Rejection of North Essex Garden Communities – A bitter blow for making places

The Local Plan Inspector’s rejection of two out of the three North Essex Garden Communities[1] again shines a light on a process that is frustratingly not fit for purpose when applied to new settlements. Even if that place is ripe for growth, makes geographic and economic sense and is promoted by local authorities that are creating a governance framework through which to deliver it.

The failure of the exam question that requires LPA’s to demonstrate how the considerable list of infrastructure items – to support the creation of a new community of some 50,000 people – can be delivered whilst keeping a scheme viable, is crushing the confidence and creativity of place-making enthusiasts.

What sort of places could be created if there was a collective confidence around a bold visionary framework without fear of being asked to show our working for every element stretching into the 3rd, 4th or even 5th decade of delivery? The Government, through the ‘Locally-led Garden Villages, Towns and Cities’ prospectus (March 2016) suggests we could be creating new towns and cities when we push beyond the 10,000 – 15,000 home threshold, but notwithstanding some new large-scale developments that are advancing towards these figures, we have not seen anything of a scale to rival the creation of the original Garden Cities or New Towns.

Never have we as a family appreciated more, the joy of cycling from our front door and into the rich network of cycle paths and leisure routes around Milton Keynes. Each daily trip brings a choice of route, landmark, and destination. Only made possible through ambitious visioning at scale and a robust framework underpinned by sharing development risks and rewards.

It is society that is really missing out and our progress that is inhibited if we can’t find ways to make good places beyond boundaries and housing market areas. If we don’t get to grips with building confidence to plan, invest and deliver at scale, we are restricting our potential to innovate, cultivate and celebrate new places.

We are missing out on opportunities to stimulate inclusive economic development; to apply creative and enduring solutions that deal with infrastructure constraints that currently limit growth ambitions; to plan for prosperity where benefits are shared between people and places; to deliver transformational mobility infrastructure; to achieve comprehensive green energy solutions; to invest comprehensively in health, education and social infrastructure; to have choice.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus that change can be both planned for, but also forced upon us. The future is uncertain, and we have to mobilise not least to respond to the climate change agenda and wealth and resource inequalities, but also to adapt to societal change and technological and service innovations.

The system we are trying to work within is clearly not delivering the opportunities that it should. The effectiveness of the process can be measured by its outcomes – held accountable to the limitations and compromises of the places it creates. If we are frustrated by the lack of growth and investment certainty, and disheartened by compromises made that are not in the public interest, then it is surely time to change the process so we can give ourselves the best chance. If we don’t, we will be failing so much more than our housing need.