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Inspector rules one North Essex garden community sound, but two others should be struck from plan

Words: Laura Edgar
Planning / iStock-695448564

The Planning Inspectorate has decided that a garden community development on the Tendring and Colchester border would be sustainable, but two other garden communities proposed in the North Essex Garden Communities’ plan should be removed.

Inspector Roger Clews ruled that if “unsound” proposals for new settlements on the Colchester and Braintree borders and the West of Braintree garden community are removed, the North Essex Authorities Strategic Section 1 Plan is “capable of being made sound”.

The Strategic (Section 1) Plan sets out the proposal for the three new communities, which would deliver 43,000 houses.

It was drawn up by North Essex Garden Communities Ltd (NEGC Ltd), a joint venture of Essex County Council and the North Essex Authorities (NEAs) of Braintree, Colchester and Tendring.

In June 2018, Clews found the strategic plan not sound – but stressed this was not a rejection of plans to deliver three new settlements.

Following more work on the plan, further public consultation and hearing sessions in January this year, he wrote to the authorities to apprise them of his findings.

He highlights that the viability appraisal found that “with an appropriate 40 per cent contingency allowance on transport and utilities infrastructure, the proposed Colchester/Braintree borders garden community would not achieve a viable land price”, and that the proposed West of Braintree garden community is below – or at best is at the very margin of – financial viability, contrary to advice in the PPG. On this basis, he says, “neither garden community is deliverable”.

The West of Braintree plan would depend on rapid transport system (RTS) route 3 for its public transport links, Clews explains, and RTS route 4 for links east of Braintree. Without these options and the odd possible journey by foot or bike, Clews notes that a car “would be the only realistic choice” for travel beyond the garden community.

The housing proposed for the Colchester/Braintree borders garden community is intended to meet the needs of both Colchester and Braintree and the wider area, but “notwithstanding the links to other destinations offered by RTS route 2 and by rail services from Marks Tey station, the garden community would depend on route 4 for its public transport links westwards to Braintree”, says Clews.

He concludes that RTS routes 3 and 4 have not been shown to be deliverable, which “is entirely at odds with the plan’s aspirations for integrated and sustainable transport networks”. 

“For the foregoing reasons, therefore, I find that the proposed Colchester/Braintree Borders and West of Braintree garden communities are not justified or deliverable. Consequently, the plan’s spatial strategy, and thus the plan itself as submitted, are unsound.”

Clews goes on to say that the financial viability of the Tendring/Colchester borders garden community is “very strong”. An appropriate 40 per cent contingency allowance on transport and utilities infrastructure would enable a "“competitive land price to be paid, while leaving substantial headroom to meet any additional costs that might arise”.

This, according to the inspector, provides assurance that the necessary infrastructure, including RTS route 1, the A120/A133 link road and local highway improvements, are deliverable in the time frame necessary to support the development of the garden community. 

“The evidence therefore shows that the garden community is deliverable over its lifetime.”

This garden community is located to have access to the employment, retail, leisure, healthcare and other facilities in Colchester, as well as those provided in the new settlement itself. Clews notes that there would be employment opportunities at the adjacent University of Essex and Knowledge Gateway.

”Tendring district has a very strong commuting relationship with Colchester, and weaker relationships with Braintree and other destinations to the west of Colchester. As a result, the accessibility of the proposed garden community is not critically dependent on the delivery of the other RTS routes.”

Based on the North Essex Authorities’ current housing trajectory, and Clews’ own conclusions on the rate of housing delivery, the Tendring/Colchester borders garden community would deliver more than 2,000 dwellings during the plan period. “That would make a worthwhile contribution to meeting the plan’s overall housing requirement.”

Further consideration on this would be given on these matters in the section 2 plan examinations, he adds.

Considering these findings, Clews says the North Essex Authorities have two options. They can either propose and consult on main modifications to remove the Colchester/Braintree Borders and West of Braintree garden community proposals from the plan or withdraw the plan from examination.

The local authorities said they remain committed to the principles that make the garden communities beneficial to the community, and were “saddened this approach to sustainable strategic growth over the long term often struggles through the current relatively short-term focused local plan system”.

Neil Stock OBE, leader of Tendring District Council, said: “We welcome the scrutiny given by the inspector to our proposals, and while it is a shame that he does not find all of the proposed garden communities viable at this time, it is good that he recognises our high standards and approves the garden community method. It is also a clear mandate for the Tendring/Colchester Borders project and we will continue to work with our strategic partners to deliver both sections of our local plan.”

Mark Cory, leader of Colchester Borough Council, said: “This decision is obviously a mixed bag for Colchester and North Essex as a whole, and one that we will need to consider carefully both individually and collectively.

“The inspector was thorough in his work and has given all authorities detailed responses of what is sound and what cannot be found sound at this time. I sat in on some of the hearing and heard his scrutiny of the evidence first-hand. This administration believes it is better to plan new developments to deliver infrastructure first, as the four councils have been trying to do. Leaving it to developers to provide the necessary physical and social infrastructure is not good enough. The inspector does back our approach and has outlined a clear way ahead in his letter.”

The inspector's letter can be found here on the Braintree District Council website.

Read more:

An open letter from councillor Graham Butland

McVey promises cash for garden communities: In January, the then housing minister announced £8 million in funding to help deliver ‘new, better-designed’ homes for communities across England.  

North Essex garden communities plans require ‘significant work’

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