David Churchill 27 November 2020

Garden communities – context and complexities

The complex of the issues surrounding garden communities are possibly best exemplified in the neighbouring counties of Hertfordshire and Essex. Hertfordshire is the home of the garden city movement in the UK: Welwyn Garden City celebrates its centenary this year, and 60 years after their founding, Stevenage and Hatfield are enacting plans to revamp their town centres to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In Essex, on the other hand, there is strong demand for the new generation of garden communities – but some very complex planning issues have derailed opportunities and stifled delivery so far.

Deficiencies in strategic planning

Garden communities have long been viewed the most sustainable means of delivering housing along with the necessary employment, social, community, and strategic infrastructure. In North Essex, no fewer than five garden communities, allowing for the delivery of up to 60,000 homes, were planned recently, four of which were to be linked by a rapid-transit-system along the A120 economic corridor. However, within five months, post-hearing letters into the examinations of the Uttlesford Local Plan, followed by the north Essex Shared Section 1 Local Plans, resulted in four of the five garden communities being considered ‘unsound’, leaving a single proposed garden community which, in reality is little more than a large urban extension.

In the case of the seven garden communities recently proposed for Essex as whole (as opposed to North Essex), it is striking that those regarded as ‘sound’ (Chelmsford, Harlow Gilston, Tendring Colchester Borders) were in close proximity to an urban centre – more akin to large urban extensions. Those that were deemed ‘unsound’ (two in Uttlesford and two in North Essex) were the more ambitious garden communities that were capable of accommodating long term growth, delivering new infrastructure and genuine new communities.

The thwarting of these ambitions has much to do with the potentially crippling impact of the Local Plan process in delivering ambitious long-term development projects.

Alternative models

For some time, there has been debate about how best to plan for garden communities outside of the traditional Local Plan model because as currently formulated, it is incapable of delivering truly ambitious schemes. There are nostalgic cries for the reviving of pre-2011 Localism Act Regional Planning, with others calling for a return to pre-2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act assumption of soundness in examining Local Plans. Many are inclined to subvert plan-making entirely, either utilising existing Local Development Order powers or an expansion of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime to incorporate garden communities.

Compounding this problem and its exemplification in the case of Essex and Hertfordshire, is the fact that both south Essex and south west Hertfordshire include some of the worst performing authorities when it comes to Local Plan making. In November 2017, Basildon, Brentwood, Castle Point and St Albans were all subject to threats of intervention by the secretary of state into their Local Plan making functions. Since then, none has managed to adopt an up-to-date Local Plan. Of the other authorities within south Essex and south west Hertfordshire, not one has adopted a new Local Plan within the last five years.

A strategic assessment is necessary to enable the councils to formulate more ambitious plans for residential and economic growth aligned with strategic infrastructure. Furthermore, a more comprehensive review of Green Belt boundaries is needed to overcome the local political resistance that has contributed to the struggle to deliver positive plan-making across the sub-regions to-date.

Future challenges

Looking ahead, Local Plans in England are in an increasingly precarious position, partly although not solely as a result of the Government’s recent Planning White Paper. If the proposals contained within Planning for the Future are enacted, the local planning process will change considerably, with consultation in planning taking place at the Local Plan stage (rather than at the application stage) and with local people opting to ‘zone’ areas for ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ or ‘protection’. For strategic planning to remain effective, and to deliver the Government’s goal of delivering more homes, it will need to become more accessible, it will need to communicate the needs of garden communities (often fiercely resisted by existing local residents) expertly, and to do so will require more financial and human resources, both of which are in short supply as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, if zoning is implemented, there will be an initial rush of appeals and a delay until case law exists which will decide further appeals – an unstable time for housing delivery.

The objective of the Planning White Paper is to turbo-boost the system, but we could see the opposite effect, with housing growth coming to a standstill as the transition takes place. We have already seen a slew of Local Plans delayed as a result of the White Paper. The pleadings of MHCLG’s chief planner not to let the uncertainty brought about by the Planning White Paper prevent local authorities getting their Local Plans in place seems futile. The reality is many have slowed, or stopped, and will not make significant progress without further guidance. And who can blame them – why spend time and money pursuing a system that will be changed during the course of a plan’s preparation? It is not an easy task to prepare a plan at the best of times.

Accommodating the London overspill

Returning to the immediate situation in the home counties, the need for Essex councils to address the unmet housing needs of London is nothing new. Taking account of actual completions, London has fallen some 10,000 dwellings per annum (DPA) short of meeting its objectively assessed housing needs (OAN), with planners arguing at Examinations in Public across the home counties that this needs addressing. The ‘Intend to Publish’ draft of the new London Plan would result in an annualised shortfall of at least 14,000 DPA against OAN or 20,000 DPA against the Government’s standard methodology figures. However, in March 2020, the secretary of state wrote to the mayor directing that a number of changes were required to the new London Plan, including more measures to meet the housing needs of Londoners.

Unless the mayor undertakes a complete U-turn in relation to reviewing Green Belt boundaries and/or promotes substantial increases to density assumptions across the capital, there will remain a significant unmet housing need. Policy SD2 of the new London Plan requires coordination between London and the wider south east to address strategic issues such as access to housing.

The close proximity of Essex and Hertfordshire to London will only be capitalised on through the delivery of Crossrail and Crossrail 2 infrastructure. If the GLA is not in a position to meet London’s housing need, these authorities should come under increased pressure to accommodate some of this need and build on the enhanced connectivity to economic centres in London.

And while the long-term fallout of COVID-19 remains uncertain, it inevitable that people will a) expect to work from home more; b) wish to benefit from more space within their homes; and c) want more access to open space, whether within their own gardens or in close proximity to their homes. Essex and Hertfordshire are well positioned to help deliver this need whilst retaining good links into central London. And true garden communities within these areas even more so.

Understanding change

Carter Jonas has recently put in place a Live Local Plan Monitor which will monitor the development of Local Plans up and down the country. Launched in November 2020, this is a tool which will accommodate, and importantly gain insight, into how the Local Plan process respond to future change. We plan to share our analysis and anticipate that it will considerably benefit the strategic planning process and aid the delivery of housing.

In the meantime we continue to work with clients to bring about more genuinely sustainable garden communities, because we believe that Ebenezer Howard’s principles endure today and that garden communities are a very effective means of delivering much-needed housing and social infrastructure, fit for both today and tomorrow.

David Churchill is partner at Carter Jonas

Photo: john mobbs / Shutterstock.com

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