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Housing density, innovation, culture and place - our South-West discussion highlights report

Above: Lloyd's Square Exeter, with new Hotel Indigo behind, part of an interior redevelopment of the historic Colsons / Dingles / House of Fraser department store - and the medieval St Stephen's church

At its South-West event this week, Future Cities Forum discussed the importance of developing new housing around 15-minute walkable districts, the potential increase for the visitor economy from the expansion of the cathedral's facilities and the museum (RAMM), how retail might grow in the future with good quality public realm around it and the need for investment in science and innovation in the region.

Chief Executive of Exeter City Council, Karime Hassan, opened the discussions by talking about the need for greater density in housing:

'Exeter is the principal economic driver for the county - historically there was an agreement to build outside because it was thought that the city couldn't take anymore, hence Cranbrook - a new town but also acting as urban extension. Our new developments were built on a local plan and they are well underway. The next stage - our urban capacity work - looks at our long term needs, and with our neighbours. But in the city, there is the challenge of the important landscape that surrounds it and the fact that (most of) the built fabric is still of a productive nature. So we need to look at densities but in the historic environment.

'Quality of house build matters but there are other issues such as construction with low carbon. We need to look at the way we plan. Traditionally we have built lots of houses which are difficult to get to on foot and with no immediate shops and facilities that are always built later. We need to aim for 15-minute districts, with density and transport, so we can give up cars and also deliver a cultural offering, creating great places. There are significant flood risks around the city and we must collaborate with our neighbours for scale. Progress on collaboration has unfortunately been put aside with local authorities doing their own thing, and we do not get significant government funding. One of our success stories is the number of rail stations which serve vital commuting services. We have ten stations and we are creating new ones such as Marsh Barton, and this number puts us on a par with Leeds. But we must increase walking and cycling as part of our ambition for net zero.

Asked about the importance of collaboration between public and private investors, Karime said:

'We have always had a strong collaboration here and we have built a platform that brings company CEOs and key institutions together, for instance with Exeter Chiefs (Rugby Football Club). What we are trying to achieve is a united agenda on innovation and trying to create a supportive environment for private investment. We need to look at the next twenty years with a focus on the scale-up for housing and employment, built on a graduate employment base in the areas of climate sciences, water engineering and health. We need to create the housing for that employment growth.'

Above: the 'Museum of the Moon' a travelling installation and attraction by artist Luke Jeram in the nave of Exeter Cathedral in 2021

Is the value of Exeter Cathedral fully appreciated as a driver of tourism and visitor numbers? This was the question put to Jill Taylor, Head of Development at the cathedral. She responded:

'It is true, we are part of the everyday scenery and the cathedral green is a social space. I think we could do more and have been trying to do so in manageable phases. We are working on a visitor route joining up the cathedral buildings but we haven't done the work to show our value enough. Therefore we under-sell ourselves. We draw in visitors annually to our Christmas market every year, with coaches of people coming even from Cornwall. Our value to the city economy is somewhere around £33 million, but we haven't done the work on the night-time economy working out how much we add in terms of the concerts that are performed in the cathedral and so on. We need to improve our offer and we have wonderful literary treasures for instance, but we are not good at showing these. So we hope to do so at our new treasures exhibition area which is now being built. We need an engagement plan because the story of the cathedral isn't shared enough. We want the people of Devon - all faiths and none - to visit us. At the moment, they stare at our lovely West Front, but aren't sure whether visiting inside is worth it.

Jill was asked about the apprenticeships that the cathedral can offer as part of employment and training:

'We employ six heritage stonemasons, all on apprenticeships and we can involve people when we have specific funding for pieces of work. So we had some funding for glass window repair during the pandemic which came to a value of £120,000, and the company who carried out the work told us that it enabled them to employ another two new apprentices instead of having to lay people off. There will be more opportunities now with our new multi-million pound project and this means heritage skills are being saved. We have our new cloisters project but at the same time we have to make ourselves net zero. Wouldn't it be good if we could work towards a ground source heat pump and join in the city's ambition to be net zero, but we need investment to bring it all together.'

Above: RAMM's historic entrance on Queen Street, viewed looking south towards the High Street

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum or 'RAMM' is also a core component in the cultural and visitor infrastructure of the city. Camilla Hampshire, cultural lead at RAMM, was asked about the museum's physical location and whether that was a hindrance to visitor numbers. Camilla stated:

'Physically we are at a difficult junction (in Queen Street) and we need to ask how people can come in on foot to the city in the future and manage the traffic. We have a quarter of a million visitors a year and give £2 million back to the economy. We have been working on the permeability of the building with a historic front entrance and a 19th century Heath Robinson layout inside. We now have a new entrance at the back next to the public gardens and we have been taking the museum objects out onto the streets. We have created lots of small displays and hands-on activities for pop-up events and festivals. We had a pop-up exhibition in one of the shops in the high street and this was also to connect with the City Plan. We had 1,300 public contacts and it was a really good way of engaging on big strategic thinking. We also carried out a project on the future of the high street, on the magic and fun that people want to see - echoed recently on reports on the BBC, which showed how traditional patterns of retail are changing and I think the museum has a strong cultural future in the city.'

