Greener growth means Garden Settlements

You’ve no doubt heard the expression ‘You can’t fit a quart into a pint pot.’ Well some of you will have. I realise we are into litres now, but for me the quote fits.

‘You can’t fit a quart into a pint pot’ refers, of course, to the impossibility of fitting something into a space designed for something only half as big.

Colcestrians won’t be alone – or wrong – in thinking their town contains only so much development land, and that to meet the growing demand for more houses and jobs a sustainable solution will have to be found (far bigger than the proverbial pint pot) which can meet those needs without having to build on every last scrap of the living earth. A process urban planning folk euphemistically call ‘densification’.

So if continuing densification isn’t a long-term growth solution for Colchester, what other alternatives could meet the development challenges that lie ahead? Cue: Garden Settlements.

You may already be aware that, along with Braintree District Council, Tendring District Council and Essex County Council, we’ve begun to explore the idea of developing up to four Garden Settlements in north Essex which will help to meet the increasing demand for new homes generated by a growing population in our region.

The watchword here – and every step along the way – is ‘sustainability’: how we can meet the future needs of a growing population without overwhelming the services and infrastructure that underpin the quality of life we already enjoy. Intelligently-planned Garden Settlements could be the answer.

“So what are Garden Settlements?” I hear you cry. Well, one thing they’re not is haphazard ‘sprawl’ or some kind of expanding asteroid belt of random developments popping up all over the place just beyond the edges of town. On the contrary, Garden City principles are all about creating planned new settlements which enhance the natural environment, provide high-quality affordable housing, infrastructure and locally accessible jobs.

They’re what you might call ‘smart’ developments, which combine the very best of town and country living, with all of the necessary services and infrastructure, such as cultural, sports and leisure facilities built-in right from the start. They’re planned around enabling people to travel within the community and to other settlements on foot, by cycle, by car or by bus, via an accessible and integrated transport system. And green space is enshrined in the design with parks, gardens, and open space all complimenting and enhancing existing natural environmental assets.

It took nearly 2000 years of incremental, organic growth for Colchester to become the town it is today. Garden Settlements won’t take quite as long as that to mature, but will develop over a period of time alongside new infrastructure and jobs.

So what’s the next milestone on the road to these proposed new Garden Settlements? Well, we’re currently working towards producing a new Local Plan which will be subject to public consultation in the summer. The partnership we’ve formed with neighbouring authorities was recently awarded £640,000 grant-funding from central government, for initial work to investigate if Garden Settlements are appropriate for this part of the world. This initial piece of work will provide evidence on infrastructure needs, the number of new homes and new jobs that could be created, and the provision of green spaces.

Unlocking large-scale housing developments is critical to driving the supply of new homes in the medium- to long-term. They can offer a more strategic and thoughtful alternative to sequential development (aka “sprawl”) around existing communities, which can sometimes burden existing infrastructure such as hospitals and schools.

Once the public consultation has taken place, we’ll review all the responses and determine whether the Local plan needs to be revised prior to submission to the Planning Inspectorate. An independent examination is then expected to take place in 2017.

When the town planner Ebenezer Howard set out his vision, in the 1890s, for a series of ideal towns in England, coining the term ‘Garden Cities’ for new settlements combining the best of the city and countryside, he was proposing a radical solution to the housing crisis of the day. Back then, the population of the UK was 38million. Today, that number has grown to more than 64million, and, like many other parts of the country, our town and region is feeling the effects of that growth more and more.

I think garden settlements represent a bold and enlightened solution to the population pressures we face, as well as the duties, obligations and responsibilities we have as a local authority to provide affordable homes and a decent way of life for all of our citizens. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how much they’ll deliver on their potential.

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