Meet Cllr Bob Foale: lead councillor responsible for a thriving city centre
Published: 16 October 2019
Exeter is renowned for bucking the trend in so many good and positive ways.
Sustaining and supporting a vibrant city centre is up there at the top of the priority list - and it’s Cllr Bob Foale's job to make sure it stays that way.
Online shopping, the out-of-town shopping malls and high business rates have sounded the death knell for high streets up and down the country.
But Exeter has managed to survive and thrive despite those challenges. Like anywhere else, the city has its issues and it has not completely escaped the decline which has hit other areas badly. But its retail offer is still among the best in the country.
Bob, 65, says: "It is a real challenge. Not only are we one of the fastest growing cities in the country with the fourth fastest growing economy, but we also have one of the highest percentages of retail units in the high street which makes us a hugely successful city.
"It is about maintaining that and being careful."
Looking after the city centre is just one of Bob's hugely important roles as an Exeter City councillor and Portfolio Holder for City Planning and Development.
Broken down that covers:
- Greater Exeter Strategic Plan
- Infrastructure planning
- Planning policy and planning control
- Strategic housing policy
- Building control and land charges
- Construction skills
- Design and heritage
- Community Infrastructure Levy
- City Centre Strategy
Returning to the city centre, Bob says: "I go all over the country, up north and to the Midlands. The town centres are desolate.
"They have boarded up shops, pawn shops and discount stores. They are soulless."
Bob and the council have to make sure the same fate doesn't await Exeter and making sure the right shopping redevelopments and regeneration projects benefit rather than threaten and harm the city's high street is paramount.
Recent bids for out-of-city-centre schemes have failed to find favour with planners.
Bob says: "It is because of the impact on the city centre. We have had three or four applications in the past few months where the planning committee chose not to accept any of these.
"We have to weigh up the benefits of a scheme on the outskirts with the effect that it would have on the economy of the city including things like food and drink. It is estimated that £25 million worth of city centre trade would be lost to just one out-of-city development."
It is all about trying to strike the right balance for Bob. Student accommodation is another area where there has to be some caution.
Bob said: "We have a wonderful university. It is a fabulous university bringing a huge amount of value and prestige.
"But a lot of thought is being given to the building of student accommodation in the city.
"We need to be clear about the university about the future needs and capacity and how these student blocks are going to be built."
Bob says that the most expensive rents can vary from £240 a week to 'penthouse-style’ accommodation costing £420 a week complete with two gyms, laundry, kitchen and dining rooms as well as a cinema.
He adds: "One of the issues is about inequality where in some areas there is a higher percentage of students than Exeter residents. That creates a real imbalance."
Bob says: "Perhaps we need more affordable accommodation. We also need accommodation for young graduates. We have a brain drain.
“Some of the best brains come to the university and then leave because our house prices are higher than say in Plymouth. Co-living may be a possibility."
The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan looks at another sensitive area - how the city and surrounding areas can meet new housing numbers set by the government over the next five years.
Exeter works in partnership with East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge district councils to come up with some of the answers, but it is another challenge and difficult balancing act.
Bob’s first taste of ‘politics’ was at the age of 17 when he was elected as a member of the Plymouth City Council Youth, a group which worked with schools and youth groups to give them a voice in the city and with the council.
"I started to get a feel for it," he said.
He went on to spend a lifetime in education - 40 years in fact including two primary school headships Ivybridge and Exminster.
He was born in Plymouth and moved to Oxford at the age of 18 and where he qualified as a teacher. He was there for 13 years before returning to Devon.
He has been involved in politics since 1983 and moved to Exeter in 1990. He is the chairman of the Exeter Labour Party which has 2,500 members.
His first stint as an Exeter City councillor was between 2015 and 2017. He was elected for a four-year term in 2017.
Bob says: "It is a challenge. I have been involved in politics since 1983. Since then they have invented the mobile phone, the computer and the laptop. The rules have changed a little bit now."
Bob has been married to Jan for 40 years. Has five grown-up children, Daniel, Matthew, Dylan, Bryony and Robin, and six grandchildren.
Besides his family, football is also a big love of his in life. He only actually hung up his playing boots a few years ago and he has played for the Exeter City Football in the Community Walking Football Club for the past four years with a European tournament in Portugal.
Keep it under your hat, but Bob has also been chairman of the Plymouth Argyle Fans Trust for the past three years.
But make no bones about it - one of Bob's biggest 'goals' is to make sure the city of Exeter itself stays at the top of the league in all that it does.
He says: "With all the government cuts it is a challenge but hopefully we can keep Exeter thriving."
He says Exeter continually punches above its weight as a district council - luring the giants of Ikea and John Lewis to the city were proof of that.
He says: "Ikea and John Lewis were huge feathers in the cap for the city - Plymouth tried to get them.
"Exeter is good at that. It is a district council, but it is a very ambitious and forward-thinking local authority."
The St Sidwell’s Point regeneration project yielding a new leisure centre and bus station is another example of the city moving forward.
So, too, are plans for a new theatre venue with 1,000 seats and another 2,500 removable ones giving theatre lovers the chance to see bigger and better acts and shows rather than having to travel to Plymouth or Bristol.
But Bob says: "It is about prioritising and not trying to do everything at once.”
Bit like his walking football really where the game is of a gentler pace than the norm although Bob says that even with that he finds it hard not to run!