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Is the swimming pool Exeter’s Brexit?

January 26, 2019 8:02 PM
By Exeter Liberal Democrats
Originally published by Exeter Liberal Democrats

Clifton Hill Leisure Centre

Clifton Hill Leisure Centre

It's become universally acknowledged that our national government has become preoccupied with Brexit. Whilst other issues - housing, education, social care - get a mention every now and again, there is little space in government to generate and enact policies in these areas due to the domination of Brexit.

In Exeter, something similar is happening. Since becoming the leading party on Council in 2010, Labour have pursued a similarly controversial policy to the exclusion of almost everything else. The decision to renovate the bus station site is sensible and long overdue. The decision to build an expensive swimming pool (sorry, leisure complex) is not essential. But, as with Brexit, so much political capital has been invested in it that good money is being thrown after bad rather than admitting a mistake and listening to sensible opposition.

As with Brexit, public money is being wasted that could go to other vital projects. Six months ago, Labour closed Clifton Hill Sports Centre without conducting thorough feasibility on repairs. The reason: selling the land will provide capital revenue for the Council. Where will it spend that money: I think you know the answer.

Clifton Hill isn't the only causality of Exeter's Brexit. For the last five years, Labour have been squirrelling away money from capital projects. The first is something called the Community Infrastructure Levy, which is a fee charged to property developers, with the proceeds going to local communities. Usually, this funds things like public parks and community centres. Labour is using it to fund what their Leader Pete Edwards calls "my swimming pool". As with Theresa May's Brexit deal, this project has become personally linked with one person who thinks they know best and refuses to countenance rational opposition. Exeter's Leader and the UK's Prime Minister are both poor listeners.

Exeter has benefited more than most from Community Infrastructure Levy due to the large amount of building work in the city. But this pales into comparison with how well Exeter has succeeded from a coalition policy: the New Homes Bonus. The idea behind this was to encourage an increase in house building. Student accommodation was not exempt from this. Ever wondered why Exeter is so keen on student accommodation? With every student tower block in our city centre, Labour gets more money for its swimming pool.

These two areas - the Community Infrastructure Levy and New Homes Bonus - are the most tangible examples of how Labour's decision to continue pouring millions of pounds into their project negatively impact the city. But there's something even worse. Again as with Brexit, Labour's policy takes up the time of their staff to the detriment of other projects. When the Crown Estates pulled out of the development of the site, Exeter took on the project themselves, diverting the time of their already stretched staff. Sports groups in the city have long complained about the lack of a city-wide strategy, meaning they can't apply for national funding. Again, the reason cited is the leisure centre. We've a large homeless and street-attached population. Instead of pushing a joined-up strategy, our Council's attentions are on making the business case for a £200 million development. Meanwhile in our city 16 people with complex needs, including a history of homelessness and drug abuse, died prematurely last year.

We believe it's time for Exeter's Labour Party to open itself up to scrutiny, to engage with people who perhaps hold different views, to be less certain, less arrogant, a little less like Theresa May's Brexiteers. They'll have a new leader later this year. Hopefully that'll present an opportunity for a fresh start. If not, perhaps there needs to be more opposition on the Council benches to a bunch of Councillors who nod through every idea the Leader thinks of, however illogical and expensive.