The devolution of planning powers to elected mayors is not without risks, by Jamie Carpenter

While this year's battle to become London's new mayor was divisive, there was one topic on which all the candidates were in agreement: the green belt.

During the contest, each made clear that opening up London's green belt to development was not an option they were prepared to countenance. This stance has been followed through by the winner, Labour's Sadiq Khan. Last month, in a consultation marking the first step towards the creation of a new London Plan, he promised to protect the green belt and other designated spaces.

Next May, voters in Greater Manchester will go to the polls to vote for their own new mayor. The early indications are that the green belt could be as much of a political hot potato in the city-region's mayoral contest as it was in capital's earlier this year. A draft spatial framework, approved for consultation by Greater Manchester's ten council leaders last week, has come under fire from politicians over its proposals to remove 4,900 hectares of land from the green belt around the conurbation to help meet a housing requirement of around 227,200 net additional homes over the period 2015 to 2035 (see News Analysis).

Labour MP Andrew Gwynne and Tory MP Chris Green have both vowed to fight the plans to release green belt in their constituencies. Andy Burnham, the Labour candidate in next May's mayoral election, has also criticised the plans. According to the Manchester Evening News, Burnham has questioned the level of development on green belt sites being proposed, and reiterated his belief that green belt should only be used for new council housing.

Burnham's intervention is significant because he is odds-on favourite to win next May's mayoral contest. In which case, as Greater Manchester mayor, his support - as well as that of the city-region's ten constituent authorities - would be required to allow the document to be adopted and come into force. Should Burnham win next May's election and maintain his current stance on the framework, wholesale changes would surely be required.

Burnham's intervention also demonstrates that, while the devolution of planning powers to elected mayors presents an opportunity to provide a better means for city-regions to plan for the delivery of growth, the process is not without risks. The prospect of some sort of return to larger-than-local planning - such as the cross-boundary strategic plan that is being brought forward in Manchester - has largely been welcomed by the planning sector.

But are elected mayors the best means of delivering these new cross-boundary plans? This year's mayoral election in London shows how short-term political cycles and the white heat of mayoral election campaigns are not necessarily conducive to politically unpopular stances on planning matters. While the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework has been criticised in some quarters for failing to meet housing need, the city-region's ten local authorities have clearly demonstrated a willingness to take a long-term view that may be unpopular with some voters. It remains to be seen whether the mayoral model will deliver the same results.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning//jamie.carpenter@haymarket.com


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