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Garden Communities: The future of property development in north Essex?

IN ORDER  to meet its Government housing targets for new homes in the years ahead, north Essex local authorities are proposing to build three new “garden community” developments in the region. But what exactly are these “garden” developments, and why are they the preferred choice of our local authorities in helping to fulfil their obligations to provide new housing and infrastructure? This article will try to provide a brief overview of the issues…




What makes a development a garden community?


Garden communities are planned self-contained settlements, surrounded by greenbelt, and made up of a mix of residential units, industry and even agriculture. The concept can be traced back to 1898, and Sir Ebenezer Howard’s proposal of idealised “garden cities”, built in concentric patterns including open spaces, public parks and radial roads. The settlements of Letchworth GC and Welwyn GC were built according to his ideas, and some of their associated concepts also became incorporated into UK legislation after the end of the Second World War in the New Towns Act. Today the Department for Communities and Local Government says: “We do not consider that there is a single template for a garden village, town or city. It will be important for the new community to establish a clear and distinct sense of identity. We want to see local areas adopt innovative approaches and solutions to creating great places, rather than following a set of rules.”


What’s planned for Colchester and north Essex generally?


To comply with national guidelines and meet local demand, north Essex needs to build in excess of 2,300 new homes per year to 2036.
In response to this need, in conjunction with Essex County Council and two other local north Essex authorities, CBC carried out feasibility studies for garden communities in three areas around Colchester. One site lay to the east of Colchester and west of Tendring; a second area was to the north of the town, and a third lay to the west of the town, north of Marks Tey.
In June 2016 CBC published the first version of its latest Local Plan (LP) – its blueprint for development. The LP discounted the option of a garden village north of Colchester, principally citing concerns about an excessive impact upon Dedham Vale, already officially recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. However, work is currently continuing on proposals for developments to the west of Colchester, labelled “West Tey”, and on land east of Greenstead, Colchester, and a development known as “University Garden Village”.


If approved, West Tey could potentially deliver up to 24,000 homes over the next 30 years, with the University Garden Village accommodating a further 9,000 residences. A third “West of Braintree” garden community development, sited on farmland on the Braintree/Uttlesford district border and planned as part of the same process, could eventually deliver a further 10,000 homes over the same timescale.


It’s envisioned that sites given the go-ahead would be taken on by a ‘master developer’ undertaking infrastructure work and obtaining planning permissions, and then selling serviced plots to individual sub-developers. Under current proposals it’s anticipated that the relevant local councils will act as lead developers and proceed on an ‘infrastructure-first’ basis, theoretically enabling them to control the pace and design of each development.


Where are we now?


North Essex Garden Communities Ltd was set up earlier this year to take charge of proposals for the three new garden communities across north Essex.


The company is jointly owned by Braintree and Tendring District, Colchester Borough and Essex County Councils, with each local authority taking one seat on the company board.


The councils are now working up detailed plans for each of the three sites, setting out the exact footprints of the proposed settlements, the types of development there should be. This work is set to continue into 2018.


The district councils’ draft LPs all outline support for the garden village developments, and public consultation on them has now closed. Finalised LPs are due to be submitted to the national Planning Inspectorate during autumn 2017. If planning permissions are obtained, it’s possible that work could start on one of the three sites by 2021.


What are the pros and cons?


The claimed advantages of garden community development are myriad; some of the key ones are set out in bullet-point form below.


In the specific case of north Essex, it’s argued that the main plus-point of its approach is the lead role being taken by the councils, theoretically meaning that they can ensure sufficient transport, employment and leisure infrastructure is provided before and alongside new housing.
More specifically, claimed benefits of the garden community approach include:


  • Strong community engagement and community land ownership;
  • A mix of types of home, including affordable housing;
  • A wide range of local jobs within easy commuting distance;
  • Imaginatively designed and attractive homes;
  • Development that enhances the environment, including green infrastructure and zero-carbon and energy-positive technology;
  • Built-in cultural, leisure and shopping facilities in sociable and thriving neighbourhoods;
  • Integrated and environment-friendly transport systems, promoting walking, cycling and public transport.


However, garden community developments are not without their critics. Rosie Pearson, secretary of CAUSE (Campaign Against Urban Sprawl in Essex), claimed councils were taking no notice of the views of existing residents. In May this year she told the East Anglian Daily Times newspaper: “The inclusion of a 20,000-home new town at Marks Tey in the Local Plan demonstrates that our councils are riding roughshod over local people. An 8,500-signature petition has been ignored and detailed evidence prepared by CAUSE’s consultants over the past two years has not been heeded. Infrastructure promises for West Tey are hollow and undeliverable. This is a plan for London overspill, not for local people.”


While supporting a well-planned and locally-led approach to housing provision, the Council for Protection of Rural England (CPRE) also sounds a note of caution over garden community developments. On its website chief executive Shaun Spiers commented: “CPRE will look closely at these specific proposals to ensure that they really are locally led; that they respect the Green Belt and other planning designations; and that they meet housing need, particularly the need for genuinely affordable housing for local people, and are not driven by over-ambitious, centrally dictated housing targets. Where communities support new settlements, they should be protected from speculative planning applications for a long time to come.”


Where can I find out more?


Further information on plans for north Essex can be found on the North Essex Garden Communities website at www.ne-gc.co.uk


Further information about the CAUSE campaign to reject two of the garden community proposals (West Tey and West of Braintree) can be found at: www.cause4livingessex.com


What do you think?
We’d love to know your views on whether bespoke garden communities are the right solution for north Essex. Post your comments on the Essex Property Network’s Facebook page, found at: www.facebook.com/EssexPropertyNetwork

If you would like to publish an article on the EPN website, let us know by sending an email to journalist@essexpropertynetwork.co.uk

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