Graham Haughton, Professor of Urban Planning at The University of Manchester outlines 12 lessons from the recent debates around a new Spatial Framework for Greater Manchester.
- The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) is a 20 year strategic plan for the city region.
- The draft GMSF was planned for what should have been an election free year in Greater Manchester (2017), but the GM Mayoral and the snap General Election, meant the GMSF became subject to intense political debate.
- People involved in the process thought the idea for a plan was good, but that the first draft was problematic on various counts, mainly in the way it allowed debate to become focused on greenbelt loss rather than the wider strategic needs for the region. There are, however, lessons that can be learnt from the process so far.
Greater Manchester’s Devolution Deal
At the start of this year 27,000 members of the public had responded to the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework Plan. Debate continued in the following months and included protest marches which made local headlines. During the course of the year I spoke to 20 people involved in the consultations from a range of perspectives; – planners, politicians, developers, lobby groups and protest groups – to understand why this became such a hot political issue and what it says about the emerging devolution process in Greater Manchester and beyond.
The GMSF is an attempt to produce the first formal plan for Greater Manchester since the early 1980s. It is a product of the Greater Manchester Devolution Deal, which gives the new mayor powers to produce a spatial strategy, if they chose to. Uniquely of all the devolved powers, all 10 local authority leaders plus the mayor need to agree to the Mayor’s spatial strategy. These new powers are not yet in place in legislative terms, but will be soon, along with new powers for the mayor in relation to compulsory purchase powers to help speed up development.
This timing means that the current plan consultation is something of a hybrid made up of; the strategic statement which should become the Mayor’s plan; and a series of potential site allocations, which in formal terms is the joint local plan for the ten local authorities and will need to be adopted separately by each of the individual council in due course. In the hope moving consultations forward the two processes were brought into a single document, the draft GMSF.
National Government and Local Plans
As a city-region scale plan, the GMSF is not actually a formal requirement: it is something which the local authorities through the GMCA have chosen to embark on. To understand why, it is important to understand the national context. Central Government has been putting pressure on local authorities to produce an up to date local plan, bringing them into line with legislative and guidance changes in planning since 2011. These must have been consulted on locally and with neighbouring authorities (known as the duty to cooperate). To tackle housing shortages, local authorities are expected to have in place a five year pipeline of housing land supply of deliverable sites. Crucially, where a five year land supply cannot be demonstrated or a local plan is deemed out of date, penalties start to apply, from bringing in planning inspectors to determine planning applications to the threat of losing the New Homes Bonus.
Added to this picture is the government’s blame-displacing policy on greenbelt. Nationally it says it fully supports retaining greenbelt, which can only be encroached on in exceptional circumstances, including not having enough development land available. Local authorities under pressure to find suitable development land face a government saying it doesn’t want greenbelt development but requiring them to allow it to happen!
Several local authorities in Greater Manchester have struggled to update their plans to the government’s timetable and most realised they would struggle to prove they had a deliverable five year supply in place. The GMSF is intended to help address these issues, in particular the spectre of moving from plan-led development to a developer-led process of planning by appeal, which would be costly for all.
The draft GMSF
It was hoped this would be released in an election-free year, 2017 – then along came the GM Mayoral election and the unexpected general elections. The plan was always going to be controversial as the political leaders had decided to use it to announce proposals for major changes to the greenbelt to accommodate both housing and employment sites. Landing in an election year, debates about the content of the draft GMSF quickly turned political. Campaign groups were set up around the area to protest attempts to roll-back the greenbelt and demonstration marches were organised. The GMSF also became a topic for debate in media coverage of the elections and at mayoral hustings.
Mayoral candidates had their positions carefully scrutinised, with the eventual winner, Andy Burnham, promising a major review of the GMSF if elected. This is now under way. So what can we learn from the initial draft GMSF? What follows is a mix of what people told me they felt had been learned or should be learned.
Thoughts on the GMSF
Everyone I spoke to thought the idea of GMSF was a good one, but felt the first draft was problematic on various counts, mainly in the way it allowed debate to become focused on greenbelt loss rather than the wider strategic needs for the region. The plan said most new development would be on brownfield sites, it chose not to say very much about where these would be or how they would be supported. By contrast, quite detailed sections were provided for the proposed new development sites where greenbelt would have to be re-designated. Not surprisingly the most heated debates concerned greenbelt loss and far less was said to challenge the urban compaction model of Manchester for further high density apartment living. Two consequences emerged from this, a skewed debate in which certain voices were silent, plus a dawning realisation that the document had a missing middle – between the high level vision in the front end and the detailed site specifications in the back end.
Following on from this, a series of 12 lessons can be distilled:
- Positive story. The GMSF needed a stronger positive story line, selling a vision for how people’s lives would be improved. By producing a strategic section that promised little in the way of actual, tangible improvements, this allowed the debate to focus on the ‘pain’ (losing greenbelt sites) and not the gain.
- Engage with Manchester’s population in identifying solutions that work for all. This plan didn’t set out arguments to convince people that it would be fair for all, however, some local success was had. Salford consulted on its local plan in tandem with the GMSF and used this to argue that its plans for new green spaces would improve existing built-up areas and argued that its greenbelt release was in areas already well served by open space. The debates that followed reflected this ‘realism’ and search for fairness. Local groups are engaging in searching for alternative sites to allow housing in areas outside the greenbelt.
- Inclusive growth – the strategy introduced this but then failed to follow it up with detail on how local areas differed in their potential and the separate solutions they required. Greater Manchester is highly uneven in its levels of prosperity: interestingly following the mayoral election, Andy Burnham called for a renewed focus on town centres and not just the city centre.
- Inflexible model, inflexible plan, and unconvinced public. The current economic model that underpins the strategy is essentially pro-development and market-led. The ability of local government to support this financially is limited in the context of continuing austerity policies of national government. Ambitious local claims about future high growth depend on national government investment coming forward, particularly for transport, and there is little sign this is going to happen soon. So can the plan be better phased to release land as growth targets are met?
- The next draft needs to set out plans for brownfield sites focusing on locations housing and facilities that will create better places for future generations to live – new parks, schools, GP surgeries, improved roads, etc.
- Infrastructure improvements. These need to be set out in more detail – roads, cycle ways, green infrastructure and more – where will they be, when will they be delivered and by whom? Also vague statements about releasing new developments sites only if transport investments occur or don’t cut it. People don’t trust central or local government or developers to follow through on promises unless they are set out in unambiguous terms and subject to enforceable legal agreements.
- Climate Change. Stronger positive policies on environmental and climate change issues need to be detailed, rather than outlining issues and general intent as in the first draft.
- Large sites. Some of the proposed sites for new housing are very large, justified typically in that they provide the critical mass for improving facilities and infrastructure such as transport links. However, the deliverability of these can be challenged by a planning inspector. Large sites by their nature take time to prepare, whether it is land assembly or getting agreements in place around ecological protection and as a result, a review of large site proposals is needed.
- A Common Approach. Each of the ten GM local authorities chose to consult with its local public according to its own individual agreed Statement of Community Involvement. The result was an uneven process and probably helped fuel the sense among sections of the public that the process lacked transparency. Some local authorities did the preparation and follow-up work for the release of the draft GMSF much, much better than others. A common approach is needed next time.
- Wider views. The polarised and lob-sided debate around housing numbers and greenbelt release has given rise to new voices in planning debates, but also an unease that many others have not engaged in the wider strategic implications set out in the plan. Where, for instance, are the protests around over-development of certain areas without adequate social housing or green space? A wider range of protests would be a healthy outcome of a second round of consultations on GMSF, not a failure
- Boundary effects. The Cumulative impacts of development matter not just in Greater Manchester, but also in surrounding areas. This is particularly true around the southern boundaries of Greater Manchester, where major new developments are coming on stream that will impact on infrastructure in Manchester. The current Duty to cooperate for local plans is dysfunctional and discredited.
- Devolution: though widely welcomed, in particular, the leadership and transparency coming from now having an elected Mayor, many wanted to see more evidence of how the new powers would be used creatively rather than pursuing a ‘business as usual’ approach, particularly in promoting more social housing and affordable homes. This will be particularly important in terms of the Mayor’s proposed compulsory purchase powers, and also the use of housing funding and transport funding.
This blog summarises an article which will appear shortly in Town and Country Planning.