Recent Inspectors’ findings on local plans have shone a light on the challenges of allocating large-scale new settlements and Garden Communities (GCs). Most recent was North Essex where an experienced Inspector - Roger Clews - concluded two of the three proposed GCs should be deleted in order for the Shared Strategic (Section 1) Plan to proceed. This followed the plans for neighbouring Uttlesford - withdrawn after the Inspectors found multiple problems (including with two of its three GCs) - and Hart - adopted but only after its Shapley Heath GC was removed.
This has reignited the debate about whether the Local Plans system is appropriate for judging soundness on these inherently difficult, uncertain projects. Are Inspectors being over-zealous? Is the bar set too high? Are plan makers constrained in their ability to advance visionary, long-term strategic projects?
In response to the North Essex findings, MHCLG was quoted as saying:
“We remain committed to supporting new garden communities and helping these schemes to get off the ground… [we] applaud the ambition of the North Essex authorities and will consider whether this plan raises any questions for how large sites are examined in the future".
This blog explores the theme of deliverability arising from these recent plan examinations. It sits alongside the Lichfields Insight report on Garden Communities – How does your garden grow? – which is counterpoint to this blog’s focus on failure, in noting that many GCs have successfully been allocated.
What is the relevant policy and guidance?
First off, one should exercise care in making judgements about the adequacy of current policy based on these Inspectors’ conclusions: the North Essex, Uttlesford and Hart plans are/were being examined under the previous 2012 NPPF whereas future Local Plans will be tested against the 2018/19 NPPF and associated guidance.
The current suite of policy and guidance now includes:
NPPF Para 72 which identifies the specific factors for how plan makers should identify locations for larger scale developments;
Revision to the NPPF test of soundness at para 35 b) such that threshold for plans is for them to be “an appropriate” strategy, replacing “the most appropriate” in 2012; a subtle but important lowering of the bar to avoid a situation where the best is the enemy of the good;
Guidance that says the relevant test on strategic matters including new settlements is for there to be a “reasonable prospect these large scale developments can come forward” and that “strategic policy-making authorities are expected to make a realistic assessment about the prospect of sites being developed (and associated delivery rates)”. The guidance goes on to recognise, inter alia, that:
a. “there may not be certainty and/or the funding secured for necessary strategic infrastructure at the time the plan is produced.”
b. Developments may extend beyond the plan period; reviews and updates should be used to provide greater certainty about delivery of the agreed strategy and considering alternative strategies if necessary.
So, new Local Plans will be considered against a policy backdrop that, perhaps, has a clearer acknowledgement of uncertainty, including on infrastructure. (I say perhaps, because similar messages were in the original NPPF definition of ‘developable’ and in a now withdrawn part of the PPG). However, plan makers will still need to demonstrate a reasonable prospect of the development coming forward, and its place in the trajectory of the local plan (and the reliance of the plan on it) should be consistent with that. The up-front focus on viability - designed to reduce the 'wriggle room' on viability at application stage - is also a counterweight.
Delivery in the plan period
Many local plans expect ambitious GC schemes to deliver rapidly and at pace. This raises the stakes. Deliverability can be judged more leniently if schemes are more cautiously phased towards the back-end of the plan (or is a reserve site), albeit this may raise questions about how needs earlier in the plan period are to be met.
Across the Government’s Garden Communities programme, the average contribution of such schemes to local plan housing requirements is 30%, but can be as high as two thirds, with expectations often for them to be on site very quickly, at high build-out rates. The reality for large site delivery is often that they take many years to come forward and have highly variable build out rates (as shown in Start to Finish) so it is up to site promoters and plan makers to produce a clear, evidenced delivery plan - bespoke to the circumstances of that GC - to explain why its delivery expectations are justified. If plan ambitions turn out not to be realistic, it would render the plan unable to meet its housing needs.
In Uttlesford, the Plan was expecting housing delivery on its GCs as soon as 2023/24 which one scheme’s own promoter thought was not realistic. In North Essex, two of the GCs were scheduled to begin as early as 2024.
