Combating the dubious appeal of exotic palm trees in Braintree

The need to ensure that development is always of the highest quality has always been imperative, as Peter Crofts explains.

Think of Braintree and you may think of exotic palm trees. Or at least you might do given that the last time readers of Planning heard of this north Essex district it was in a Development Control Casebook piece about five unauthorised palm trees on the forecourt of a local restaurant.

Unfortunately, although one is normally quite well disposed towards anything that smacks of a tropical paradise, these trees are multi-coloured, illuminated and as plastic as the contestants on Celebrity Love Island.

However, it is only that small part of leafy Essex that is plastic. The district is extensive - 611km2 - and is the second largest in Essex. It stretches from the Stour Valley on the Suffolk borders in the north to the Chelmer Valley and Chelmsford in the south. It has three towns - Braintree, Witham and Halstead - and an extensive rural area with 60 parishes. Its population is 135,000 and it boasts a successful local economy. The district is fast growing and increased in population by more than ten per cent between 1991 and 2001.

The demographic profile is also changing. By 2010 the number of people aged 60 or over is expected to increase by 30 per cent. With unemployment running below two per cent, the district effectively has full employment and with the continuing development of Stansted Airport just 24km and 15 minutes to the west, this is likely to continue with Braintree providing ten per cent of the airport's workforce.

The district's problem is familiar - housing demand is high, especially for affordable homes. An average three-bedroom house in the area would require an income of more than £30,000.

During the 1980s, Braintree was severely affected by the loss of thousands of jobs following the closure of major local companies. As a consequence, we developed our first corporate strategy focusing on regeneration and inward investment. We developed our staff and business culture through Charter Marks, Investors in People and the International Organisation for Standardisation quality and certifications. Braintree was the first district in the UK to win a Charter Mark for planning.

The success of this approach was demonstrated by the regeneration of East Braintree in the late 1990s. A single regeneration budget (SRB) grant of £1.3 million has been used to transform the area. The original SRB funding attracted other spending of £2.4 million and indirectly resulted in more than £25 million of further investment. More than 700 jobs have been created, 150 people trained, 3.5km of roads built, 45ha of vacant land brought back into use and 540 houses built. Investment has continued with the development of a major factory outlet centre and a leisure complex that includes a multiplex cinema, swimming pool and bowling alley.

Despite large levels of growth, the quality of the local environment is high. We have 37 conservation areas, more than 3,000 listed buildings and extensive areas of high-quality countryside. We have two garden villages - one at Silver End built by Frances Crittall in the 1930s to house the workforce for his successful window manufacturing company and one at Great Notley built over the past ten years in response to the district's housing pressures.

The need to ensure that development is of the highest quality has always been imperative. The Essex Design Guide, of which we are co-authors, informs the development process and its influence is widespread. Large-scale development masterplanning incorporates substantial design principles and nowhere is this more evident than in Great Notley. A 2,000-home community including a 40ha country park, community buildings, social housing, schools, an employment park and retail and leisure uses has nearly been completed.

By getting involved at the earliest possible stage, the council was able to negotiate a planning gain package with the original landowners as well as with developers - we called it community gain - to secure substantial infrastructure provision. Involvement with the local community has been key to the development's success. By working with partners on the package of community facilities and assets, we now have a new parish council to keep the district council on its toes.

Much work is done by bidding to secure external finance for projects that would otherwise not take place. In the late 1990s the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the council a grant of £353,400, equivalent to 75 per cent of the total eligible costs of £471,876, for a joint project to achieve the restoration of two historic parks in the district - Halstead Public Gardens and Silver End Memorial Gardens.

At Halstead, new boundary railings have been installed and many features restored or renewed including the double gates at the main entrance and three side gates, the entire path network, the bandstand, three oak shelters and the ornamental drinking fountain. Several swings are now surrounded with safety surfacing and new and restored seats, and traditional-style lighting has been installed round the dancing green. A fountain once again provides a feature in the pond. The work has been carried out with the close involvement of the local community, including the use of volunteer work groups.

More recently, work has focused on restoring the Silver End Memorial Gardens. New boundary railings have been installed and the historic railings, gates and lights have been repaired. A Japanese garden has been improved and a heather garden has been created. Seating, waste bins and a metal pergola have been provided.

The drive to maintain and improve quality continues, despite the government's best attempts to undermine it. The pedantic and narrow pursuit of selective and unrepresentative performance criteria are clearly affecting the quality of the product. The challenge of the updated planning system and, as we see it, the adoption of our last old-style local plan and the local development framework beckons. Meanwhile, does anyone want some second-hand plastic palm trees?

Peter Crofts is development director at Braintree District Council.

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