On 15th May a letter from Planning Inspector Richard Clews concluded that the North Essex Authorities Shared Strategic (Section 1) Plan was ‘unsound’ in its current form. The Plan included proposals for three new communities across the authorities of Braintree, Colchester and Tendring Districts which together would deliver over 43,000 homes. The Inspector recognised the Plan’s ambition and commitment to sustainable development through the Garden City Principles, but concluded that two of the three sites were undeliverable. The details of why the delivery of each project was found to be wholly or ‘borderline’ undeliverable are complicated, but issues essentially revolve around the need to align high standards, expectations around viability and land prices, and the upfront delivery of transport infrastructure. The decision is hugely disappointing for the North Essex Authorities who had worked hard to make their ambitious vision a reality, and of course the TCPA will continue to support these authorities as they navigate what happens next.
The decision on the North Essex communities came just weeks after Uttlesford District Council was forced to withdraw its Local Plan following the Inspector’s conclusion that its own spatial strategy to deliver housing through three new communities – one of which was shared with neighbouring Braintree District Council – was itself unsound. Like all interested parties, the TCPA will be digesting the detail of the Inspector’s letters and discussing with Government and local authorities in our New Communities Group and beyond to understand what lessons can be drawn for the delivery of these and new communities in other places.
These decisions provide an important opportunity to reflect on current approaches to the delivery of new communities and how the planning system is working for the delivery of these ambitious, complex and long-term projects. What central Government decides to do next to support these sites will define the future of its Garden Communities programme.
From a wider perspective, these decisions highlight the continued failure to embed the lessons from the past into Government’s housing delivery model. The TCPA has written extensively on what we can learn from the past successes and failures of delivering new communities. Such projects are unique in their complexity, financial model and delivery timescales, but also in their benefits. They require a strategic approach to identifying locations and aligning infrastructure provision, a dedicated consent regime which recognises this complexity and embeds public participation in the process, and a delivery body which commits to high standards and can take a long-term patient perspective on investment and delivery.
In the absence of such an approach, there has been a reliance on a Local Plan system which cannot cope with the timescales and complexities of new communities projects, yet at present provides the best route to ensure democratic accountability. Recognition of the role of Garden City principles by Government, and capacity support from Homes England has enabled local authorities to undertake important work on issues such as long-term stewardship and delivery vehicles. However, the changing nature of policies and the mechanisms available to local authorities to deliver is also resulting in challenges around the sequencing of delivery options and the assessment of schemes. It has also affected the ability to plan for the delivery of the essential up-front infrastructure to support these projects. A local authority-led approach is essential but will only be successful in a process enabled by central government where there is cross-departmental co-ordination of infrastructure delivery and a greater sharing of both the financial and political risks – and rewards – of this approach.
The TCPA is actively engaging with Government on how a modernised New Towns programme could address the post-COVID 19 housing delivery question alongside wider renewal and climate resilience challenges. In the meantime we will continue support ambitious local authorities who are working hard to try and deliver genuinely affordable and high quality places.
 The letter can be viewed at: https://www.braintree.gov.uk/downloads/file/9294/ied022_-_inspectors_post-hearing_letter_to_neas_-_15th_may_2020