The alternative to North Essex Garden Communities

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One size does not fit all

If you listen to some of our council leaders you could be forgiven for thinking that there are two, very polar alternatives for development in north Essex:   very large garden communities (three of them, between 9,000 and 24,000 homes) or sprawling growth of our villages on a scale never seen before.

The planning inspector, Mr Clews, did not feel that these alternatives had been properly selected or explained.    He has found the garden community proposals unsound[1] and sent the authorities back to the drawing board.

If you read the local papers, you could also be forgiven for thinking that one of the options[2] given by the inspector is to carry on doing some more work on the same three garden communities over the next three months.

The first letter from the inspector made it very clear that is not the case.  The follow-up letter made it even clearer.   He wants to see a proper assessment of alternatives. This means carried out objectively, with an open mind and ideally a new consultant. The work required will take much longer than three months – perhaps as much as two to three years.

Mr Clews states that the alternatives should include, as a minimum, the following:

  • Proportionate growth at and around existing settlements
  • CAUSE’s Metro Town proposal
  • One, two or more GCs (depending on the outcomes of the first-stage assessment)

I will look at each of these in turn.  But first I need to deal with two points…

Speculative development

Before looking at the 50-year horizon, our authorities need to move fast to prevent more of the unmanaged urban sprawl around our villages that is already happening.    The likes of Gladman, who exploit councils without a plan, will be rubbing their hands together in glee, because the current situation in Tendring and Braintree means that they can pretty much develop what they want, where they want.  So Tendring, Braintree and Colchester must have a five year supply and must get their individual plans[3] in place as soon as possible.   That will give protection against speculative development. This is why CAUSE agrees with the inspector that his first option is the best one.

The villages

We have never understood the claims made by the authorities that the garden community proposals ‘protect the villages’, when:

  1. a) the garden communities subsume[4] and amalgamate[5] a number of villages, and;
  2. b) nearly all villages have been allocated growth in addition to the garden community housing allocation, or are seeing speculative development;
  3. c) Surely proportionate growth of some villages is a very positive thing. Preserving them in aspic is not a good option, and growth helps to support rural pubs, schools, shops, post offices and bus services.

The alternatives

A good place to start when thinking about how an area could grow is a report[6] by a consultancy called 5th Studio.   It was asked to carry out a study of the area now known as the ‘Arc’, between Oxford and Cambridge.

Instead of just the two options we have been presented with in north Essex, the study looked at nine (see image below).     Each of the nine ‘settlement typologies’ the report analysed has benefits and drawbacks, and each applies to different places.  The main conclusion is that one size doesn’t fit all.     In addition, instead of the abstract and out-of-date garden city principles applied to the North Essex Garden Communities, 5th Studio looked at real life examples.  CAUSE has spoken to 5th Studio, we will meet in September, and they would be interested in presenting to councillors.


One size does not fit all

The first five of the 5th Studio typologies fit nicely into the inspector’s first category, extension of existing settlements.  String City is probably closest to CAUSE’s Metro Plan.  And the three new settlement categories fit with garden communities.

  1. Proportionate growth at and around existing settlements

It is immediately clear from the image above, that expansion of existing settlements is not the nuclear option of seeing uncontrollable sprawl of the villages.   There are lots of ways of growing our settlements.

What 5th Studio’s report illustrates is that our planners should work with what already exists in north Essex.   We could focus on our town centres or suburbs and try to do things better:  intensification.    Or, in line with CAUSE’s position since we first responded to Issues & Options consultations in 2015, explore sustainable urban extensions because they offer a greater prospect of being sustainable, deliverable and viable than stand-alone new settlements.

  1. CAUSE’s Metro Town proposal

This is a sort of string development, known as transit-oriented development (TOD)[7].    Here is what that means – it’s all about compact development around a transport node, planned for walking and cycling:


The Metro Plan was the result of councillors and MPs telling CAUSE repeatedly that we couldn’t keep saying No To West Tey if we didn’t have alternatives.   So we used volunteer money and paid for a transport consultant, rail expert and planning consultant.  We were lucky enough to have advice from Wolfson prize-winner Dr Nick Falk of URBED.   We gave them free rein and asked what they would do if in charge of the growth of north Essex.  This is what they came up with:


(Link to better quality image: )

Looking at the map, it is clear that Tendring already includes growth at most of the points along the line in its Local Plan but not using TOD principles.