It is also necessary to gauge the impact on housing supply objectives if plans are to be adopted with GCs removed. In Uttlesford, the GCs were ‘hard-wired’ into the plan’s ability to meet needs; removing one of the GCs as the Inspectors recommended (and with significant work required on the other two to justify their ambitious trajectories) unravelled the whole plan strategy. But in Hart and North Essex, the existing pipeline of other housing sites meant the failed GCs were not fundamental in the same way and the plan could proceed with modifications.
Long term strategies beyond the plan period
GCs typically build out beyond a plan period. Only 7,500 of the c.43,000 homes in the North Essex GCs were for the plan period and long-term strategic growth was cited as a key reason for selecting its spatial strategy. This principle was explicitly accepted by the Inspectors in both North Essex and Uttlesford. However, this is not a free pass.
The first difficulty is in coming to some view about deliverability. The North Essex Inspector said:
“the Plan could not be considered to be sound if I were to find that the proposed GCs were justified having regard to their ability to provide for strategic development over many decades to come, but reached no finding on whether or not they were deliverable beyond 2033.” (Para 28)
Secondly, there is a question of proportion to future need and grappling with the wider implications. In Uttlesford the scale of the GCs beyond the plan period was so great relative to an as yet unknown long term housing need, the Inspectors were concerned it would ‘crowd out’ the potential for alternative patterns of development, for example expansion in towns and villages to support their vitality and viability.
Thirdly, one needs to test that long term strategy. In Hart, the Inspector’s concern was the new settlement being advanced as a long-term solution, but no alternatives to that option had been considered or properly tested in preparing the plan.
Who does what? The approach to delivery
In North Essex, the Inspector accepted the Plan’s “delivery model blind” approach; Local Development Vehicles had been incorporated (and Urban Development Corporations considered) to step in if the private sector could not deliver. The Inspector summed up the role of the Local Plan:
“The role of the Plan is to set out policies and criteria to guide the further planning of the proposed GCs, and to provide part of the framework against which planning applications to develop the GCs would be assessed. Provided that there is evidence that the GC proposals are justified and are capable of being delivered, it is not necessary for the Plan to specify that any particular delivery model must be followed.” (Para 191)
However, there is a link to viability. The Inspector noted that because the viability appraisals relied upon low land values (£24-26K per acre in two cases) a contested CPO process was likely, with potential for delay, threatening plan trajectory assumptions.
The Hart Inspector did not report on the means of GC implementation, but his concerns were:
“there is little evidence to demonstrate that a site can actually be delivered in terms of infrastructure, viability and landownership … The Council’s Infrastructure Delivery Plan (IDP) does not include any consideration of the proposed new settlement … and the viability assessment has not directly considered a proposed new settlement in the AoS. Again, whilst there is some information from the site promoters in relation to such matters, it is not of any great substance.” (my emphasis)
This was then compounded by undisputed evidence that a large area of land through the middle of the new settlement was owned by a landowner who was not willing to sell. Fragmented land ownership is not per se a showstopper, but the Inspector did not have the evidence in front of him to explain how this was expected to be resolved.
Show me the money: paying for infrastructure
There is a ‘chicken and egg’ difficulty in planning infrastructure for large-scale growth (it is more difficult to get funding unless your site is allocated, but more difficult to get an allocation without committed funding) and there is something in the complaint that public money for infrastructure is fragmented and irregular. Judging the reasonable prospect for development based on securing future funding many spending cycles away is a challenge.
But is that the only issue? The case study of North Essex is instructive. Here, five significant infrastructure components were needed, some of which had funding committed (A12, the A120-A133 link road, and first route of the rapid transit system) and others which were reliant on the viability of the GCs. Problems arose from:
A concern that “it would be entirely inappropriate to find that the proposed GC is deliverable if the available infrastructure would allow only a small fraction of it to be built” meaning that it “would be very different from the GC proposal in the plan” (Para 128). This point was directed at Colchester/Braintree (2,500 homes out of 21,000) rather than West of Braintree, where the evidence suggested at least 2,000 of the 10,000 dwellings could come forward in advance of the A120.
