Many town planners would consider the creation of large new settlements such as Milton Keynes and Letchworth Garden City to be among the crowning achievements of their profession. But last week, an inspectors' report on linked proposals for three new communities in north Essex has raised questions about the difficulties such developments face in being delivered under the current local plan-making system.
Back in late 2016, Braintree, Colchester and Tendring councils banded together to form the North Essex Authorities group and produced a joint local plan. The plan proposes three new "garden communities" to deliver a total of 43,000 homes on three sites: a 9,000-home new settlement on the Tendring-Colchester border; a 10,000-home scheme to the west of Braintree; and 24,000 dwellings on the Colchester-Braintree border. In January, the three proposed settlement were among 21 places identified to receive a share of £6 million of government funding to develop garden community proposals.
However, examining inspector Roger Clews concluded that while the Tendring-Colchester border settlement should be given the go ahead, the other two should not. In his decision letter, Clews recommended that unless the councils bring forward and consult on a modified blueprint without the two settlements, the local plan should be withdrawn.
The acid test for the inspector was whether the proposed settlements were viable and deliverable. Pointing to paragraph 173 of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), against which the plan was examined, he wrote that it must be possible for sites to generate "competitive" returns for the landowner or developer once the costs of delivering the development have been factored in.
Once the inspector added "an appropriate 40 per cent contingency allowance on transport and utilities infrastructure", he found that the Colchester-Braintree proposal "would not achieve a viable land price", while the west of Braintree scheme was "at the very margin of viability", contrary to advice in national planning guidance.
By contrast, Clews judged that a competitive land price could be paid for the land on which the Tendring-Colchester settlement would be located, even allowing for the 40 per cent contingency allowance. On this basis, he judged that the Tendring-Colchester community would deliver over 2,000 dwellings during the plan period, making a "worthwhile contribution to meeting the plan's overall housing requirement".
Clews also judged that proposals must be tested against the "realistic likelihood" of their delivery. One key factor in the Tendring/Colchester border proposal's favour was the government's recent award of a Housing Infrastructure Fund grant for a new A120/A133 link road and the first phase of Rapid Transit System (RTS) guided bus service, both which the inspector found would support the settlement's development. The latter would connect it to the "wide range of employment, retail, leisure, healthcare and other facilities in Colchester", he found.
However, the inspector found that later phases of the RTS, upon which the other two settlements would depend, had not "been shown to be deliverable" in financial terms, which meant they would be dependent on private car use, rather than public transport. And if these later RTS routes cannot be delivered, this would be "entirely at odds" with the plan's "aspirations for integrated and sustainable transport networks", Clews concluded, and with the NPPF's support for "sustainable transport modes".
Unsurprisingly, the inspector's conclusions have sparked disappointment amongst the garden communities' backers. Graham Butland, the leader of Braintree District Council, said in a letter to residents: "It is an unfortunate fact that the relatively short term nature of the local plan system doesn't suit our ambition to plan long term for the future of our community's needs. As we move forward from the inspector's findings and the required modifications, we will have the challenge of finding space for our share of the 2,000 plus homes each year, where our employment opportunities will come from and where we can provide sites for the gypsy and traveller community." The risk of "further urban sprawl is now a real threat," he added.
John Walker, technical director at community interest company Garden City Developments and the former chief executive of the government's Commission for the New Towns, advised the North Essex authorities. He said: "They did all they were told to do and all they got for four to five years' work is a slap in the face." The wider problem, according to Walker, is that England's local plan regime is "not fit for purpose" for planning new settlements.
Going into what he terms "minute detail" about project viability is a "complete nonsense" when assessing projects on the size and time scale being proposed in north Essex. "Trying to assess whether this is viable by assessing land value is putting the cart before the horse. If that is the case, we'll never get anything ambitious," he said.
Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers' Society, agreed. "The system can't cope with long-term visionary planning," she said. "It can't deal with things where you don't know how it's going to be funded in 20 years' time. They won't deliver the places the country needs to support sustainable growth."
However, Matthew Spry, senior director at planning consultancy Lichfields, said there is a case for inspectors asking hard questions about whether new settlements are deliverable. "Ultimately, if we have a local plan system that has some focus on deliverability, those questions have to be asked in some way," he said. "We need to understand what are the implications of those projects not coming forward in the way they were intended. If we don't, there's a higher risk that plans will fail."
"If you have lots of plans coming forward with garden communities assumed to being delivered in the first five years and it turns they don't deliver as quickly as anticipated those authorities will not have a five year supply. And those authorities won't pass their housing delivery test because the local plan has been unable to deliver what it was supposed to do."
Spry also pointed out that future new settlements will be assessed against the more flexible policies in the revised 2018 NPPF rather than the original 2012 document that was used to assess the North Essex garden communities. These revisions acknowledge there may be uncertainty surrounding the funding of infrastructure when a plan is published.
Henry Cleary, former head of the growth areas division at the then Department for Communities and Local Government, oversaw the eco-town programme under the last Labour government. He agreed that unless there are "very special factors", inspectors are entitled to take a "robust" view of likely returns for landowners and developers.
But Cleary said many of the funding issues around the viability of the new settlements should have been addressed before the site was allocated in the local plan. When planning the former eco towns and growth point proposals, he said the communities department held so-called "show-stopper" meetings before the schemes were examined or determined to iron out whether mooted infrastructure upgrades could be funded.
In a statement to Planning, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government praised the ambition of the North Essex authorities and said it "will consider whether this plan raises any questions for how large sites are examined in the future". The statement added that the inspector's recommendation "does not preclude any revised proposals for those or similar garden communities emerging in the longer term".
Other garden communities in local plans that have recently fallen foul of examining inspectors
Uttlesford District Council's draft local plan, which was submitted for examination in January 2019, proposed three new garden communities - Easton Park, North Uttlesford and West of Braintree – that were expected to deliver around 18,500 homes in total. The three garden communities made up one of five bids that shared an award of £3.7m funding from the MHCLG in March 2019.
However, inspectors Louise Crosby and Elaine Worthington told the council in January this year that the plan had failed to provide enough detail on the exact locations of the three schemes and raised doubts over their proposed housing delivery numbers and the cost of the required transport infrastructure. "We cannot find the plan sound based on vague blurred annotations of broad locations, especially for something as significant as three large new communities", the inspectors said. They also said the council had not "adequately demonstrated that the garden communities proposed in the plan are financially viable and therefore developable". They warned that “withdrawal of the plan from examination is likely to be the most appropriate option". Members voted to withdraw the document from examination at a meeting on 30 April.
In February this year, a planning inspector found the Hart District Council's local plan to be sound subject to a number of modifications including the removal of a 5,000-home strategic site allocation. The document included a policy, SS3, supporting the development of a 5,000-home new settlement in the Murrell Green/Winchfield area. But the inspector Jonathan Manning said the proposal required a "significant level of further supporting work", including site assessments, infrastructure considerations, viability testing and deliverability evidence. This meant the site allocation should be removed, he said. According to his report, "there is little evidence to demonstrate that a site can actually be delivered in terms of infrastructure, viability and landownership within the identified [area of search]". The council had planned to use policy SS3 as the basis for the delivery of the Shapley Heath Garden Village, which received MHCLG backing in June 2019.