Over the past few weeks there has been much discussion about the North Essex Garden Communities. These are the three new garden communities that Braintree, Colchester and Tendring Councils, along with Essex County Council, have proposed to help meet the long-term local housing need for the region over the coming 50 years.
 
Discussion was sparked by the release of a report from the Planning Inspector. The message was clear, more work is needed. As Chairman of North Essex Garden Communities Ltd, the company set up to act as the Master developer for the new communities, I thought that I should join the conversation.
 
North Essex is a great place to live, it is naturally beautiful with vibrant communities. Despite this, we face real and significant challenges. For most young people the idea of owning their own home seems an impossibility. Understandably so. It now costs more than eight times the average salary to buy a home in Colchester or Braintree. For those local people that do stay in the area, too many are currently traveling (slowly) out of North Essex for work. Our proximity to London and Cambridge should make us a prime location for businesses, but jobs are dependent on workers having good affordable places to live
 
Put simply, we don’t have enough of the right sorts of homes in the right places.
 
Doing nothing is not an option, but the current model isn’t working. When housing is delivered, it is often piecemeal, tagged on to existing villages or exacerbating the urban sprawl of Colchester and Braintree. The problem with this approach is that it never creates the critical mass needed to deliver the infrastructure to support it, and consequently existing communities suffer a negative impact on their local roads, and education and health services suffer under the increased strain.
 
The Garden Communities have been embraced by the Councils because they offer a new approach. By planning communities rather than housing developments, it ensures a holistic approach, bringing forward homes, jobs and infrastructure – such as transport improvements, new schools and medical facilities as they are needed. Creating great, affordable, places to live, work and play which are co-designed with local people and fit for the future.
 
Public Sector leadership working together with the private sector also brings with it significant advantages, giving local people the opportunity to have more say over the levels of affordable and social housing, private rental properties and key worker housing, ensuring that the priority is weighted to those already living in the area rather than simply providing expensive homes for those coming out of London.
 
The challenge is that the plans for the North Essex Garden Communities thinking transcends the timeframes of a Local Plan. The Local Plans set out a vision and a framework for the future development of the area over the next 15 years, while the garden communities will be delivered over the next 50 years. 80 percent of the homes will come after the end of the Local Plan period. The inclusion of Garden Communities of this scale, over this timeframe, within a Local Plan, has never been done before.
 
So what now? The Planning Inspector has given the Local Planning Authorities three options, to remove garden communities and reallocate housing numbers, to continue the garden community plans and answer the concerns he has raised, or to start the Local Plan again. This is a decision for Braintree, Colchester and Tendring as the ‘planning authorities’ to make. NEGC are providing support around this process, but our future role has to be led by the decision taken.
 
But what of Option 2. If we are to continue, it is essential that we get it right. The Planning Inspector has asked the Councils some very challenging questions. He has said there is work to do and we agree.
 
However, I am confident that if the Councils choose to continue with the Garden Community option this process can result in an even stronger proposition for local people.
 
I hope that the conversation that has been started is continued, because in order to ensure we get the vision for the future right, it must be created in partnership with local people.
 
We have spoken about the duty to provide for future generations, but this can’t be to the detriment of people here and now. Housing growth is inevitable, we can’t and shouldn’t simply say no or put our heads in the sand. But we must listen and recognise the very real and genuine fears of our existing communities. Their voice is important, and they must have an active and constructive role in shaping the proposals as they evolve.
 
We want to hear from you and you can contact the team by emailing NEGC@communitycomms.co.uk or call 0800 093 1678.