CAUSE is often in the news, and you can keep up with it via Twitter and Facebook (on our Home page and can be viewed by non users of the pages). Here is a longer opinion piece we felt important to write, together with a recent letter to the paper and podcast recorded by the Gazette about garden communities:
My view, for Colchester Gazette, by Rosie Pearson, CAUSE – Lack of answers (and a better way)
1 March 2019
It is very disappointing that after more than four years, several ‘consultations’ (in name only), and with millions of pounds spent, local concerns about the ‘garden communities’ remain unaddressed.
Still we don’t know why three vast new towns across thousands of acres of much loved north Essex countryside are needed when no other authorities feel the need for such destructive ‘ambition’.
Photo: Some of the countryside at risk from so-called garden communities
Still we have no idea how the 100,000 people in the three new towns will fit onto our roads and trains, into our hospitals and doctors’ surgeries and how affordable homes will actually be paid for. How will the infrastructure we are airily promised be paid for and delivered? How many times do we have to ask?
John Spence wrote a letter to the paper last week but did not answer any of the questions that CAUSE, Hands Off Wivenhoe and SERCLE had posed in our own letter.
Then, in an opinion accompanied by a delightful new artist’s impression of West Tey, we heard from Graham Butland that too much is at stake to take a short-term view on housing.
In the now characteristically familiar approach which involves reassuring promises but no substance, we heard that the garden communities will solve the problems of the 8,000 families on north Essex’s waiting list, that council leadership will overcome traditional problems with developers, and the biggest myth of them all, that ‘housing pays for and generates infrastructure’.
There is simply no evidence to back these statements up.
Any family on the waiting list hoping for a garden community home will have to wait some time. NEGC will take many years to deliver anything other than a pile of professional fees. Then there is the prospect of the social housing being bought up for “London overspill”. The whole project will take, using the Inspector’s figures, nearly 100 years to build. And if the families hoped that the private housing would be affordable they should note that the plan assumes that they will be sold at a Garden Community premium – a higher price.
There is no reason why council people disguised in the cloak of a development corporation will be able to manage things any better. Developers will still need 15-25% profit. They will still negotiate with the councils and, with their greater expertise and resources, will still call the shots. If they can’t make money, they won’t deliver.
Under the proposed model, tax-payers bear the risk – NEGC neglects to remind us that borrowing on a huge scale is required to fund the new towns.
How on earth does large scale housing pay for infrastructure? Where is the evidence? The inspector couldn’t see any. CAUSE’s analysis shows that in developments over 2,000-homes viability begins to fall, and the amount available to pay for infrastructure begins to decline. Until we see NEGC’s latest numbers, there is no reason to believe any of the promises of infrastructure first.
Perhaps if the authorities had put their short-term house in order it would be sensible to take a long-term view. Instead, the focus on the 50 year horizon ignores the immediate needs of north Essex and is creating a developer free-for-all. Mr Butland does say that views must be listened to and that ideas and alternatives must be challenged. Let’s see this approach put into action.
Let’s start by imagining a different scenario, one which would have left north Essex in a much better position than the one in which we now find ourselves. It is not too late to take this path.
Imagine if last summer, when the Inspector wrote his letter setting out the many problems with the garden communities, the council leaders had issued a frank apology for money wasted and warnings ignored, and for not listening to local people.
There is now ample evidence that the garden towns are not viable or deliverable. Imagine if the authorities had chosen the Inspector’s ‘Option 1’, instead of continuing to stumble blindly onwards with the garden communities. By now each district’s Local Plan might well be on the way to adoption. That would have given protection from unplanned speculative development.
Now, let’s imagine that in the meantime the authorities had worked to improve the collection of developer contributions, particularly with regards to affordable housing, and to start to put in place a Community Infrastructure Levy. (This is a levy which captures land value uplift of around £10-£20k per new home and which our authorities, inexplicably, neglect to collect.) And with social housing borrowing caps relaxed by government, there has been an opportunity to look at how the authorities deliver social housing.
And, let’s imagine that the bids for infrastructure from government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund had been reviewed, asking local people what they thought. The £100m bid for the re-routing of the A12 to accommodate 8,000 additional homes at West Tey could have been resubmitted for infrastructure that we need and want. Moving the A12 brings no benefit to anyone.
In the meantime, the work on long-term strategic sites could have continued, and local people could have been consulted in a refreshing two-way engagement process. Maybe a garden village or two, capped at around 2,000-homes, might be the end result, but communities should be in the driving seat, not an elite few on the NEGC Ltd board…
Letter to paper re John Spence’s letter
John Spence, the Chairman of North Essex Garden Communities Limited, expresses disappointment about local criticism of NEGC’s latest community engagement activity (B&W Times, 3rd March 2019). CAUSE, whose views are aligned with other opposition groups, will continue to argue that NEGC currently has no role and should be put to sleep. It should not be spending taxpayer money on PR consultants and duplicating the authorities’ role.
We strongly support community engagement if it is a two way process and based on fact. Sadly neither has been true of the authorities efforts on garden communities so far. Time and again well informed alternatives and heartfelt, considered consultation responses have been sidelined and ignored. Our letter suggested questions which need answering (and which Mr Spence chose not to answer).
NEGC’s community engagement programme will only serve to confuse and mislead. NEGC continues to promote a plan found unsound by the Planning Inspector. It continues to insist it will deliver infrastructure first when the only published appraisals demonstrate that it will not. And it continues to say that Garden Communities are the only way to deliver housing when better alternatives are being ignored. We need proper financial appraisals now and consideration should be given to a “small is beautiful” alternative.
A development corporation is only needed if the authorities have i) the land ii) the money and iii) a sound plan for the big garden towns.
Councillors need to listen to local residents, develop expertise and show leadership, rather than leaving it to an unelected quango.
Yours faithfully, etc