Above: Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter, with residential above retail, with restaurant area and Exeter Cathedral beyond (November 2022)

So how can a sustainable centre for Exeter with strong retail and entertainment be envisioned and planned for? Nick Thursby, Director at architects, Chapman Taylor, joined our debate to give some pointers. Chapman Taylor were the architects for the Princesshay retail and residential city centre development and Nick commented on it:

'Princesshay has been open for over fifteen years and has received a number of awards, partly because of the way it successfully integrates within the fabric of this important conservation area and its mix-use approach, which we believe is proof of what will continue to work well in the future. Chapman Taylor has a history of designing great retail schemes in many different locations but 15 years ago this type of city centre regeneration, close to both the historic cathedral and existing high street was new. Princesshay has ridden the storm of the pandemic and is now in the custody of The Crown Estate. It was the regeneration of an existing retail district that was there before, so not a huge addition to the quantum of retail but an improvement in quality and therefore did not divert to much retail from the surrounding streets. Princesshay includes 100 residential apartments as well as F&B and leisure uses, demonstrating what city centres should offer.

'An increase of homes in a city is the best place to start if we are to address the ongoing housing requirement, which in turn will help to support the survival of the city high street. We have to remember that our cities have been evolving for hundreds of years, we need to preserve certain important aspects but also allow them to continue to evolve. It is very good that under Karime Hassan's leadership, there has been a supportive and proactive attitude by Exeter City Council towards quality development in the city.

'In the case of the development of Fore Street in Exeter, this is where the challenge is to create the right balance of coordinated stewardship which a council can bring verses a fragmented induvial approach by private developers. There are examples where places have successfully grown organically but there is a case for a Council to act as custodians proving some sort of management. Exeter, as with any city needs to offer a mix of uses and ideas in its retail areas that is different from what people can experience online, if they want people to visit and use them.

'One ongoing challenge of city centres has been the re-purposing of redundant department stores. They are often deep plan spaces with limited frontages and restricted daylight. We focus on opening up the spaces, incorporating a mixture of use which could include healthcare, entertainment and even education. The aim is to create vibrant multi use attractive spaces, letting in more natural light and greening the spaces if possible. This repurposing can be very costly so it requires a long term approach and the support of the local authority and other stakeholders but the result is something that will stand the test of time and can be a catalyst for future regeneration.’

Above: independent retail in Fore Street Exeter, close to the historic Norman Conquest-era St Nicholas Priory in the Mint and 200 metres from the Corn Exchange entertainment venue

Frazer Osment, Chair of LDA Design, commented on the importance of the renewal of the city's infrastructure:

'Exeter is at a really important juncture. It has been through a remarkable upgrade but nothing to what we need in the future. We need to attract people to live and work here and there isn't the capacity in infrastructure that allows for growth. It is really important how the public sector gets involved. I think we need to think, not just of those things that can create a bit of connecting up in the city but the renewal of the city's infrastructure itself. So the area where Fore Street connects with the high street requires being made nicer but also work that enables it to link to other areas in city, so that it is something greater than its parts. We need to change the nature of streets and create a connection to the quayside and transform the city for investment in a way that will mean that investment comes in.

'If we are going to have more people living in the city it needs to be an experiential place for living and working. It needs to be taken back as a place. Re-introducing nature into the city, such as LDA Design has done in London and Oxford, has created space to play and a great place to live. When we create better places then developers realise it and want to invest. At the moment, its quite a leap for them to see that.'

Above: Exeter Skypark with Exeter Airport runway (Wakemans)

Exeter Airport plays a vital role in the visitor economy and connections for business and is continuing to expand post pandemic. Managing Director, Steve Wiltshire, who also joined the discussion, says he feels positive about the direction that the airport is moving:

'We had a million passengers before the pandemic and a little less now but we are very interested too in building the necessary skills for a future sustainable aviation industry for the future. We do every thing in house and home grow skills from inside our organisation, which is part of our sustainable platform.

'We are very excited about the future for electric planes. It is part of our programme called Two Zero. We have tested the first hybrid electric plane from Scotland to Devon and we have found out a lot more about the infrastructure we will need for the future.

'Our dialogue is open with the Government around investment and there has been a change of minister since the last visit, but we will be arranging another opportunity to discuss future funding.

'We are now concentrating on bringing back flying routes to Paris, Manchester and Amsterdam and then the London routes, but the latter has to compete from Exeter with the train, which the current service from Cornwall does not.'

Is Exeter Science Park concerned with increasing connectivity for inward investment? Dr Sally Basker, CEO of ESP commented at the forum:

'I think the track record is that science parks have always been regionally focused, but we are interested in reaching out further afield. We are interested in pulling companies out of London that are trying to downsize and sometimes we host subsidiaries of foreign companies in the UK. There are opportunities there and also through our links with the University of Exeter and its global reach. The advent of working online has made it easier and harder.

'In terms of the development of Exeter, it is planning eastwards. When we started we had our sole building originally surrounded by green, but now by housing estates, and we have to look at the role of that green space as focal point for our 15 minute neighbourhood.

'The science park itself is a focus for research but the Skypark near the airport could be a great place for manufacturing as well as the business parks near Junction 30. There is the opportunity for doing new stuff there and could answer the need for scaling up in the region. So we need to address how we grow big companies in the region. There is no shortage of innovative thought in the South-West, but we need more money, (built) space and people, and to attract people we need a strong cultural offer too.'

Image below: Exeter Science Park (from Michelmores LLP)


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