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Model communities: Are existing planning processes sufficient for decades long projects?


The publication of the inspector's letter following the examination in public for the North Essex Garden Communities scheme throws into the relief the need for planning processes that can deliver over decades long timelines, says Gary Duncan

We moved from the era of the post-war development plan, all optimism and lovely colours, through the structure plan and local plan era supported by inquiry and the essentially simple premise that the development quantum can be distributed and site merit evaluated. Regional plans came and went. We now have local plans performing strategic functions or joint strategic plans with a seeming desire to link funding with commitment.

The Planner very kindly published my writings in March this year (Local plans are not the best route to large-scale development ). That piece started as some scribbled thoughts upstairs at Colchester United’s stadium during the North Essex Garden Communities examination in public (EiP) in January. I was questioning policy formulation, the evidence before the inspector, the answers to tough questions, whether the EiP was the right forum and where development actually sat in the development plan. The publication of the inspector’s letter on 15 May 2020 following these hearings provides an opportunity to stop and think.

"Where is the project plan that renders an 80 year project deliverable?"

It is interesting to reflect on the inspector’s very balanced consideration of matters and particularly the key question whether the plan is deliverable. What is before the inspector is a strategic policy commitment to 43,000 homes in three broad locations, the bulk of which would be implemented beyond the plan period (2033), and contingent on government funding and infrastructure commitment; effectively an 80 year programme. The key point is the delivery over the long term of the garden communities and the infrastructure. In this regard, the Colchester/Tending Borders garden community faired better; perhaps a function of participation and evidence.

The inspector has done an amazing job in wrestling with and reconciling complex evidence streams. But it does shine a very big light on how the development plan configures itself around very long-term commitments over the balance of this century. Ultimately, the inspector has had to deal with detailed questions of cost estimates, timing, contingencies, inflation, grant, build-rates, lead-in times and the potential relocation of a station, and the very important question of competitive return.

How evidence is configured around long-term proposals and how the ambition of local plans can be tempered are important considerations, if only to save time, money and precious professional resources. Where is the project plan that renders an 80 year project deliverable? If there is no robust indication of viable delivery, then one has to reduce the timeline, reduce the scale and pump-in money. Of course one could ask is an EiP right at all?

Gary Duncan MRTPI is founder/director of The Land and Planning Company



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