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Garden communities plan hits the rocks


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The message is clear... and apparently spreading

Plans to build three garden communities in north Essex have been savaged by a planning inspector, who found them “unsound” and needing “significant” further work.
The proposals  for West Hay (24,000 homes), West of Braintree (13,000) and East of Colchester (9,000) were contained in a Section 1 Local Plan put together by Braintree District Council, Colchester Borough Council and Tendring District Council, which have been working on cross-boundary planning issues.
The Section 1 Local Plan, which would be shared by the three planning authorities within their discrete Local Plans, contains strategic policies on such issues as infrastructure, housing numbers and, of course, the proposals for the three garden communities.
A second, separate, part of the Local Plan considering separate authority policies and allocations would be prepared after examination of the Section 1 Local Plan.
However, the process appears to have been derailed by the planning inspector, Roger Clews, who identified his concerns with the Section 1 document in a letter.
He wrote that aspects of the plan and its evidence base “require significant further work” and that “the evidence provided to support the garden communities policies in the submitted plan is lacking in a number of respects”.
These included the need for “greater certainty” over funding for road infrastructure improvements “to demonstrate that the garden communities proposals are deliverable in full” and further work to demonstrate that a proposed rapid transit system could be delivered in “practical and financial terms”.
If all that were not damning enough, Mr Clews added that “conclusions over the deliverability of affordable housing at each of the three allocated garden communities cannot be relied upon”.
His letter says further viability work needs to be undertaken “to demonstrate that 30 per cent affordable housing can be delivered at any garden community that may be proposed”.
Perhaps most interestingly, however, Mr Clews’s letter says that, “in assessing the chosen spatial strategy against alternatives that do not include garden communities, the authors [of the plan’s sustainability appraisal report] have generally made optimistic assumptions about the benefits of garden communities, and correspondingly negative assumptions about the alternatives, without evidence to support many of those assumptions”.
As such, “these assessments lack the necessary degree of objectivity and are therefore unreliable”.
The letter concludes: “I consider that the garden community proposals contained in the plan are not adequately justified and have not been shown to have a reasonable prospect of being viably developed. As submitted, they are therefore unsound.”
The inspector details three options for how the councils can proceed with their proposals:

  • The councils “agree to remove the garden communities proposals from the Section 1 Plan at this stage, and commit to submitting a partial revision of Section 1 for examination by a defined time, for example within two or three years”.
  • The councils carry out “the necessary further work on the evidence base and sustainability appraisal, and bringing forward any resulting revised strategic proposals, before the commencement of the Section 2 examinations”.
  •  “Withdraw the Section 1 and Section 2 Plans from examination and to re-submit them with any necessary revisions, after carrying out the required further work on the evidence base and sustainability appraisal, and the relevant consultation and other procedures required by legislation”.

John Spence, chairman of NEGC Ltd, the company created by the three local authorities to develop the three garden communities, said:
“We firmly believe that the garden community approach remains the best and most sensible option to tackle the three big issues facing north Essex – economic growth, housing numbers and affordability.
“Significant work has already been done by NEGC Ltd since the examination in January working alongside our various partners and relevant government bodies and this will help us answer many of the inspector’s questions.”
Referring to the inspector’s letter, a spokesman for the councils said: “A response will be published when a decision has been reached.”