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North Essex ‘garden communities’ plan sunk by transport failings


Andrew Forster
22 June 2018

A planning inspector has rejected plans for three new ‘garden communities’ (GCs) in North Essex, in large part because of unsatisfactory transport plans. 

The decision affects the GCs of ‘Colchester/Braintree Borders’; ‘Tendring/Colchester Borders’; and ‘West of Braintree’. They were contained in the joint part of draft local plans prepared by Braintree, Colchester and Tendring district councils. Essex County Council has helped with the plans’ preparation.

Between them the GCs would have accommodated between 29,000 and 43,000 new homes. The councils’ envisaged housing being delivered in each from 2023/24.

The proposals were critiqued by Peter Kay, a local public transport campaigner, in LTT’s Viewpoint column of 11 May. He said the plans, together with a development proposed by Uttlesford District Council, would “create a sprawl of development all the way from Stansted Airport to east of Colchester, save for a couple of short gaps”.

In a report published last week following an examination of the plans, planning inspector Roger Clews said: “The Garden Community proposals are not adequately justified and have not been shown to have a reasonable prospect of being viably developed. As submitted, they are therefore unsound.

“I recognise that substantial time, effort and resources have already been invested in developing the proposals, not only by the North Essex authorities but also by the Government, landowners, potential developers, infrastructure providers and others. It is possible that, when the necessary additional work I have outlined is completed, it will provide justification for proceeding with one or more GC proposals – although any such justification would of course be subject to further testing at examination.”

The councils proposed a North Essex rapid transit system as an integral part of the GC proposals. A report by consultant Jacobs set a target for 30 per cent of all journeys to, from and within the GCs to be made by rapid transit, rising to 38 per cent for journeys with an external origin or destination.

But Clews said: “It is unlikely that those extremely ambitious targets would be achieved or even approached unless rapid transit services to key destinations are available early on in the lifetime of the GCs. However, planning of the proposed rapid transit system has reached only a very early stage.” 

He said the North Essex rapid transit study [NERTS] by Essex Highways (part of Essex County Council) and Ringway Jacobs was “a high-level assessment of the costs and benefits of a system” that would link the three GCs to Colchester, Braintree and Stansted. “But it is not a feasibility study which investigates whether such a network could actually be delivered on the ground. Nor does it recommend which of the modal options (bus, guided bus, tram, etc) should be taken forward, or identify a timescale for delivery.”

Clews said the cost of the system could not be determined until these decisions had been made.“Further work is needed before it can be shown in both practical and financial terms that a rapid transit system could be delivered.”

The inspector also raised questions about road links to the communities. The West of Braintree Garden Community would be reliant on the A120 for eastward connections to Colchester and beyond, and both the A120 and A12 (which currently meet at Marks Tey) would provide links for the Colchester/Braintree Borders Garden Community. 

Clews said no firm view on the feasibility of either of these communities could be taken until it was known whether the A120 dualling scheme would be included in Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy 2 programme, or could be fully funded by other means. 

“I have seen no evidence that it could be fully funded if it is not included in RIS2,” said Clews. “It may be possible to devise interim solutions to accommodate a proportion of the generated traffic, and thereby enable early phases of one or both GCs to proceed, but that would not justify an in principle endorsement of the GC proposals as a whole.”

Clews concluded: “I would advise that simultaneously bringing forward three GCs on the scale proposed in the submitted plan is likely to be difficult to justify. This is mainly because of the difficulty of co-ordinating the provision of infrastructure, particularly large-scale transport infrastructure, with the development of the GCs. 

“In particular it is very unlikely, in my view, that the whole of the rapid transit system as proposed in the NERTS could be provided quickly enough to support commencement of development at all three GCs in the timescale envisaged in the submitted plan.” 

“A more workable way of proceeding would be to lay out the rapid transit system in discrete stages, with the development of any proposed GC(s) taking place sequentially alongside it.”

Tim Young, deputy leader of Colchester Borough Council, said: “The inspector’s comments are useful, and we always knew this would not be a simple yes or no to the plans as what we are proposing is without precedent. 

“Much of the work highlighted by the inspector is work that has been ongoing over the last few months since the examination. I am pleased he is effectively calling on Government to give more certainty over its backing for the big infrastructure improvements we know are needed.”

Peter Kay said the inspector’s report showed the Government had been “happy to add Garden Community proposals to its approved list without making the slightest attempt to investigate whether they include any viable transport proposals”. “In this case it was obvious to an idiot in a hurry that the transport content was just waffle and wishlists.”

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