Now that all 14 of the Essex LPAs have published evidence on housing needs that they consider to be in line with the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework, it is an appropriate time to consider where and how much growth may need to be accommodated across the County, together with the factors in the recently published Housing White Paper most likely to affect Plan-making and delivery.

In the high demand area of Essex, our review of the available evidence reveals that at least 45,000 new homes may be needed across the County within the next 5 years.  This represents a substantial uplift of more than a third from the old Regional Strategy targets.  Remarkably, there are still no fully up-to-date Framework compliant Local Plans in place in the County, amd authorities have been busy updating their Plans to seek to accommodate growth.

So, where is this growth needed and what is being done to plan for it?

  • The urban areas of Chelmsford, Colchester and Thurrock continue to generate the most substantial housing need, with significant uplift in locally generated need not previously accounted for in the Regional Strategy now arising from the rural areas, most notably Maldon, Epping Forest and Braintree;
  • The Green Belt authorities of Harlow, Epping Forest, Brentwood and Basildon are proposing to roll back the Green Belt to accommodate strategic long term growth in their areas including a new Garden Village at Dunton Hills and urban extensions around Harlow;
  • Braintree, Colchester and Tendring are collaborating to deliver three new Garden Villages to meet long term need;
  • Uttlesford, Southend-on-Sea, Rochford and Thurrock are yet to publish a new Local Plan but in each case have accepted that their housing needs have increased, substantially so in Southend-on-Sea. It is likely however that many commentators will conclude that their actual needs are higher still.
  • Castle Point and Maldon are the only authorities whose Plans have progressed as far as Examination.  However Castle Point has now withdrawn its Plan following a recommendation of non-adoption by PINS due to an unjustified reduction in planned-for housing and shortcomings in the duty-to-cooperate.  Maldon is consulting on Main Modifications to its Plan following examination hearings in January.
  • There is still some dispute surrounding the housing needs in certain parts of the County, so this may play out at forthcoming Local Plan Examinations.

Now that the White Paper has been published, there is little doubt that it confirms the Government’s continued drive to deliver housing where it is needed, which is good news to the development industry.   With this in mind, here are its most apparent implications for the County’s Local Plans.

Standardised approach to the assessment of housing requirements

In the five years post Framework, authorities’ emerging housing figures have been challenged time and time again at appeal and Examination giving rise to ongoing uncertainty over the amount of growth that needs to be planned for.  This new provision could, on paper at least, put an end to the prolonged and time consuming arguments and enable valuable time at examination to be spent addressing other equally important matters.  The standard new approach will be in place by April 2018 and authorities will be incentivised to use it. 

Chelmsford City Council considers that its Preferred Options approach aligns with the intentions of the White Paper and has published it for consultation accordingly.  However, not all authorities are as proactive as Chelmsford.  The small print is that authorities can choose to adopt an alternative approach where justified.  It is likely that this will provide some authorities, perhaps those with higher than comfortable housing requirements, the opportunity to seek to argue their case for the use of an alternative methodology.  Ultimately we may see this scenario playing out at Local Plan examinations and the Housing White Paper’s lack of detail on the type of situations that would warrant exceptions to this rule could push some to at least put their Plans on hold pending further clarity from Government.

Cross-boundary cooperation

The White Paper acknowledges that the duty to cooperate has not always been successful and the Inspector’s report into the shortcomings of Castle Point’s submitted Local Plan is a case in point.   This would be replaced by a requirement for authorities to prepare a statement of common ground, but in reality this may not be any more effective a method of addressing cross-boundary issues. 

The biggest change is the proposal for the Secretary of State to be given additional powers to mandate joint plans in areas where the need for cross-boundary cooperation is most apparent but not being taken forward.  This could make a significant difference in the parts of the County where cooperation to deliver on a larger-than-local scale is needed the most, but will ultimately depend upon how widely the Secretary of State chooses to use these powers would be used in practice. 

Housing Infrastructure Fund

The delivery of new infrastructure is invariably a major local concern when it comes to strategic scale developments, so the £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund should provide added impetus to those Essex authorities which are seeking to deliver Garden Villages.  A share of the cash would be allocated to the bids which would unlock the most homes in the areas of greatest housing need, so we consider that this should put any Essex authorities which may bid for funding in a good position to deliver their proposals.

The timing of the White Paper’s publication and lack of crucial detail where it matters and the snap general election scheduled for 8 June will no doubt throw up uncertainty, debate and further delay to this process.  But the White Paper should ultimately be seen as good news for housing delivery in Essex moving forward.


* "Welcome to Essex" picture ©Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

** Header image courtesy of Barratt Homes

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