Published: 19th Oct 2020

Accommodating housing need is a common concern for local authorities up and down the country – from London with its annualised shortfall of at least 14,000 homes, to the cities likely to see a significant surge in demand in relation to major infrastructure projects such as the Northern Powerhouse and HS2, and those rural districts anticipating new-found popularity thanks to increased remote working.

Garden cities are frequently seen as a single, effective solution to high levels of demand.  There is no doubt that the enduring principles of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement – updated to suit 21st century living with a focus on oneness with nature, car sharing and community interest companies – can create successful and sustainable communities.

But how do garden cities impact and sit alongside established communities? From the new towns of the 1950s, to proposals for major settlements in existing countryside today, it is fair to say that the reactions of existing communities are generally less positive than those of new residents.

As a planning consultant, I see the success or otherwise of a new community within its wider context as being related directly to the manner of engagement and the strategic needs that are addressed.

Garden communities have long been viewed as a way to align the delivery of residential housing, employment, social, community, and strategic infrastructure. Nowhere was this ambition more personified than in north Essex, where five garden communities were planned to deliver up to 60,000 homes. However, within five months, subsequent post-hearing letters into the examinations of first the Uttlesford Local Plan, then the North Essex Shared Section 1 Local Plans, resulted in the only retained garden community being east of Colchester – and this was more akin to an urban extension than a sustainable new community.

It is always possible to pick holes in evidence presented through the examination process. However, the approach to the matter of viability and the neutering of ambition has raised considerable concern within the development industry. The extent of these concerns is real and could have a potentially crippling impact on the delivery of ambitious longer-term development projects through the local plan process.

In response to the letter from the North Essex Inspector requiring the removal of two large garden communities from the plan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)  said: ‘The government is working hand-in-hand with local communities to deliver much-needed new homes across the country.’

 MHCLG also said that it ‘applaud[s] the ambition of the North Essex authorities and will consider whether this plan raises any questions for how large sites are examined in the future’, and added that the government ‘remains committed to supporting new garden communities and helping these schemes to meet the requirements of local plan examinations’.

However, a representative of Essex County Council noted: ‘Of the seven garden communities we have been involved in, three have ‘passed’ examination (Chelmsford, Harlow Gilston, Tendring Colchester Borders) and four have failed (two in Uttlesford and two in North Essex). What’s striking is the proximity the passes have to a large urban centre. The short-term local plan examination process seems unable to pass new settlements that cannot draw on infra/services of existing towns and need a longer lead in time. Reform is needed if housing numbers can ever be delivered in South East.’

This presents a paradox: to be true garden communities they should be genuinely new communities, not urban extensions, and they should be sustainable. In this case the proposed garden communities intended to provide all necessary services to allow them to function independently. Yet the Inspector favoured caution over quality.

Consequently, the debate has shifted to how best to plan for garden communities outside of the traditional local plan model and – since the publication of the Planning White Paper (Planning for the Future) consultation document – whether the allocation of Growth areas will adequately address the problems in the current system.

In taking a strategic approach to planning for the future of districts and beyond, the argument goes that councils should be able to formulate ambitious plans for residential and economic growth, aligning with strategic infrastructure. After all, what is strategic planning if not strategic? It needs to be visionary, not simply reactionary.

Time will tell how the proposed substantial changes in the planning system will influence the debate, but the changes undoubtedly bring the question of strategic planning to the fore.  Local authorities will increasingly work jointly on local plans, which brings about an opportunity to think big, think bold and deliver quality in a way that seems impossible in the current system.

It also allows an opportunity for the higher level and less detailed plans to be complemented at the local level in progressive neighbourhood plans. The importance of local engagement and distinctiveness must not be over-looked even if the new system focuses on delivery of larger scales of development across larger areas.

David Churchill, Partner, Carter Jonas

Photo Credit – Kookay (Pixabay)

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