The plan’s reliance on a “step change” in integrated and sustainable transport that would only be achieved if the RTS was delivered at a higher cost than the Plan had allowed.
The other scheme wide infrastructure costs were considered to have insufficient levels of contingency to reflect optimism bias. When combined with other problems in the scheme viability assessments it raised sufficient doubt as to the reasonable prospects of the vision being secured.
In Uttlesford the Inspectors concluded a lack of evidence: “significant gaps remain in the IDP for the cost of the provision of gas, water, waste, wifi/broadband and significant amounts of the social infrastructure items .... There are also considerable variations in estimated costs for ‘big ticket’ items, including transport”. The Inspectors found that the “broad brush” approach of the viability work – absent phasing or a contingency - compounded by lack of knowledge on key infrastructure requirements - demonstrated the “very marginal viability” of the GC. It was considered that delivery on this basis “could lead to an erosion of some of the key principles of Garden Communities.”
The right homes in the right places
Some of the costly infrastructure challenges identified are the consequence of seeking to achieve positive sustainability solutions in response to location-specific factors, which might be resolved through alternative spatial strategies. Beyond that, it is worth noting that North Uttlesford and Easton Park GCs in Uttlesford were found by the Inspectors to be “flawed” in terms of factors such as landscape and heritage impacts.
A proper read of the Inspectors’ conclusions on these three plans is a good reminder – if one were needed - that plan-making for large-scale development is hard. Is the soundness bar set too high? These recent GC failures certainly justify asking the question. I make the following observations (all with the benefit of hindsight not available to the plan makers):
None of the GCs failed for a single reason: Inspectors found multiple problems they believed were not sufficiently well understood or addressed. A fair read is that the Inspectors were not fixated on seeking spurious detail or certainty, but were concerned that the high-level delivery assumptions did not sufficiently account for optimism bias or the obvious downside risks, for example, due to absence of attempts to estimate infrastructure costs or understand possible phasing. This did raise big questions over the reasonable prospect of the GCs happening in anything like the form proposed.
The Inspectors' conclusions – when read in full – strongly suggest that had the bar been lowered to allow the GC allocations, the most likely consequence would either have been:
a. The GCs would have stalled and not delivered the housing expected. For some plans (not all) this would leave gaps in the housing trajectory, sometimes quite early, opening up the plan for speculative applications or resulting in a housing shortfall; or
b. Alternatively, to proceed they would have had to sacrifice some of the Garden City principles and other qualities (such as affordable housing delivery) that formed the justification for selecting them in the first place, thereby undermining public confidence in the plan; or
c. The public sector would have needed to significantly increase its own investment to subsidise housing delivery than earlier indications suggested, when alternative spatial options (perhaps different GC locations) – less burdensome on the public purse – might otherwise have been selected.
This leaves three thoughts on where we go from here:
Those relying on GCs to deliver (particularly within the plan period) should not under-estimate the requirement to coherently demonstrate a reasonable prospect the project can be delivered with robust but proportionate evidence on delivery, infrastructure, and viability that objectively tests the upside and downside risks and addresses the consequences. They also need to engage with the spatial strategy justification (for the plan period and beyond) and ensure it is properly tested against reasonable alternatives. The 2018 NPPF change to “an appropriate strategy” should help.
Do we need more flexible plans? Perhaps too many allocate land at the margins of what is needed, with rose-tinted views on deliverability. Should they acknowledge the risks of GCs, prudently allocate them as reserve or opportunity sites – suitable for development and supported for implementation – for when infrastructure and funding allows? They could be complemented with other, more certain, allocations to ensure that needs were met in the meantime. (North Essex and Hart might reasonably say this was their approach, but the Inspector did nevertheless identify wider concerns over approach and justification that he thought could not be overcome). Or they rely on the GCs but with ‘Plan B’: alternative reserve sites that can come forward quickly to fill the gap if the new settlements fail to deliver. This focus on flexibility is identified by Anna Rose in her excellent blog and would reflect the requirement at NPPF para 11 a) for plans to "be sufficiently flexible to adapt to rapid change".
