Colchester Borough Council, Tendring District Council and Essex County Council: Testing coding for a new garden community

This pilot case study sought to explore the National Model Design Code (NMDC), focusing on the analysis and vision stages of the coding work, with the objective of establishing high quality ambitions for a new garden settlement. Key themes included establishing a Community Liaison Group, to provide continuity and depth of engagement throughout the process, alongside a wider engagement strategy, including digital/online engagement, paper-based consultation, and workshops. A Strategic Vision for the new garden settlement was developed as one of the outcomes of the pilot process.



Scale: Site-specific
Context: Suburban
Focus: Exploring the design code process; producing a Strategic vision
Project team: Colchester Borough Council; Tendring District Council and Essex County Council. With assistance from Hyas Associates Ltd; Prior and Partners; itp; Gillespies
Region: East of England

"We are trying to use design coding as a way to not limit design but to encourage creativity instead."

Local Authority background information

The county of Essex provides a varied landscape from vibrant urban centres, international ports and airports, universities and world class firms, alongside beautiful rural countryside and villages, and the longest coastline in England. Tendring District is located in the northeast of the county and the town of Colchester (within Colchester Borough) lies to the west of Tendring District.

The context for coding

A key element of the spatial growth strategy for North Essex is the development of a new garden settlement. Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community (TCB project) is located across two local councils and comprises a major new settlement of between 2200 and 2500 homes, 7 hectares of employment land and provision for Gypsies and Travellers within the Plan period (by 2033). It is expected that overall between 7000 and 9000 new homes and 25 hectares of employment land will be delivered by 2050.

Tendring District Council and Colchester Borough Council have both adopted a shared ‘Section 1’ Local Plan, which provides strategic, cross-boundary policies and includes a range of guiding principles for the garden settlement. One of the main requirements of the shared Local Plan is the production of a Development Plan Document (DPD), which will establish a
detailed planning framework for delivery of the TCB project.

The proposed site lies to the eastern edge of Colchester, close to the towns of Wivenhoe in Colchester Borough, and Alresford and Elmstead Market, within Tendring District. While the exact site boundary is yet to be established, the land is predominantly undeveloped agricultural land, with isolated homes in the hamlet of Crockleford Heath and farms located
across the area, a working minerals and waste site, in addition to properties and small-scale employment uses along Harwich Road to the north of the site.

"This is a very long-term project – it could be in development for a generation. The governance
structure that has been put in place will also be responsible for the oversight of any process of
amending the design code over time."

Why code?

The Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community is a strategic, complex and sensitive project to deliver new homes, new employment land, open space, and all associated infrastructure in North Essex. The councils are dedicated to improving quality of place, not only to establish a strong sense of place that can guide development over future years, but also to reassure local communities that high quality ambitions will be achieved in practice.

The project has provided a unique opportunity to apply the NMDC approach for a strategic new settlement site, at a relatively early stage of plan making, and as part of a comprehensive approach to community engagement, co-design and masterplanning.

What was the coding process?

The process focused explicitly on the analysis and vision stages of the coding work, rather than the production of an actual code. An important part of activity has been engagement with the public and stakeholders, to inform the vision. The approach set out to be inclusive, comprehensive and accessible. Key officers and working groups from all three councils were working alongside external consultants (Hyas Associates Ltd, Prior and Partners, itp and Gillespies) to undertake the work.

"There were lots of people involved which required lots of management and programme management."

The key aspects of the coding process included:

1. Community Liaison Group

An independently recruited Community Liaison Group was established, including bringing on board younger people. This group had numerous sessions with officers and the masterplanning consultants, including being given training in planning terminology and the planning process. It is anticipated that this group will have a long-term future throughout the project.

2. Digital Engagement Platform

A Digital Engagement Platform was established to host background information and implement a range of engagement tools online, with the aim of determining what local people thought were successful examples of place. Various activities were undertaken online including an open call for ideas, stories, send a picture, pin on a map, and a survey. The engagement website was translatable into over 100 languages and was compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1.

3. Paper-based and in-person consultation

While much activity was through online processes, parallel services were put in place to give equal access to those who wish to use traditional paper-based communication methods. Copies of the material were distributed locally to community meeting spaces (such as local churches) with a return Freepost address, and on-street interviewing has been undertaken.

4. Communication teams

Seldom heard groups were identified and approached directly by dedicated communication activity, including people with disabilities and long-term health issues, those over 65, and minority religions.

5. Workshops

A series of workshops were undertaken – these were initially focused on themes and to help get input to shape the vision. Multiple workshops were offered for different audiences, including officers from across the different councils, statutory stakeholders, Town & Parish Councils, council members, seldom heard groups and general access to local residents/communities. There were two workshops with statutory consultees, the first comprising Essex County Council officers (highways, schools and green infrastructure), and the second with attendees from a range of bodies including Natural England, Historic England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a number of water companies.
A health and wellbeing workshop was also planned.

6. Social media and local press

A social and traditional media communication strategy established content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and in print advertising in the local press and magazines.

"What can we do to engage more people? We constantly strive to
do better - and want people to feel empowered to have a say. We
have many very informed people locally, but we want to talk to
those who don’t know what a DPD is. Their voice is valid too."

What form will the code take?

