Decisions on future of our seafront must include a voice for all
- Credit: Siobahn Dobbs
Dear readers, I often ponder when reading these columns in print how many more experienced Exmouthians see things the way I do.
Unlike on the internet, the joy of writing in print is that it is for me to wonder, and sometimes I do get lovely emails which lead to new ideas.
I write this week on an issue which has divided Exmouth in recent years: the future of the seafront. As the jewel in our crown, making it accessible for our town to enjoy while also making it attractive to visitors who fuel our local economy is vital to our prosperity as a town.
When I was elected, the debate over future plans for the seafront had become toxic. Four years ago, councillors representing Axminster and Tale Vale at the opposite side of East Devon District Council’s territory were making decisions affecting us behind closed doors.
Now, one of my greatest achievements whilst a Cabinet member - against the wishes of the previous Tory administration and officer advice - was to change its constitution and open it up to the public.
Since doing so, we have had a significant amount of public interest. Ideas have been mooted by various groups such as the Beach Volleyball Club who were never part of the great and the good who used to sit on the old-fashioned Exmouth Regeneration Board.
We now have our debates in public and we are led by the public. Transparency and consultation are our watch words.
I could not ignore the significant number of residents who contacted me concerned by the treatment by the old Conservative leadership of local businesses and their families who had served our seafront for decades. Sometimes it is not what is done, but how. Exmouth has been seen as a cash cow by EDDC for years, and our town has been treated like the toy of spoilt children on the other side of the district.
Now we have control back with a committee served predominantly by Exmouth councillors. Regard for the hard work local families have put in and local heritage ought not, surely, prevent us from improving the seafront and making it fit for future generations.
While a nod to the past is essential, if we left everything the same, the seafront would become tired. One important principle is to retain the level of free or affordable leisure space for families, many of whom are on low incomes and which visitors can enjoy too.
That’s why whilst I absolutely favour a four-star boutique hotel somewhere in Exmouth, I could never be convinced that the scheme proposed for Queen’s Drive was workable - a four star hotel with a free play park in front of it seemed to me to be a recipe for disaster, creating conflict between locals and visitors. In addition, the agenda from the East Devon Tory leadership wanted Exmouth to be some kind of wannabe Sandbanks, and with a casino to boot.
As a councillor, I believe all elected representatives should lead and be led by the public - it is a relationship of equals. I am still too young to understand the half of Exmouth history from before I was born that my older colleagues educate me about. Since being elected chair of the Exmouth Beach Management Steering Group and director of Sideshore, the pace of learning has increased.
Despite being more open, councillors still make mistakes. The decision to prematurely stop the temporary car park next to Queen’s Drive and replace it with a fitness space which was never used this summer was foolish and financially illiterate. I argued for its retention and made an unholy alliance with a local Conservative, councillor de Saram. On other matters within the district, I do get things wrong - my life’s goal is to get more things right than wrong, and not to have the arrogance to ever dictate in secret meetings how any other town runs its affairs.