The more existential question - should plans be more about vision and less about deliverability? - is a blog in itself, but two preliminary thoughts:
a. We’ve been there before and it didn’t please everyone – a 2007 study for the RTPI et al on Effective Practice in Spatial Planning found “In the past, planning has faced criticism for its preoccupation with the formulation of a plan, and with insufficient attention being paid to delivery…. One of the defining features of the approach to spatial planning is that places are not only envisioned and shaped for the future but also delivered.” 
b. ‘Delivery-blind’ local planning (in combination with a desire to meet needs expressed quantitatively) definitely requires much more flexibility and ultimately leads us down the route advocated by the Policy Exchange: the ‘rationing’ of land is replaced by simply zoning any suitable land for development and dealing with delivery outside the local plan process. Some say that might be a solution for quicker, easier statutory plan making (although I wouldn’t bet on it) but it will move the delivery challenges inherent in GCs into a separate, perhaps less transparent arena.
 In his Post-Hearing Letter to the North Essex Authorities on 15th May 2020, available here. Tendring/Colchester Borders Garden Community was accepted, whilst the West of Braintree GC and Colchester / Braintree Borders GC were concluded not to be deliverable over the Plan period and long term. The Uttlesford Inspectors’ letter of 10th January 2020 is here. The Hart Inspector’s report dated 10th February 2020 is here: https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1683920/mhclg-consider-whether-plans-essex-garden-communities-failure-raises-questions-large-sites-examined Under the transition arrangements set out in para 214 of the NPPF 2018/19 In the PPG at ID: 61-059-20190315 and ID: 61-060-20190315 This now withdrawn part of the PPG is ID: 12-018-20140306 The Uttlesford Inspectors observe on this point that: “The proposed stepped trajectory which arises from the strategy’s reliance on the Garden Communities, would result in a worsening affordability problem as it would delay the provision of housing to meet the identified need in the district for a number of years. This is also a significant concern.” (Para 34) See Figure 5 in How Does Your Garden Grow? See Paras 24-29 of the Inspectors' findings. The Council anticipated preparing a new settlement DPD in the period between Local Plan adoption and start on site in 2024, but it has already seen slippage in the progress of DPD preparation. The three GCs in North Essex resulted in an ‘over-allocation’ against need of 18%; removing two of them still left the Plan with a 5% buffer, and with Section 2 plan process available to bring forward further sites if needed. In Hart, the GC was not needed at all to meet need in the plan period. At Paras 30-32 of the Inspector’s letter. Although in North Essex, funding was secured, in advance, for Route 1 of the rapid transit system, the A12 realignment and A120-A133 link road The Inspector concluded on the RTS: a) it under-estimated likely capital costs; b) some elements were excluded from viability appraisals; c) passenger revenue depended on an “aspirational” level of capital spending (for which there was no evidence) and two of the GCs proposed in the failed Uttlesford Plan that could no longer be relied upon; and d) there was no clear evidence that subsidy assumed for early phase RTS services was sufficient. The viability issues at North Essex are worthy of whole separate blog, but the Inspector identified numerous problems with the various submitted appraisals including: over-inflated cash flow due to reliance on high unjustifiably high build out rates; under-estimating the minimum land price required; dependency on sales value inflation exceeding cost inflation, inadequate testing to reflect long term uncertainties; failure to phase infrastructure towards the beginning of the programme. See, for example, the approach of Plan:MK with it is allocation of 5,000 dwellings at Milton Keynes East – not relied upon to meet the Plan’s housing requirement and where its release is specifically identified as being dependent on securing funding. Available here. It suggests a blueprint for plans: “The vision covers the long-term goal, whereas the policies or interventions that seek to deliver are focused, pragmatic and designed to secure quality for the local area. The plan contains a range of sites, more than are needed, thereby allowing for flexibility within a framework of acceptable alternatives. Policies focus on what a local area needs, supported by demographic and environmental data with required outcomes.” A point raised in Zack Simons’ blog on North Essex and soundness Available here. I played a very minor role as part of the study team. Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.