There’s so much wrong with GESP. EDDC must “take back control”.

This week the local press (Midweek Herald, Exmouth Journal etc.), for the first time are publishing an article on EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee’s recommendation to withdraw from the GESP process. It is entitled “What would EDDC pulling out of GESP mean for the future of the blueprint plan?” by Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter. 

This has prompted Owl to write this article discussing what is wrong with GESP.

The ink was hardly dry on the final draft of GESP when our whole world was transformed by Covid-19 but this juggernaut continued as if nothing had happened.

“A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. ……”[See EDW]

To paraphrase EDDC Leader Cllr Paul Arnott, the GESP is the result of a devil’s pact between a Labour controlled Exeter City council, which had lost control of its five year land supply, and three neighbouring Conservative controlled districts eager for growth. It goes far beyond their legal duty to cooperate.

We can now see that, over the years, Conservatives had taken voter compliance for granted as they pressed on with their growth agenda. They have now lost control of all three of these districts. 

As one commentator has reminded us, the antecedents of GESP can be traced back more than ten years and lie deep within EDDC. 

Karime Hassan was appointed Chief Executive and Growth Director of Exeter City Council in 2013, despite arguments that the two roles should be separate. He joined Exeter City Council as the Director of Economy and Development in February 2011, following eight years as Corporate Director at East Devon District Council. During his time at East Devon he set up the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point, managed the strategic development proposals for the growth area and established regeneration programmes for Exmouth and Seaton.

Another link is provided by Cllr Paul Diviani who came to prominence as  EDDC Chairman Development Management Committee 2009 to 2011, as Karime was setting up the Exeter and East Devon Growth point. In 2011 Karime Hassan moved to Exeter and Paul Diviani became Leader of EDDC. Paul Diviani had an extraordinarily influential career: as a board member of the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP;  a member of Exeter and East Devon Growth point board; a member of Exeter and East Devon sub-regional spatial strategy steering group and, until being rejected by the voters, had played a key role in GESP.

Both characters were also prominent in the formation of the discredited East Devon Business Forum. [See “Scaring the living daylights out of people”  – the Local Lobby and the failure of Democracy – with a whole chapter devoted to the East Devon Business Forum: Chapter III. ‘The Local Mafia’ Conflicts of interest in East Devon.]

The GESP has been conducted through a flawed process in which a handful of councillors from each authority have got together with planning officers to plan for growth, essentially in secret, paying little or no attention to transparency or public engagement. Indeed one councillor claims to have been told that it was necessary for officials to play a dominant role because councillors regularly came and went providing no continuity. (Cllr Eleanor Rylance likened her experience of being invited to participate in a GESP “panel” meeting last year as being given crayons at school and asked to colour in the pictures).

The starting point for the strategy, like that of the Heart of the South West LEP, is an assumption of the essential need for exceptional growth for the next 20 years. One public speaker pointed out that this assumption is neither clearly spelled out nor justified. Where did this agenda come from?

One might expect a strategy to consider optimistic, pessimistic and most likely scenarios but this isn’t the case in GESP. By taking exceptional growth as its starting point, GESP is pursuing a pre-ordained mission, but not one that the population or even the main body of councillors, certainly in East Devon, has accepted or in management jargon “owns”. Therein lies a fundamental problem for its authors as it is finally unveiled. Despite protestations to the contrary (e.g. Cllr Philip Skinner’s letter to the Exmouth Journal- see later) it is generally seen as a “fait accompli” and any “consultation” at this stage merely a “ticking the boxes” exercise.

The overall impression you get, if you look at the copious documentation, is that of being drowned in minutiae. Not only can’t you see the wood for the trees but it’s hard to see the trees through the leaves. Not surprising then to find Councillors discovering contradictory policies buried in the mess. As Cllr Eleanor Rylance said: “This has self-contradictory policies clearly written by different people and it is unreasonable to put this before anyone.”

This is a devastating criticism because it demonstrates that even the GESP authors have lost their way.

On these grounds alone Owl would judge the consultation documents “unfit for purpose”.

Also pointed out during the EDDC debate is the fact that the most recent piece of evidence is three years old and some supporting papers are 10 years old. Since the documents were prepared, our whole world has been transformed by Covid-19 and little of this evidence is likely to remain relevant in the “new normal”. 

A more specific criticism made by a number of Councillors of GESP is that it lacks sufficient “green” ambition. In June 2019 the Government committed to a target that will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. GESP is supposed to take us out to 2040 so climate change has to be addressed very seriously in it.

It all adds to the conclusion that GESP and its ponderous process has been well and truly overtaken by events.

Cllr. Philip Skinner (until recently a leading figure driving GESP), in his letter to the Exmouth Journal, says disarmingly that the document is not a “fait accompli” but simply the basis of discussion and debate which goes out to consultation to the private sector, the general public, and any other interested parties to have their say. (Well he would say that wouldn’t he). Experience from the first consultation exercise is not encouraging that any real notice would be taken of comments.

Similar arguments were put forward at the Strategic Planning Committee by Cllrs Helen Parr and Ben Ingham. 

Owl shares the view expressed by many councillors that such complex and flawed documentation cannot be the basis for any sensible consultation. Furthermore, as pointed out by a Conservative councillor, the paper doesn’t present a set of options to choose from. Which is why “fait accompli” seems an appropriate description.

The press article makes the point that regardless of whether councils are part of the GESP or not, the required number of homes that need to be built remains the same. (Cllr Skinner make the same point). 

But this refers to the government mandated targets (set using calculations and assumptions challenged by CPRE). It also ignores the fact that GESP only deals with sites for 500+ houses. It does not consider the overall picture in the context of neighbourhood plans etc.

The fear with GESP is that the housing figures given are “minimum” numbers and, therefore, just the starting point. The nightmare scenario is the one where all the sites put forward by landowners in GESP become “development zones” within the new planning system and opened up to uncontrolled development. The reason that EDDC housing figures are so large is that Conservative controlled EDDC, at the time it was constructing its Local Plan, chose to base their housing target, not on demographic need, but on a “jobs-led policy on” scenario (another extreme growth scenario). This scenario assumes that 950 jobs/year will be created in East Devon. “Are the wheels falling off the East Devon growth wagon?” carries a review of how this assumption has failed from its inception (and that is before the havoc Covid-19 might wreck on jobs).

EDDC has contributed substantial effort to GESP at the expense of preparing for the next revision of the Local Plan. As was pointed out at the Strategic Planning Committee this could leave EDDC without a plan and vulnerable to uncontrolled development .

To quote from a recent correspondent:

“The country needs more housing of the right sort in the right place and we must all work together to deliver this.

Community involvement in the early stages of the planning process increases public trust, obstacles are removed and the process is accelerated. “

Transparency, community involvement, trust – none of these has played a part in GESP. EDDC must “take back control”.