Incidentally, as well as this proposal, we also came up with a broader set of principles for good development, too:

  1. One, two or more GCs

As is clear from the 5th Studio report, there are all sorts of permutations of new settlements.   They don’t have to be enormous.   No-one has ever been able to explain why the three north Essex garden community proposals reached their size:  24,000-homes in West Tey’s case.

Even government defines a garden village as a minimum of 1,500 homes and it was good to hear Colchester’s Leader, Mark Cory, and Conservative Leader, Darius Laws, on BBC Essex on August 13th saying that much smaller new settlements than proposed might be sensible.

CAUSE’s analysis showed that West Tey is too big to succeed[8].   We concluded, in a report called Small is Beautiful, that around 2,000-homes is the maximum for a new settlement to be viable.  Unfortunately, the north Essex authorities set a threshold of 5,000-homes for new settlements, with the theory being that each can support a new secondary school.   This is not strictly a necessary criterion, because secondary school pupils already regularly travel to school and, in addition, new secondary schools/school places are required anyway for the non-garden community development that is taking place.   There is no particular reason why a new settlement must have a large, new secondary school all to itself.

In addition, it had two unfortunate consequences.  Firstly, it knocked out perfectly valid urban extension proposals or garden villages which might be far more sustainable and would certainly offer a greater prospect of delivery and viability.   They weren’t even assessed as garden communities.   Secondly, it has fuelled ridiculous proposals such as Monks Wood garden town in Pattiswick, which would never have seen the light of day if it had not been for the authorities’ 5,000-home cut-off.

It is essential, therefore, that in the new sustainability appraisal, the authorities assess garden villages of under 2,000-homes as possible alternatives.    With proper site selection and community engagement, who knows?  Perhaps one might even be built.

And finally…paying for all the infrastructure

It is essential to look at how the infrastructure we need is delivered to support development under any of the alternatives.   Debt –fuelled land acquisition and council control will not work.   It’s far too risky and there are not the skills and experience to deliver.   There must instead be a new focus on proper section 106 negotiations and all the north Essex authorities should consider implementing a Community Infrastructure Levy.  An independent viability panel would be a positive step to ensure that all developments deliver the optimum contribution.  It’s great to see that the new National Planning Policy Framework[9] places far greater emphasis on this, both in plan-making and assessment of planning applications.

A couple of well-placed bids to the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund would help.    But please, no more pointless bids such as the one for £100m to re-align the A12 to accommodate more homes at West Tey.   There is plenty of infrastructure that would benefit local residents.  A re-alignment of the A12 would not.

In addition, all alternatives should be cross-checked against the findings of each authority’s Strategic Housing Market Assessment to ensure that they are actually delivering the right type of housing that our boroughs need, whether starter units in towns or units for older people.


Our authorities now have the opportunity to do things properly, in collaboration with local people.   If we do this, we will end up with a good plan for north Essex.   If not, sadly we will all be back at examination again telling the inspector why the plan is unsound, if the requirements of the Strategic Environment Assessment Directive are not met.[10]  We prefer the positive approach.



In a future blog:  once you have assessed all the options, in the way that 5th Studio has done in the ‘Arc’, how do you make the decisions?



[2] He set out three options.  1 – take the garden communities out of Section 1 and allow Section 2 to proceed.  2 – continue with work on Section 1, but this does not mean the same three GCs. It blocks the Section 2’s.  3 – drop Section 1 and Section 2 and start again.

[3] Known as Section 2 Plans

[4] Gateway 120’s word, relating to West Tey

[5] Council word





[10] A blog on the importance of alternatives under the SEA Directive.  Relates to the ‘Arc’, not north Essex, but the principles are the same: