One giant hard-hat area

Hot Spot: Builders must love Braintree, Essex - everywhere you look, new homes are being created. And that's before you get to the brand-new village
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The Independent Online

Braintree has heard all the Essex-girl jokes, absorbed other beatings and belittlements, and endured its own private recession. "We declined during the Eighties when everyone else prospered" is an admission that passes freely from the lips of seemingly every resident, including council officials.

Braintree has heard all the Essex-girl jokes, absorbed other beatings and belittlements, and endured its own private recession. "We declined during the Eighties when everyone else prospered" is an admission that passes freely from the lips of seemingly every resident, including council officials.

But many of the same people also argue that the town is coming back with a vengeance. They point to rail improvements, shopping, buoyant housing, and a suburban development which will yield thousands of new homes.

This, two miles from Braintree, is Great Notley Garden Village, a 465-acre greenfield site being developed primarily by Countryside Residential and Copthorn. Plans call for 2,000 mixed-tenure dwellings, including 150 units available for rent and shared ownership. With completion scheduled for 2007, the development has 2500 current residents in more than 900 homes. A self-contained community, it has a Tesco supermarket, business park, petrol station, a pub and other shops, a school, a leisure and community centre, and a 100-acre country park.

This is volume building with a quality difference. "Our new village has three distinct hamlets, each with its own character and identity," says Countryside's Guy Lambert. "The hamlets are linked by a village spine road. One hamlet has a village green, another has a new manor house, and the third has existing farm buildings as its focus. The roads have been laid out to create a 20mph zone throughout the entire residential area."

The village is green in more ways than one. The newly planted trees were already well advanced when first stuck into the ground and will mature quickly, while the school strives to be ecologically green.

"The new primary school has been developed by Essex County Council," says Countryside. "The building has been created using sustainable environmental principals and features timber cladding and a moss roof. It is the first of its kind in this country." The school has certainly already attracted notice for its architecture and sustainability ( see The Lowdown).

Lambert says that buyers so far tend to be "moving from within the area, especially Chelmsford, and also from east London. It is traditional for people from places such as Romford, Ilford and Havering to move to this part of Essex. We've had a lot of trade-downs to a smaller property from people wanting less space but who are not willing to compromise on quality."

"There has been more new construction during the last 10 years than in any previous period," notes Brian Joscelyne of Joscelyne Chase estate agents. "Top end property - the country homes in the nice villages - have risen particularly well. The supply of 40-year-old cottages is limited, but demand is constant. Braintree itself is a bit of a boom town," he continues, "with new shops, schools, a library, and a factory outlet village. We have a new rail station built specially to serve this huge development, and we hope to have a westward dual carriageway soon - the planning for the scheme is all approved."

Beverley Baxter, of estate agents Gray & Co in Great Bardfield, agrees. "Everywhere you look around Braintree, they are building. Great Notley Garden Village is very nicely done, and I congratulate Countryside. But we are almost at the point of oversupply. Prices here have not increased as fast as other area hot spots such Cambridge, although Dunmow has gone up 15-20 per cent or more in the last year. There's also a danger for investors of too many people jumping on the buy-to-let bandwagon."

Baxter says she suspects that retail-challenged Braintree needs more help than is currently on offer. "Thirty years ago this was a thriving market town. Braintree used to be great - but it has declined badly in recent years for shopping. There is curiosity value in the new designer outlets but that is novelty value. We still have no multiples or decent stores. People still go to Chelmsford, Saffron Walden, Dunmow and Cambridge to shop. Braintree still has a long way to go."

The low-down

Transport

Journey time to Liverpool Street is slightly more than an hour from Braintree, which has a branch-line connection with the main Norwich/ Colchester/London line. London can be reached in 50 minutes from Titham. The mainline service connects to Ipswich, Felixstowe and Harwich, where there is a major freight terminal. The A120 serves the east coast ports, Stansted Airport (15 miles from Braintree) and the M25, M11 and A14.

Prices

Studios and small flats start in the £20,000-£30,000 range, and small houses at £50,000-£65,000. An investor converted a three-bedroom almshouse for £63,500 through Grays estate agents, who anticipate rental income of £400 monthly. Joscelyne Chase is selling four-bedroom houses from about £135,000. New releases in Great Notley Garden Village include five-bedroom houses from £140,000 to £160,000.

Properties

Allen estate agents are selling a secondhand two-bedroom house in Great Notley Garden Village for £65,995, and a three-bedroom terrace in Challis Lane for £63,500. Abbey New Homes is building four-bedroom detached homes for £123,995. In a conservation area in the Bocking area, Joscelyne Chase are selling a four-bedroom detached house with an enclosed and walled 148ft by 63ft rear garden and a 42ft by 16ft swimming pool, for £295,000.

Finchingfield

In historic Finchingfield, Grays are selling a detached five-bedroom pre-Tudor house with a large flagged terrace, a south-facing partly-walled 100ft square garden, and a stream for a neighbour, £345,000.

Officialdom

The various parishes have council tax roughly similar to Braintree's: £507, £761 and £1,522 for Bands A, D and H. The area's two MPs are Sir Alan Haslehurst (Con) and Alan Hurst (Lab).

School's out

Notley Green County Primary School has "floors from China, a sedum-planted roof from Germany (sedums are "any crassulaceous rock plant") and windows from Sweden". Architect Allford agrees that "it's good to use products which are sustainable, but in sustainability terms it's bad to transport products across Europe". For more information, Architects' Journal, 4 November 1999, has two articles on the building.

Never mind the quality

Freeport Braintree is not just an outlet, but an outlet village, and not just an outlet village but a designer outlet village: Versace, Christian Lacroix, Dolce & Gabbana and the like.

Area attractions

The Working Silk Museum, Blake House Craft Centre, and Braintree and Bocking Public Gardens. In Coggeshall, the Heritage Museum, the National Trust Paycockes House, and Grange Barn, the oldest timber-framed barn in Europe. Also, the Finchingfield Guildhall & Museum and Great Bardfield Cottage Museum & Cage. Braintree was a centre for the woollen industry in the Middle Ages, and the Church of St Michael the Archangel dates to the 13th century. St John the Baptist church in Finchingfield has a Norman tower.

Contacts

Abbey New Homes, 01376 552992; Great Notley Country Village, 01376 344083, www.countryside-properties.co.uk; Allen Estates, 01376 553900; Gray, 01371 810154; Joscelyne Chase, 01376 551431.

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