North Essex Garden Communities: why they simply aren’t needed

Michael Hand, an experienced planner, examines the facts behind the proposed garden communities

Next week (Tuesday, January 14), examination reopens into the North Essex Authorities Joint Strategic Plan. One of its principle policies comprises the building of three ‘garden communities’. Here, Michael Hand, planning adviser for CPRE Essex, explains why their development is not only damaging but unnecessary

In advance of this month’s resumed Examination of the North Essex Authorities (NEA) Joint Strategic Plan, some significant developments over recent weeks will have an impact on the proposals for three Garden Communities in north Essex.
Firstly, the latest housing-need figures submitted by the authorities to the Planning Inspector show that in the Plan period to 2033 there is only a shortfall of 275 dwellings across the whole of north Essex without the proposed Garden Communities.
Following this revelation, Colchester Borough Council voted against giving NEGC (North Essex Garden Communities) Ltd the next funding tranche of £350,000 it has requested and this could have serious repercussions for the future of the delivery body.
The decision must be viewed in the context that not only is there is no proven need for the Garden Communities but also it was rightly deemed premature to use taxpayers’ money for funding something under intense ongoing scrutiny and not approved by the Planning Inspector.
Secondly, planning consultants Lichfields published a major stock-take report on the 49 designated Garden Communities schemes around the country. The proposed 43,000 houses at the three locations in north Essex represents, by far, the largest and most ambitious scheme in this programme.
Key findings of the report provide some sober reading for the NEA as it indicates the pitfalls associated with such large-scale development projects – in particular, the long time it takes to begin delivering.
The report concludes: “By its very nature, the Garden Communities programme would not be expected to reach critical mass of delivery until the 2030s. It is only at this point that one can draw firm conclusions about its efficacy in bringing forward new homes.”
How does this square with the current shortage and dire need to provide affordable housing to meet existing local demand?
The report stresses that Garden Communities status is not a ‘golden ticket’ to securing planning permission (or indeed government funding). In this respect, the north Essex proposals (together with many others) still need to establish the principle of development and are therefore subject to ongoing levels of planning risk.
Such risks have already resulted in delays, often due to unanswered questions over whether they are deliverable and the NEA’s strategy has yet to pass the key NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) test of ‘soundness’.
The NEA’s pursuit of Garden Communities is particularly high risk because any delay in the delivery of an approved robust local planning strategy and policy framework risks undermining the Plan-led system and could open the door to yet more speculative applications on unallocated sites.
This, of course, reflects the current scenario of uncontrolled urban sprawl without the required infrastructure – whereby developers exploit the five-year housing-land supply requirement and the absence of an approved Local Plan.
However, a spatial strategy based on large standalone new towns in the countryside and lacking the appropriate strategic transport infrastructure is not the solution.
That is why the dismissal of alternative spatial strategies examined in the recent Additional Sustainability Appraisal (ASA) is particularly disappointing. Unfortunately, the ASA is inconclusive and appears to have been a rushed exercise in order meet a predetermined outcome.
The result is a subjective opinion based on the level of growth and development “likely to be necessary”, so sites that can accommodate long-term development are therefore automatically favoured – even though it has not yet been decided what level of development is objectively needed beyond the current Plan period.
The underlying impression therefore remains that the proposed Garden Communities in north Essex appear to be an attempt to allocate land based on availability rather than considering sustainable, deliverable development according to the requirements of the NPPF.
The ASA acknowledges that the scale of the proposed development will impact on the character of north Essex. This can only be to the detriment of the countryside and the quality of life for residents.
CPRE, the countryside charity, has always suggested that the extent of housing built on greenfield sites in the open countryside should be kept to a minimum and that alternative strategies based on the ‘brownfield first’ principle, with some hierarchical growth (including smaller settlements), along with well-planned and deliverable sustainable urban extensions of modest scale, should be the preferred mix.
What is needed is an alternative spatial strategy that pays due regard to the overarching need to tackle climate change and therefore aims at making north Essex as a whole more self-contained while reducing the need to travel and the over-reliance on private vehicles.
Growth should be directed towards existing key settlements, particularly those that are best placed to exploit the potential for new and improved infrastructure and those that enable greater use of public transport.
CAUSE (Campaign Against Urban Sprawl in Essex) reflects this with its ‘small is beautiful’ approach, in which transit-oriented development, sustainable urban extensions and intensification are the solution rather than standalone settlements – not least because viability decreases at more than 2,000 homes.
It argues that large standalone settlements are unlikely to be viable, while smaller ones that can be delivered within shorter periods will capture more land value uplift per dwelling.
Given that housing quotas up to 2033 have been met with built, approved and allocated sites, there is absolutely no requirement for these three new towns. NEGC Ltd says these towns will satisfy demand; however, demand will be fuelled by the proposed developments as they will attract people from London (with its high level of unaffordability) and, in the process, destroy thousands of acres of prime arable farmland.
This conclusion is vital for the government’s Garden Communities programme. If local authorities want to deliver housing fast, they need to concentrate on smaller garden villages in the right locations and linked to existing centres.
They should abandon large standalone new towns before further money is wasted on projects that will never happen without disproportionate subsidy.