Blog: time for a re-think on garden towns?

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7 March 2019

Last spring, as CAUSE waited on tenterhooks for the Inspector’s letter about the North Essex Garden Communities, I wrote a blog looking at four examples of recently shelved ‘garden village’ projects. These reinforced the many issues CAUSE had raised here in Essex about the difficulties of building new settlements.

In the light of the North Essex Garden Communities and two other new settlements, Harborne and Winchfield New Town, I have updated the blog.

All the examples demonstrate that government and local planning authorities should think very carefully about investing tax-payers’ money in these fiendishly complicated schemes.

Who is looking at the national picture?   No-one has yet demonstrated that a very large garden town can be viable, and yet across the country money is being poured into these projects.    It is worth remembering that the previous ‘Eco Towns’ project also struggled to take off.  Only one site (Bicester) has seen much housing delivered, and only £60million was allocated by government to support infrastructure in the four locations selected.   It is not clear that anyone has really learned from the lessons of the previous new towns, something CAUSE addressed in “New Towns: Learning from the past”

Time for a re-think, perhaps?

Two papers provide an interesting alternative.  One is CAUSE’s ‘Small is Beautiful’, which gives an analytical framework for making decisions, concluding that new settlements of over 2,000 homes, built over longer than a 10-year period, suffer from scale diseconomies which mean that they will be less viable than smaller ones.   The other is the Future Foundation’s, “Vital Cities not Garden Cities” which looks at the advantages of building on what we have already rather than building from scratch in remote locations.

Locally, the North Essex Garden Communities are an unmitigated disaster.   They are blocking infrastructure.  The Transport Minister confirmed in Parliament on 6 March that the planned upgrade of the A12 is now being held up by West Tey.    They are enabling a developer free-for-all, which brings just the uncontrolled sprawl everyone despairs of.   And they will not deliver a single home, let alone homes for the 8,000 families on the waiting list, for many, many years to come.   Luckily there is a solution.    The north Essex authorities should follow the example of Hart below, remove the garden towns from the Plan and move forward with the District Local Plans which are waiting in the wings, blocked by the garden communities.

[All references can be found at end of blog]

Recent examples

North Essex Garden Communities

The inspector concluded that the proposals by Braintree, Colchester and Tendring, for three new towns of 9,000-homes, 13,000-homes and 24,000-homes each, are unsound and have not been shown to have a reasonable prospect of being viably developed. He asked the authorities to look at alternatives.

The inspector’s letter highlighted shortcomings including:

  • Failings in the sustainability appraisal which may breach legal requirements;
  • Major flaws in the viability appraisal of the proposals, including failure to deal adequately with transport infrastructure costs, land purchase and interest or contingency allowance;
  • Failure to include details of employment land or floor-space;
  • Conclusions over deliverability of affordable housing which cannot be relied upon;
  • Uncertainties about trunk road improvements, such that no firm view of feasibility of West Tey or West of Braintree can yet be made;
  • Over-ambitious targets for modal-shift and no feasibility study or costing of mass rapid transit options


In August 2018, the Inspector for the South Cambridgeshire Plan rejected a new settlement, Harborne, (for reasons which apply equally to “Monks Wood”, a proposed new town in north Essex):   Para 78, “…the site is in an elevated position which is part of an attractive open and rolling  landscape.  Development on the site would be highly visible when viewed from surrounding roads and villages.  Even with the incorporation of open space, landscaping and other mitigation measures, development on the scale proposed on this site would have significant adverse impact on the attractive rural landscape.

It is worth noting that, although two new settlements were given the go-ahead in the South Cambridgeshire Plan, this was only because Cambridge, unlike north Essex, is constrained by Green Belt.  The inspector, however, recognised: “the sustainability benefits of sites on the edge of Cambridge particularly in relation to sustainable transport nodes” and agreed with the council that sustainable urban extensions (not considered in the ‘Section 1’ plan for north Essex) were the best strategy.

Winchfield New Town

And now, in 2019, another one bites the dust:  Winchfield New Town, which, following an Inspector’s letter, is likely to be removed from the Hart Local Plan by the council, for the following reasons:

Flaws with the Sustainability Appraisal

The Inspector is “of the view that there needs to be sufficient evidence now to support the proposed new settlement Area of Search, to allow a robust comparison to be undertaken with reasonable alternative long-term growth strategies and to allow me to take a view that there is a real likelihood that a site could come forward in the Area of Search that would not have unacceptable impacts”



Further work & delays:


Ones to watch in 2019…

Bailrigg Garden Village

Next up is Baillrigg ‘Garden Village’, 3,500-5,000 houses in South Lancaster, which has received £330k from Government for feasibility studies and will be examined from 9 April as part of Lancaster’s Local Plan Hearings.   Likely issues will be justification for choice of site, flooding, whether deliverable, air quality and car dependency.


Then, in July, Uttlesford’s Local Plan will be examined by two inspectors. It includes three new settlements (Uttlesford North, Easton Park and a section of ‘West of Braintree, one of the North Essex Garden Communities).

The Inspectors’ initial questions indicate that there will be similar issues surrounding deliverability and infrastructure to those raised elsewhere, and adds a list of questions about air quality.  There are also likely to be concerns about the sustainability appraisal (which has already been re-done once as a consequence of the letter sent to the North Essex Authorities about their garden communities, just next door…)

If you know of other examples (forthcoming or recent), please email Rosie Pearson on

Garden village decisions from early 2018, cited in earlier blog:

Lodge Farm Garden Village, Rugby’s Local Plan

At Lodge Farm there are many similarities with the north Essex proposals, particularly West Tey and West of Braintree, only Lodge Farm is much smaller and therefore all the problems are magnified here in north Essex. The Inspector asked Rugby to delete 1,500-home Lodge Farm Garden Village from the Plan, citing distance of the site from the centre of Rugby and Coventry and likelihood that most journeys would be by car, and lack of evidence that the site could  be made sustainable in transport terms.

The Inspector also noted that, “It is not apparent that Lodge Farm would support existing surrounding rural communities to any significant extent, since its local facilities would be scaled to serve the needs of the new community.”

The inspector added that the settlement would cause significant harm to the intrinsic beauty of the area, “It is a core planning principle in paragraph 17 of the NPPF that account should be taken of the intrinsic beauty and character of the countryside.  The development of a new settlement of 1,500 dwellings in this setting, even with the inclusion of landscaping and green space, would cause significant harm to the intrinsic beauty and character of the countryside in this part of the borough.”

Dissington Garden Village, Northumberland.

Refreshingly, but completely unlike the approach taken in north Essex, the Northumberland local plan was revised to reflect local concerns.    The proposed 2,000-home garden village has been dropped and housing numbers reduced.

Colworth Garden Village, Beds.

This 4,500-home proposed village has now been scrapped after a report to Bedford Borough Council found that the nearby Santa Pod Raceway and the developers could not deliver noise mitigation measures.

Drake Park Garden Village, Surrey.

Here, the Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector, that the benefits of the proposed development did not clearly outweigh harm to the green belt. The very special circumstances required to justify development in the green belt did not exist, he ruled.  Brokenshire found that the scheme would have a “significant impact” on the visual appreciation of green belt openness and create “significant” views of new buildings from multiple viewpoints outside the site.


Further reading:

North Essex Garden Communities Inspector’s  letter 8 June 2018

Hart Inspector’s letter

New towns: learning from the past

Vital  Cities not  Garden Cities

Small is Beautiful

Eco Towns

Uttlesford initial questions from Inspectors