The challenges facing the new draft Greater Manchester spatial plan

Greater Manchester's long-awaited new city region spatial plan faces a series of formidable hurdles in achieving its aims, say observers.

Old Brewery Gardens, Manchester: such city centre development is encouraged in new draft framework
Old Brewery Gardens, Manchester: such city centre development is encouraged in new draft framework

When Andy Burnham was elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May 2017, one of his first acts was to embark on a "radical" rewrite of the region’s emerging planning policy, promising to focus development in town centres and to protect the green belt. Publication of the revised draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework last week provided a long-awaited glimpse of the extent to which the mayor has made progress on these pledges.

Comparisons with the 2016 draft of the document reveal some radical changes (see panel). The new framework sets a lower overall housing target of 201,000 homes between 2018-37, which equates to a seven per cent drop in homes per year. The amount of green belt land allocated for development has been cut by 50 per cent, while residential development in town centres is identified as a priority.

The framework states that its housing target is a minimum. Nevertheless, Jonathan Harper, Manchester- based senior associate at consultancy Rapleys, said the figure will still disappoint developers who have long argued for higher figures to meet housing need and encourage business growth. Some of those are "sure to challenge this decrease through the consultation exercise and subsequent examination of the plan", said Harper.

The extent to which the framework will succeed in providing the amount of housing envisioned is being questioned. Harper said many of the plan’s brownfield sites will face significant viability challenges, such as the need for decontamination and infrastructure provision. These sites would be difficult for developers to deliver on their own, he suggested, and would therefore require the public and private sector to work in partnership.

Gary Halman, senior director at consultancy GVA HOW in Manchester, said development of brownfield sites will be "directly linked to government support and finance being made available to unlock this type of land for viable redevelopment". That’s by no means certain, said Halman. Another challenge, he said, is the framework’s reliance on the ‘core area’ of Manchester and Salford city centres for delivery and therefore on the high density apartment market. Together, the two districts account for more than 40 per cent of the framework’s total housing target.

"As most of the new homes in these city centres will inevitably be apartments, this will be closely linked to the ability of the market to continue to sustain this form of development over future years," said Halman.

However, the mayor’s decision to protect green belt sites appears to have mitigated opposition from some conservation campaigners. Jackie Copley, planning manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Lancashire branch, said she welcomed the reduced housing targets, adding: "The focus on brownfield, town centres and transport hubs is something we would endorse."

The mayor will hope that local politicians take a similar view. The districts now have a crucial role in progressing the framework, say commentators. Council leaders have endorsed the draft framework, but the mayor does not currently have the power to unilaterally adopt a spatial development strategy. The document is instead being promoted as a joint development plan document and will require the approval of each constituent council and its elected members. That may not be a straightforward process, said Dan Mitchell, a partner in planning consultancy Barton Willmore’s Manchester office: "We are seeing quite a lot of arguments emerging already."

Development of the city region’s overarching spatial framework will allow its ten districts to finally make progress on their own local plans, said Harper. According to Planning Inspectorate figures, not one has a plan less than five years old, with only Rochdale Council having adopted a plan since 2013. While the revised framework may feature a lower housing target than the 2016 draft, its annual target of 10,580 homes still represents an increase of 29 per cent compared to the 8,180 homes a year in the district’s existing adopted local plans, according to Planning research (see table below).


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