HOUSING plans for north Essex have been thrown into turmoil as proposals to build 43,000 homes across three new towns were labelled “unsound” by a planning inspector.

Roger Clews told Colchester, Tendring and Braintree councils to withdraw West Tey, up to 24,000 homes, and West of Braintree, up to 10,000, from the joint section of their Local Plan.

He did however praise work on the third town, on the Colchester/Tendring border, of up to 9,000 properties. So where do we go from here?

Mr Clews told the councils they have two options - either withdraw the plan entirely, or consult on it again with two of the garden communities removed.

He said: “The main modifications would need to be the subject of full public consultation for a minimum of six weeks, and I would need to consider all the responses to the consultation before producing my report and recommendations.”

It is clear there will be a delay, but what happens next will be different depending on who you ask.

A political row has already erupted with Colchester Conservative Group, which holds the most seats on the council but are in opposition, calling for the council’s leadership to step down.

Group leader Paul Dundas said: “Time and time again we have highlighted problems with the transport, financing, viability and that they simply were not needed to meet our housing targets before 2033. One of the most senior planning inspectors in the UK has agreed with us.

“I would seriously question whether those same people who have championed the new towns, which have been rejected twice, are the right people to take this forward and think they should consider their positions.”

Deputy Lewis Barber added: “The Conservative Group supports sustainable, affordable homes where infrastructure and services come first, the natural environment is protected and existing communities listened too. The new town project fulfilled none of these tests.”

The group also claimed to be the only political group in Colchester to oppose and point out flaws in the plans and said only Conservatives attended the planning inquiry hearings - statements, Colchester Council says are not true.

Colchester Council leader Mark Cory accused them of attempting to “rewrite history”.

“This statement by the Colchester Conservatives is dishonest and tries to play party politics with one of the biggest issues we face,” he said.

“I’ve been bringing together all parties during the Covid crisis and did expect better from the new Conservative leader.

“I don’t deny they have been opposed to most of this plan, but since I took on the leadership, I have opened up the process and welcomed constructive criticism. I accept not all the plan has worked.

“For example, the Conservatives fail to acknowledge the contributions and scrutiny given by Andrea Luxford-Vaughan, the Green Party and the independents. Also, our own amendments to allow voting on key issues in full council.

“Importantly, they try to play party politics for the benefit of Colchester Conservatives. However, this plan was worked on by Colchester Council, Conservative-led Braintree Council, Conservative-led Tendring Council, Conservative-led Essex County Council and promoted by the Conservative Government with millions of pounds and high housing numbers.

“We have been honest with the people of Colchester about housing and how we can’t do it the same old way with no infrastructure built in. The Conservatives want their cake and to eat it, and then to blame everyone else but their own party.”

Several other political heavyweights have had their say on the inspector’s decision, including Harwich and North Essex Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin.

He said: “I always approached the West Tey proposal with an open mind, but was concerned the plan for more than 20,000 new homes was not viable.

“There are challenges delivering large housebuilding projects, and I made clear this was overambitious. Colchester Council must now move speedily to getting approval for their plan without West Tey.”

Witham MP Priti Patel added: “These plans have been controversial and heavily criticised. Many opportunities to reflect and make changes have been missed and public confidence has been undermined.

“Two years ago, the same inspector warned that the plans were not good enough and the lessons have not been learned.

“We all want to see new housing built in a responsible and sustainable way in this part of Essex but the way these plans have been put together and promoted has been misguided.”

Although two out of three new towns have decisively been rejected, a third still looms over land between Wivenhoe and Elmstead Market.

And following the inspector’s announcement, the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government has reiterated its support for garden community projects. It has even “applauded the ambition of the North Essex authorities”.

A spokesman said: “The Government is working hand-in-hand with local communities to deliver much-needed new homes across the country.

“We remain committed to supporting new garden communities and helping these schemes to get off the ground.”

Colchester Council will be assessing its options of where to go next over the coming weeks and months. The decisions will shape the future of the area for decades to come. At the moment at least, a garden community on one of our doorsteps is still very possible.