A huge development of student and co-living rooms at a former police station and magistrates’ court site in Exeter has been overwhelmingly rejected by Councillors, with one describing the plan as “hideous.” – writes local democracy reporter Ollie Heptinstall.
The application for Heavitree Road, submitted by the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office and its chosen developer Student Roost, was for two blocks of flats with just over 1,000 rooms.
They would have replaced the existing buildings opposite St Luke’s Campus, which have been unoccupied since the police moved to a new headquarters at Middlemoor in 2020.
The main plan was for a purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) building, with a separate co-living block available to the wider public consisting of 358 self-contained units.
But the vast majority of members on Exeter City Council’s planning committee rejected the scheme on Monday evening (September 5), expressing concerns including the design, height and scale of the development, its close proximity to the road, a lack of amenities and the loss of trees and biodiversity.
During a lengthy presentation, Exeter’s director of city development Ian Collinson outlined the benefits of the application, claiming it makes the “best use” of the brownfield site.
He said it would provide “much needed housing in a very sustainable location,” including 20 per cent affordable housing on the co-living element, and that there was a “presumption in favour” of such developments because the council lacks a five-year housing supply.
A revised plan in June reduced the scale to predominantly six-storeys visible from street level, plus basement levels.
Mr Collinson said the “high density” was “appropriate in this strategic location,” with the site virtually car-free apart from some disabled parking spaces – contributing to the city’s net zero 2030 plan and helping to house the city’s student population in purpose-built accommodation rather than in houses of multiple occupation.
He told councillors that the buildings had been designed by a “top architectural practice,” describing them as “strong, bold architecture” for an “ambitious and confident city.”
Recommending approval, officers in their report said it would “deliver a number of substantial economic, social and environmentally sustainable benefits” such as by providing accommodation “likely to be in the price range of young people who can’t obtain a mortgage.”
However, most Councillors, as well 114 public objectors who had written before the meeting, were unimpressed.
Cllr Matthew Vizard (Labour, Newtown and St Leonards) criticised the appearance of the “monolithic” blocks and said it was “disappointing” the commissioner’s office didn’t explore an “alternative sustainable green development in-keeping with the council’s own visions for its city.”
He added: “While you can only consider what is in front of you, a high-quality development with family homes would generate far less local objection.
“However, what is in front of you this evening is an application for two monolithic blocks for students and co-living that would eliminate – more or less – the existing green tree-lined buffer to Heavitree Road, would impact severely on the residents of Higher Summerlands and St Matthews Close and clash horribly with the St Luke’s Campus university site and the surrounding conservation areas.”
Cllr Vizard acknowledged the city “has to provide [PBSA] to meet the need of a massively increased student population that is outside of this council’s control,” but expressed concern about the spread of such developments to areas outside of the main city centre.
He also hit out at what he thought was an unacceptable level of amenity and open space provided for residents, adding it was likely to put further pressure on local parks.
Fellow ward Councillor Jemima Moore (Independent, Newton and St Leonards) spoke out against the proposal for a “multitude of reasons,” calling it “not right for this site … the people of Exeter or the development’s future residents.”
“This development is huge, overbearing and in no way sympathetic to or in-keeping with its surroundings,” she said.
Cllr Moore also criticised the planned space and living standards, the lack of sufficient outdoor space, pedestrian safety on the nearby junction, and the loss of 25 out of 26 exisiting trees, though officers said some would be replaced.
She claimed “profits have been maximised at the cost of everything else,” and echoed Cllr Vizard by suggesting the site should instead be used for alternative housing “designed around the wellbeing needs of its residents and its surrounding neighbours.”
“I urge members of the planning committee to hold high standards of housing for the people of Exeter, to protect our trees and green spaces, and to reject the proposed development.”
Speaking in support, Nicola Allen, treasurer for the police and crime commissioner’s office which owns the site, said a “robust process” was undertaken by the commissioner’s office, in partnership with the wider force and court service.
She said the city council was “extremely accommodating and actively involved in the initial discussions with potential developers at the submission stage,” described as being “extremely useful when looking at the right fit for the site and for the city of Exeter.”
“The developer combination of Brookfield and Student Roost was decided to be the best mix based on feedback from the city council and not the resulting capital receipt. This development meets the needs of Exeter and will be one of the highest quality residential schemes.
Ms Allen added: “The commissioner is always pleased to support economic regeneration for the city and to support building on brownfield sites to enhance and grow the city of Exeter for its communities.”
However, she didn’t say what consultations had taken place with the council, university or local community prior to approaching developers – a question raised by one of the committee members.
Local resident Geoff Tipping spoke against the plan. He said: “It is the scale, massing, height, and total loss of all existing habitat that is so wrong with this proposal. In short it is a greedy scheme that grabs every inch of the site and rises eight stories above it.
“Circulation roads are pushed to the very edge. The visual impact on the neighbouring properties will be intolerable. The impact on Higher Summerlands is the most extreme.”
Councillor Anne Jobson (Conservative, St Loyes) described the co-living rooms as “simply too small” and that they would “adversely affect people’s wellbeing and mental health.”
She said it would have a big impact on under-pressure local services and didn’t align with Exeter’s garden city aspirations.
“I think for the risk of allowing yet another development to go through is that it will just bring transient single people into the city, and it will be driving local families and single residents out of the city,” she added.
Describing the plan as “hideous,” Cllr Marina Asvachin (Labour, Priory) said the proximity of the site to nearby hospitals meant it should be used instead for key worker housing.
But Cllr Zion Lights (Labour, Pennsylvania) supported the scheme because of the area’s housing shortage, explaining that she knows people “in the most dire circumstances” including a key worker from Crediton who commutes into Exeter but cannot find decent accommodation in the city.
She said the council should be building on brownfield sites rather than green fields, and it needed to support developments that would discourage car use.
“Please consider that there are voices not at this table who also should have an equal priority alongside local residents who care about aesthetics and concerns about space.
“Some of them are living in much smaller spaces in temporary accommodation, struggling to get to work every day and we need to have more spaces for them to live,” she said.
Speaking towards the end of the meeting, council leader Phil Bialyk (Labour, Exwick) said: “One thing in politics is you’ve got to understand which way the wind’s going and what’s happening, and it’s clear what’s going to happen.”
He said it was “a shame” that the plan was for such high density because “if you look at the principle of where I believe the council is coming from … is that we need alternative accommodation for younger people.”
Cllr Bialyk questioned whether the planning team could further engage with the applicant and developers on bringing forward a more acceptable scheme. “I just hope there’s some latitude, but I just feel the financial pressures that they’ll be on won’t allow that to happen,” he said.
The leader also stated: “I hope that we make it perfectly clear on how we’re going to get around this, because doing nothing is not a sensible option in my view. We need the housing.”
The vast majority of members voted to refuse permission. The specific wording will be refined and formalised at the next meeting.