The curtain has come down on the first stage of the Uttlesford Local Plan examination. Here we provide a summary of the final three-day stint (July 16-18), which focused on the proposed Garden Communities, Stansted Airport and strategic infrastructure.

In our review of the first three days we drew an analogy with grand opera. Continuing that analogy, the big guns were rolled out in act 2 together with numerous arias from the principle protagonists, namely developers and those opposing urbanization of the countryside. Divos, divas and librettists in plentiful supply!

Great Chesterford Parish Council (GCPC) was again represented by Victoria Hutton (counsel) with a supporting cast of landscape, archeological and transport consultants to present the evidence against North Uttlesford Garden Community (NUGC).

Garden communities

A substantial part of Uttlesford’s future housing is being proposed in three garden communities: North Uttlesford, Easton Park and West of Braintree, but before the examination could build up any steam there was controversy surrounding the filing by UDC of a large batch of documents the day before. This was criticised by many participants, so much so the Inspectors invited written observations in preference to suspending the hearings. Responses to this new evidence are to be submitted by 5th August. Among the new documents is a revised timetable for NUGC indicating first houses to be delivered in 2023/24, a year later than originally anticipated.

Selection criteria

Counsel for GCPC pointed out that the secondary school threshold used by UDC to select sites was wrong. A minimum settlement site of 5,000 houses was used and resulted in only three sites meeting the criteria, NUGC being one of them. A threshold of 3,000 (set by Essex County Council as appropriate to support a new secondary school) would have resulted in other options coming into play. UDC placed the 5,000 threshold above all other considerations and ahead of the constraints attaching to landscape, heritage and transport impacts.

Heritage assets

Representatives for Historic England (HE is a statutory consultee in planning matters) reiterated their long held objection to the selection of NUGC and their disappointment at UDC’s failure to liaise with HE during preparation of the Local Plan. The site selection process has gone “very seriously wrong.” HE maintains that there is “an extremely high likelihood” of locating as yet undiscovered below ground assets which may be of national importance; and that UDC has not met its obligation to avoid reasonable harm as laid out in the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF 2012).

Landscape

GCPC’s landscape consultant stated that UDC had ignored the advice of its own landscape officer in the original site selection. The negative consequences of putting large-scale housing development in this location will be compounded by the intention to develop the upper slopes and ridgelines making it visible from a wide area. Given the existing landscape character no mitigation is possible.

Side note: among evidence submitted at the consultation stage, Great Chesterford resident Nick Burton used specalised software to demonstrate the NUGC site is statistically the worst location in North Uttlesford for a settlement of this size and will be visible from 57% of the surrounding countryside within a 5-mile radius. By comparison Saffron Walden is visible from 27%.

The site also has considerable landscape sensitivity by virtue of its history and the location of a Roman temple on the site corresponding to the role of Great Chesterford as a Roman settlement.

Transport and infrastructure delivery

The evidence relied upon by UDC in support of NUGC came under fire from GCPC’s transport consultant and others, who listed UDC’s numerous failures to identify workable, deliverable and sustainable transport solutions for a settlement of 5,000 houses (and a site of over 3000 jobs). Key failings include inadequate road and rail access and feeble measures proposed for bus services between NUGC, Whittlesford Parkway rail station and the research parks in South Cambs. There has finally been recognition that Great Chesterford rail station is not a workable solution!

GCPC reminded the Inspectors that UDC’s own infrastructure plan stipulates that to achieve sustainable transport the upgrading of transport infrastructure must be phased-in upfront. It is not good enough to hold this over to an unspecified later date because of, for example, uncertainties about the A505 or resolution of rail capacity issues at Whittlesford Parkway rail station.

As yet no account has been taken of plans by Wellcome to expand its Genome Campus by adding laboratories, business units and up to 1,500 houses less than a mile away. This stands on the A1301, the only main road access for NUGC to the M11 northbound. Any further congestion will create yet more rat-running through neighbouring historic villages such as Ickleton and Duxford which are already experiencing heavy through traffic at peak times.

UDC maintains there is no obligation to take the Genome Campus expansion into account in the Local Plan as a planning application has not yet been determined; whereas GCPC maintains that Strategic Environmental Assessment rules require that a development of such scale and significance must be addressed as part of the plan examination and not reserved until a later stage.

What next?

It was impossible to gauge what the Inspectors were thinking (inscrutable would be a good description); however the case against NUGC was well made by the GCPC team. Money well spent we would say, which together with other representations must surely have the Inspectors wondering whether the plan can progress without significant modification. It is expected the Inspectors will advise UDC by the end of August. (Note: the Inspectors have since advised UDC not to expect a response before the end of September.)

Fundraising

The cost of independent assessments, assembling evidence and for representation by counsel at this first stage of the examination has cost more than £70,000. This is being entirely funded by the community. Your help in the form of a financial contribution will be gratefully received. Click here to make a donation.