By Michael Hardware, Associate Director, Chelgate Local – Essex Garden Villages
This article was published as an opinion piece in PlacemakingResource on 22nd January. You can view it here (subscription needed).
Essex may soon overtake Kent as the ‘Garden of England’, with numerous garden communities planned and new bids about to be announced. Several of Essex’s councils are taking an increasingly prominent role in the development of these new communities. Working collaboratively using garden city principles and an infrastructure-first approach, the new garden towns and villages are set to deliver significant numbers of new homes in communities in which people may actually want to live.
The government’s strategy behind its garden towns and villages initiative is to unlock the full capacity of sites. By providing funding for additional resources and expertise, it will accelerate development and avoid delays. A recent conference about the north Essex garden villages and Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, hosted by Chelgate Local and Bidwells, brought together councillors from Essex, Colchester and East Herts to discuss the impact these and other garden villages will have on the county. Cllr Kevin Bentley, deputy leader of Essex County Council and cabinet member for economic growth, skills, infrastructure and digital economy, said: “We have not been building enough houses for some years now. It is not easy for councils as on the one hand they need to provide enough homes for their residents, but on the other, whatever new development is proposed, it is always opposed by existing residents, usually on infrastructure grounds.
“We needed to find a way to bring forward development in a collaborative and inclusive way, addressing the key issue of infrastructure which surrounds all development.”
A year ago, DCLG announced 17 new garden settlements. These, combined with the existing seven garden towns (Bicester, Basingstoke, Didcot, Otterpool Park in Kent, Ebbsfleet, Aylesbury, Taunton and North Northants), have the potential to provide almost 200,000 new homes across the country. At the time, Housing and Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell, said: “Locally-led garden towns and villages have enormous potential to deliver the homes that communities need.”
Essex has several potential garden communities including Dunton Hills, near Brentwood, NE Chelmsford Garden Village and Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, straddling the Essex and Hertfordshire border. It also has a further potential garden village at North Uttlesford, on the Cambridgeshire border. One of the more innovative is the North Essex Garden Communities project, combining new developments across the county in Braintree, Colchester and Tendring. The three local authorities and the county council have come together to create a joint company to oversee the development of up to 43,000 new homes using garden city principles and an infrastructure-led approach to development. The Government is supporting this with £2million of capacity funding. Cllr John Spence, a cabinet member at Essex County Council, is the chair of the newly-formed North Essex Garden Communities Limited. He said: “This is all about looking at how we manage housing needs in the long term. We collectively feel that the creation of planned, self-sustainable communities, built to garden community principles, delivered with an infrastructure first approach, and an emphasis on ensuring the conditions to attract businesses and jobs, is better than piecemeal urban sprawl.”
“What we are trying to do in North Essex is innovative, it’s of national importance, and it is our belief that the opportunity to create a new development corporation takes the programme to the next level and enables us, if viability is proven, to deliver the vision we have set out.”
Mike Derbyshire, planning partner at Bidwells, viewed ‘garden communities’ as being more palatable for residents and councils than the idea of new towns or eco towns, with more forward-thinking councils grasping the nettle. Cllr Linda Haysey, leader of East Herts District Council, behind the new Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, stressed that: “councils increasingly want to work with developers. We want to be engaged in the masterplanning process to ensure quality for the future.”
Liam Herbert, chief executive of Chelgate Local, agreed: “Local authorities are certainly looking to take a more pivotal role in the development of these garden communities. They have the potential of providing large numbers of new homes, taking the opportunity to properly design these new communities and make provision for adequate infrastructure to support them.”
Cllr Spence continued: “These new places cannot simply be housing estates: they need to be far more, providing truly integrated communities that are fit for the future and offer a place for people to live, work, learn and play.
“They will help to address the shortage of larger employers in Essex by providing space for expansion and improving infrastructure. But these new communities cannot be dormitories for London commuters – the infrastructure won’t allow it and we should be planning more ambitiously.”
In practice, this means individual councils decide what gets built where and at what rate, so will be able to ensure new roads, schools, health and leisure facilities etc are all built ahead of or alongside the homes – traditionally with developer-led development this has not been possible.
Equally, the councils will have control over how much green spaces to put into the development and how to best utilise the latest technologies such as autonomous vehicles and ultrafast broadband, and the facilities and infrastructure needed to support business.
Cllr Bentley emphasised the importance of taking the opportunity with these new garden communities to properly plan for future innovations such as driverless cars, energy sustainability, magnetic roads and internet well beyond anything currently available – all of which will drive economic growth in the region.
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