarching strategy. The people of the city get housing but the pressure from above for more housing within Exeter is just as strong. The city doesn’t necessarily get all the funding that otherwise accompanies the new “Exeter” residents, not least because their council tax is collected by their district council, not Exeter.

And, crucially, with a joint plan such as GESP, planning for the infrastructure such as roads, schools, surgeries, shops and parks needed to support all these new developments would be integrated and strategic, and is likely to attract greater government funding.

The vision for the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan came about because officers from Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge councils saw the benefits of cross-border co-operation, and they succeeded in getting their respective councillors to buy in to their vision.

Most members of the public were only aware of the plan in passing, if at all, and only then really if it might impact directly on their neighbourhood. People didn’t know enough about it to have a view one way or the other.

The work progressing GESP continued apace, largely behind the scenes.

But that was then. Now in East Devon we have a new administration. Most councillors in the group in charge stood on a ticket of “preventing inappropriate and unsustainable large-scale development” while challenging “the often secretive way in which these plans are drawn up.” The East Devon Alliance’s priorities for 2019-20 included a review of GESP and “public consultation thereof.”

So what East Devon councillors say is a lack of public consultation thus far has helped lead to the downfall of GESP. In many ways that’s a great shame, not least because the next formal step for the plan was for it to go out to public consultation.

Public consultation is key to gaining approval for a wide range of plans, no matter who is putting them forward.

If members of the public, and councillors, don’t understand the vision, and feel excluded from the decision-making process, they are less likely to support it. GESP demonstrates that on a large scale.

If you are bringing land forward for development and would like an informal discussion regarding how public consultation and engagement could help you achieve your vision, call 01392 466733 to speak with KOR’s Managing Director, Annette Richman.