The outputs from this pilot testing programme included: a baseline report covering the understanding of the site constraints and opportunities, covering a range of key themes and influences; a defined Engagement Strategy output – including engagement material and activities to stimulate thinking, promote engagement and provide evidence for future stages of work - and a Strategic vision. The Strategic Vision was intended to establish a unified vision, and a set of development principles and objectives. It is anticipated that the Strategic Vision, the baseline report, and the engagement materials will provide a strong foundation for the future development of a site-specific Design Code.

At pre-masterplanning and pre-preferred option stage the Strategic Vision is structured around five key themes that have emerged from the consultation process and the masterplanning team’s work. These five themes broadly echo those in the NMDC. The Strategic Vision explores each theme, setting out a vision statement and strategic principles and defining how each principle will be achieved with illustrations, statistics and figures that back up the statements. The Strategic Vision, the masterplan and design code will play a role alongside the suite of DPD documents, which are the formally adopted policy of the council.

"We always look to produce good practice. It has made me think about the order that we do things, so that they align
with any planning reform that takes place. There is an increased role for this sort of document in the future."

Lessons learned

A focus on engagement, from an early stage – Focused and strategic community engagement (and the creation of a Community Liaison Group) were underpinning themes within this case study. Engaging and involving communities – including traditionally seldom heard groups – from the very start of a project can help to establish a strong sense of place within new development, while reassuring local communities of the ambitions for high quality. This is particularly important when planning a large new settlement in a high demand area where there may typically be community scepticism to development.
A ‘layered’ approach to scope and level of detail – The approach to design codes will need to emerge in a proportionate and layered way, increasing in scope and detail over time to avoid inappropriate or restrictive detail arising too early in the process. The process for such a large project cannot be rushed and time must be allowed for ongoing engagement and involvement of important stakeholders, particularly elected members.
Resources and project leadership – The scale of this garden settlement project is significant and has drawn in a large number of authority officers and external consultants. This places specific demands for effective project leadership and management capability and resources to be in place from the outset. Councils also need to be an intelligent client to get the best from consultants.
External consultants – There is likely to be a reliance on external consultants to undertake certain tasks and processes as there is unlikely to be capacity within local authorities to undertake all necessary work. This could include matters such as: technical inputs (transport, engineering, utilities, etc); urban/landscape design & preparation of plans, maps & diagrams; and expert facilitation & engagement support.
Engage with landowners / promoters at an early stage – When working with landowners / promoters it will be important to consider at an early stage how design will be ultimately managed and controlled, at what stage in the process, who ought to lead/input and in what way.
Applying the approach in different local contexts – When thinking about applying the process, sufficient thought needs to be given to how the approach may be applied locally. The Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community project is unlike any other within the councils’ areas, and as such the process is unique, albeit it can provide valuable lessons for places elsewhere regionally or nationally.

In their words

As part of the NMDC pilot project research, interviews were undertaken with key stakeholders involved in each of the pilots. This section summarises some of those reflections.

Development in a greenfield location - Building a new development from scratch in a greenfield location is a very sensitive endeavour. Design coding is a way to show commitment to securing high quality design outcomes, it is a well understood measure and aligns with the councils’ agenda – helping to demonstrate that they are serious about achieving high quality design. It is about putting it into practice and being aligned to a national programme about achieving design quality. The benefit of the code is that you get the scheme through the system with the right controls so there are benefits in terms of speed and in achieving the right outcomes.

Policy context and status of the design code - Both authorities have Local Plans that have recently been adopted in each council – they both share the same Section 1 on strategic housing growth and have identified the broad location of this new garden community. They are now producing a site-specific development plan document. The Local Plan sets out that they need to evolve a masterplan and an approach for this community; the design code will sit alongside the masterplan process. Coding makes it more tangible and should streamline the process to get the right design controls in place alongside the policy development. The councils are clear that design codes will have an important role to play in the future. They will continue to consider what specific level of design guidance and design coding will be included in the DPD, or whether the level of detail is best set out separately and accompanying the high level DPD policy, for example as separate design guidance, potentially as an SPD.

The Strategic Vision - The Strategic Vision is not strictly spatial – it is pre-masterplan. It sets the context for the whole site, leading into the masterplan phase, then there may be more local subdivision of the site. The five themes (in the Strategic Vision) are the umbrella under which issues sit, that broadly echo those that are set out in the NMDC ten characteristics of well-designed places. However; grouping into five themes (rather than ten) felt appropriate at this stage. It is really about principles at this point rather than detailed design, and at each milestone it will get more ‘flesh’ and detail. It is flexible but it raises an expectation of a level of ambition, a direction to be as ambitious as it can possibly be. There are some key things that will be enshrined from the start, for example protection of key green assets.

Stewardship - Stewardship is quite difficult to deal with at this stage; the ideas that the councils may have on stewardship cannot be talked about with any degree of certainty. It is a level of detail for when you know what the assets are and when you are much further along the process.

Time and resources - It does take time and resources to deploy. It needs time to apply properly and to bring everyone along without things appearing rushed, premature or lacking in stakeholder or public input. The project benefits from defined programme resources and a budget to address its specific needs. This includes a small, dedicated team of council officers.
There is some distinction between programme related activity (which is funded equally by the three councils) and planning related activity (which is a statutory responsibility of Colchester Borough Council and Tendring District Council). The programme budget is covering the team/resource, masterplan, communications and delivery/governance costs associated to the project, as these are considered to be additional to standard council activity. The programme budget is supplemented by other funding secured either from Government (such as through the Garden Communities Programme) or from developers (such as via PPA/equivalent).