Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Exeter City Question Time

The Society held a very successful and informative hustings on 16th April 2016 attended by 70 people to listen to candidates views about the development of the city. The event was chaired by the society’s chairman Keith Lewis along the lines of BBC’s Question Time. The five main parties standing in Exeter’s local elections on 5th May were represented by Diana Moore (Green Party), Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative), Rod Ruffle (Lib Dem), Rachel Sutton (Labour) and Dutch Dudgeon (UKIP).

Questions were asked by the society’s members about what concerns them, and inevitably several of these focused upon the redevelopment of the bus station site.  When asked about the provision of a suitable swimming pool for the city the Conservative, Lib Dem, and UKIP candidates all said they want to see a new pool developed away from the city centre, with suggestions from the audience that the current proposal is a vanity project. Diana Moore said the Green party are happy with the location but not with its financial viability having not been able to obtain a copy of the business case. Rachel Sutton of the Labour party said she was in favour of it, and when asked about the disposal of the current swimming pool site she said that it could be used for housing.  Andrew Leadbetter said the Conservatives will investigate a 50m pool, but Rod Ruffle said this would not be viable as there is already a 50m competition pool at Plymouth. Except for Rachel Sutton of Labour, the panelists gave thoughts on how their groups would spend the new homes bonus money rather than on the proposed pool complex, and Rod Ruffle thought the money could be used to reinstate community patrollers, as well as protecting existing services from future cuts between now and 2020.

The closure of Paris Street to traffic as a result of the bus station development by Crown Estates was hotly debated as was the provision of a suitable bus station for the city. Andrew Leadbetter said the Conservatives are not in favour of diverting traffic away onto neighbouring roads which are unsuitable, and will consider re-introducing two-way traffic again. Rachel Sutton said we should aim to reduce the level of city centre traffic, and closing the street was the right thing to do to encourage people to use public transport. It was pointed out by the audience and both Rod Ruffle and Diana Moore that York Road and King William Street are not suitable for cross city traffic, and to encourage more people to leave their cars at home, the number of buses will need to be significantly increased. Concerns were expressed about the provision of the new bus station and the lack of detailed information relating to its design and function, and panelists and the audience questioned why the city is now paying for the bus station when the original brief was for the developer to provide the bus station in exchange for developing the site. Diana Moore pointed out that the bus station is further from the High Street and harder for elderly, disabled, or mums with children and shopping, and the audience objected to people having to wait on the street with luggage to catch a long-distance coach. Rod Ruffle said it was wrong to make long distance coaches to drop-off at Sowton as we need visitors to arrive in the city centre, and Andrew Leadbetter said that we were missing the opportunity to create an integrated transport hub, and that a bus station at Exeter Central Station might be a better site.

The society’s chairman said he has asked for detailed information from the council nearly a month ago but this has not been provided. Rachel Sutton defended the council’s plans for the bus station and said they welcomed people’s comments and ideas (at which point the audience broke into laughter), and advised that more details will soon be released before the next planned consultation event in May.

The panel was questioned about the provision of district shopping centres in new residential areas, particularly the Monkerton area and the refusal of planning permission for Moor Exchange off Honiton Road. The questioner, who lives near the proposed development, pointed out that she has a 1.5 mile walk to buy a pint of milk, and that local facilities are essential. Candidates agreed that such facilities must be included in new developments, although Rachel Sutton defended the refusal of planning permission on the grounds that large centres can damage the attractiveness of the city centre by diverting trade away from it. Diana Moore pointed out that to build communities not just housing estates, basic facilities such as a hairdresser were essential, and Rod Ruffle said he would like to see green open spaces for casual recreation.

Further questions were asked about a commitment by candidates towards funding improved cycling and walking networks across the city, the suitability of the current sites for street markets at the top of South Street and in Sidwell Street, and the best thing that has happened to Exeter since 2000. All the panellists talked of a better farmer’s market site or of a proper market building, with Diana Moore suggesting a ‘best of Devon market square in the new bus station site, with Cllr Sutton agreeing with this suggestion.

All of the candidates thanked the society for hosting the event, and the Society’s President, Peter Wadham – a former councillor and Lord Mayor, said this was probably the best event that the society has hosted in its 55 years history.

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