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Braintree, Tendring and Colchester – Local Plan unsound

North Essex Garden Communities Map 2017

On the 8th June, Roger Clews, a Planning Inspector, gave an update on the progress of his examination of this Strategic Plan for North Essex.

Whilst his email to the authorities was dated 8th June, it’s only just been made publicly available. No doubt it has taken the councils some time to come to terms with the crushingly negative conclusions the Inspector has reached.

Braintree District Council, Tendring District Council and Colchester Borough Council had prepared a strategic plan for North Essex which sought to respond to a number of cross boundary issues for the area including infrastructure and housing numbers. The centrepiece of the plan included three Garden Communities, providing between 29,000 and 43,000 homes in total.

This draft document formed the North Essex Authorities Strategic (Section 1) Plan which was to be shared by all three authorities within their respective Local Plans.

The Planning Inspector’s response to the North Essex Authorities:

The Inspector’s review started positively, and he found that the duty to co-operate tests had been passed, and procedural criticisms by third parties about failing to register their representations were dismissed.

However, the Inspector flagged up significant concerns over the following:

1) Lack of certainty over the funding and alignment of the A120 dualling scheme and the feasibility of realigning the widened A12 at Marks Tey;

2) Lack of detail on funding and operations of a Rapid Transport System;

3) Criticism of the peripheral location of Marks Tey station;

4) Relocation of Marks Tey station was tabled for 2057/58 – 30 years into the proposed build period. Inspector considers this to be far too late to enable the station to be integrated into the planning of the new town centre, and for it to have the beneficial effects envisaged;

5) The proposed build out rates are too ambitious. Inspector recommends adopting 250 dwellings per annum on each of the sites;

6) The provision of 30% affordable housing may not be viable due to uncertainty over the funding on the transport infrastructure;

7) The Inspector expressed surprise that the Garden Community policies contain no specific figures for the amount of employment land or floorspace to be provided at each of the Communities;

8) Failure to allow for interest on land purchases. Given the length of time the project is going to take these costs can be substantial. The inspector states – “no reliance can be placed on them as an indication of the viability of the proposed Garden Communities”;

9) The Inspector queries whether the value received by landowners will be sufficient to persuade them to sell the land for development. He considers it unlikely that most landowners would sell their land for development without at least a reasonable uplift on its existing use value. This has not been allowed for in the viability assessment. The Inspector also queries whether use of Compulsory Purchase powers would be compatible with Human Rights Legislation;

10) Strong criticism of the spatial strategy approach. In assessing the chosen spatial strategy against alternatives, the authors of the Sustainability Appraisal report have generally made optimistic assumptions about the benefits of Garden Communities, and correspondingly negative assumptions about the alternatives, without evidence to support many of those assumptions. As a result, these assessments lack the necessary degree of objectivity and are therefore unreliable;

11) The Inspector considers that the lack of clarity identified in the descriptions of some of the alternatives to the chosen spatial strategy, and in the reasons for selecting them, is likely to breach the legal requirements for the Sustainability Appraisal. “The public have not been given an effective opportunity to express their opinion on the report before the plan is adopted”.

The Inspector’s conclusion on the three Garden Communities

The Inspector notes:

“On the basis of the evidence I have considered so far I would advise that simultaneously bringing forward three GCs on the scale proposed in the submitted Plan is likely to be difficult to justify. This is mainly because of the difficulty of co-ordinating the provision of infrastructure, particularly large-scale transport infrastructure, with the development of the GCs. In particular it is very unlikely, in my view, that the whole of the rapid transit system as proposed in the NERTS could be provided quickly enough to support commencement of development at all three GCs in the timescale envisaged in the submitted Plan.”

“I expect that this letter will come as a disappointment to the NEAs after all the hard work and resources they have committed to bringing the Section 1 Plan forward for examination. Nonetheless, I hope it will be appreciated that my findings do not necessarily represent a rejection of their commendable ambitions for high-quality, strategic-scale development in North Essex. Equally, however, the scale of those ambitions, and the long timescale over which any GC proposals would come forward, require that adequate time and care are taken now to ensure that any proposals are realistic and robust.”

Next steps for the Shared Strategic Local Plan for North Essex

The Inspector suggests three options:

1) For the Councils to remove reference to any garden communities, and update their section 2 local plans for examination. However, the removal of garden communities will have significant ramifications to the plan. Plus, Section 2 of the Local Plan also relies on the same Sustainability Appraisal that has been so criticised by the Inspector.

2) Try and fix all the identified errors, but given the likely delays this will cause it is clear that the Inspector does not think this a credible option.

3) Withdraw everything and start again.

It will be interesting to see which route the Councils choose. A legal challenge is another option. But, regardless of the route chosen, there will be significant delays to Local Plans in the north of Essex.

If you have land for development and are interested to know how the recent examination response impacts on the current local plan making process for the North Essex area and what this means for your development aspirations, then don’t hesitate to contact the team via enquiries@plainview.co.uk.

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IMAGE SOURCE: North Essex Authorities Strategic (Section 1) Plan document