Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Last Five Miles: How South Essex will be joined to London

There is five miles of green belt separating Upminster from Basildon with just the small villages of West Horndon and Dunton between. It is by far the widest space between the urban areas of London and the towns stretching from Basildon to Southend where just a few remaining short gaps keep them apart. You might imagine that five miles of protected space would be more than enough to prevent coalescence of these towns with London for the foreseeable future, but with new draft Local Plans on the table from Brentwood and Basildon there is a real danger that this remaining stretch of green belt could disappear entirely within the next two decades.

The stretch of green belt along the A127 West of Basildon is actually part of the Borough of Brentwood with its main town a few miles to the North. In the last few years Brentwood has been faced with a problem. Like all towns it has a need to build new houses but it wants to protect its own surrounding green fields. The council decided a few years ago that the solution was to build 1500 new homes around West Horndon, a move that was vigorously fought by residents of the village. They soon managed to elect a councillor who saw things more in their favour.

Then Brentwood saw that Basildon was looking to fulfill its housing need by building a western urban extension up to its border with Brentwood. The Brentwood Council grabbed its opportunity and applied the principle of "Duty to Cooperate" from the recently enacted Localism Act to force Basildon to consider a joint development called Dunton Garden Suburb of up to 6000 homes. They failed to agree on the plans, yet both boroughs plan to go ahead with their halves of the project independently.
The Last Five Miles (click to enlarge)
As if pressure from housing is not enough the area has recently been hit by a new threat. One of three possible routes for a motorway connecting the proposed Thames Crossing to the M25 runs straight into the area and dumps its traffic on the A127 after passing through the middle of the proposed Dunton Garden Suburb.

If all that goes ahead it will fill most of the two mile gap between West Horndon and Basildon leaving just the three miles of space between West Horndon and Upminster to prevent linkage with the urban extent of Greater London. While most people are now aware of the threat to Dunton few have noticed that this other three miles of space are also about to go.

When the M25 was being widened the highways authority needed a base to work from so they obtained permission to temporarily use a space in the green belt near junction 29 on the south side of the A127. With the roadworks completed the General Permitted Development Order required that the land be returned to its original state of open countryside, but that did not happen. Instead Brentwood decided to take the opportunity of declaring it a brownfield site in the green belt to be kept for further employment use. Their plan now is to move businesses from an industrial area in West Horndon to this site (which they declared as the "Brentwood Enterprise Park") and build another 500 homes in West Horndon on the vacated land.

Of course this does not suit the businesses in West Horndon at all. They rely on the station there to connect with London, but that is not going to be allowed to get in Brentwood's way. Nearby residents who had been assured that everything would go back to normal did not like it either. Their comments submitted to an earlier public consultation can be found here.  

Brentwood's new draft Local Plan which is about to go out for consultation reveals a big surprise. Rather than the small "brownfiled" area previously defined as the Enterprise Park a much larger area has been given this name. It circles round a number of other businesses in an elliptical area of green belt about two miles across. Some of the comments from residents suggest that at least some of these sites had been used illegally without planning permission. In one fell swoop the remaining green belt keeping the towns of South Essex apart from London will be all but lost. New businesses will be attracted to the Enterprise Park, perhaps encouraged by the new connection to the Thames crossing. Before long they might be used to justify new housing and infrastructure to fill in the remaining gaps. It may take as little as twenty years for the process to be complete.

If you want to try to stop it all, please help by responding to the three consultations running until the 24th March 2016: The Basildon Local Plan, The Brentwood Local Plan and The Thames Crossing

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