Decision time for North Essex Local Plans
The new Plan is important because its sets out strategy priorities for the growth and evolution of the City over what could be one of its most important phases of development through to 2036. Some of us may not be here to enjoy the benefits but our children will certainly want us to do the best we can to forge an attractive and prosperous workplace.
The problem with Local Plans is that rather like an orchestra, it does not matter how beautiful the musical score, one note out of place and everybody winces. That is pretty much what we have now; a welcome and long overdue beguiling chorus of support for housing growth, coupled to an out of tune infrastructure and investment programme that on past evidence will lag at least 5-10 years behind housing growth.
One only has to look at the horror show which we call the A12 trunk road, the A120/B1018 junction at Galleys Corner, Braintree or the A130 along Essex Regiment Way to see how badly our transport planners have got it wrong in designing and planning for capacity in our highway infrastructure.
The problem, as most involved in the industry will tell you, is the simple issue of money. Local Authorities can raise funds through a Community Infrastructure Levy or Planning Contributions but the majority of that money is required by statute to be channelled towards mitigating the impact of such development on local needs for affordable housing, schools and community facilities. Yes, you might get another roundabout or a short new link road but the long term funding needed to deliver the major infrastructure and investment required to upgrade the A12 or increase rail capacity to support these housing proposals can only be delivered by Central Government. The investment needed to address major infrastructure needs simply does not come forward in a sufficiently large or co-ordinated fashion.
The Government has announced funds to partially widen and upgrade the A12 but delivery of that and other proposed infrastructure investment has no relationship to the Local Plan process. And when that road is upgraded others in the region will need further improvement if, as many voters think, housing development is not simply to be seen as the fore runner of the next traffic jam.
For instance, the Highways Agency’s website suggests that the first stage of the A12 widening from Chelmsford to Marks Tey will have a start date of March 2020 but no end date! The cost is estimated to be between £100M and £250M – lots of room for redesign there. There are no planned improvements to the A120 even though we know that there have been a number of design contracts let. There is no mention of improving the existing bottle necks on the A12 to the south of Chelmsford although some Draft Local Plans appear to suggest that these works are complete or imminent!
The fact of the matter is that none of these projects have commenced and yet Colchester, Braintree and Chelmsford Planning Authorities are promoting Local Plans that propose the delivery of some 50,000 new homes. Cumulatively, this could mean some 100,000 additional vehicles on our existing roads by 2036.
It is very difficult to have confidence in the Local Plan process when one knows that these Councils have no power or budget to deliver the one thing which is essential to the provision of the much vaunted and proclaimed strategy of delivering ‘sustainable’ growth in housing and employment. Such Plans are well intentioned and laudable but desperately need private sector investment. That investment will be withheld or at least delayed by a totally inadequate infrastructure network.
The Government seeks to criticise Local Planning Authorities for failing to deliver housing growth. In practice, it is the muddled thinking of Government Ministers of all colours over the last 20 years that has given rise to the problem. It would make more sense for the implementation of the Adopted Local Plans to be tied to the phased delivery of new infrastructure investment rather than predicated upon the assumption of such investment by short term and often inadequate Government funding initiatives.
Recent research suggests that the growth in urbanisation over the last 10 years due to the focus on brownfield development has not had a significant impact on car journey or traffic volumes simply because it is much easier and more convenient for new homeowners to take public transport when you are living in a major urban conurbation.
The same cannot be said of the rural areas of North Essex. There will be precious few transport alternatives for the aspiring new home owner who eventually makes it onto the housing ladder. Flexible working hours or working from home are potential solutions but research suggests that whilst you may avoid the daily commute, those who do work from home actually undertake a significantly higher business mileage going to meetings and generally dealing with customers than traditional office workers. Therefore, homeworking may not be the remedy to transport gridlock it is claimed to be by some transport consultants.
And so, before investing in your new home, whether buying in a new Garden Village Community, or your local village, give some thought to local infrastructure and whether you can get out of the drive and onto your ‘trunk road’ between 7.30am-9.00am in the morning and vice versa pm. Those bicycle racks may be of use after all!
Building houses is the easy bit, converting them into sustainable communities is an entirely different challenge.