In November 2014 the first GM devolution agreement was agreed and provided for an elected Mayor with responsibility to produce a spatial strategy with the unanimous (an important word) support of his or her Cabinet (the ten leaders). The GMSF was different because in the post-Regional Spatial Strategy world there were no greater-than-local or sub-regional plans afoot. The GMSF, the development industry hoped, would be a more practical response to the cross-boundary issues that were delaying local plans in places like Bury than the wishy-wishy and now largely discredited ‘duty to cooperate’. The GMSF would mean a couple of years’ hiatus, it was accepted, but, it was hoped, would lead in exchange to local plan coverage across GM sooner than ten LPAs rowing their own boats.
Politically, the GMSF and the first ‘Devo-Manc’ deal put Manchester at the front and centre of the emerging devolution agenda. When George Osborne launched the Northern Powerhouse initiative in June 2014 he described the cities of the north as “individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts”. With the Richard Leese / Howard Bernstein axis maintaining an outwardly cosy consensus across ten town hall top tables, that was not an accusation that could be levelled at GM.
Back in 2014 it was hoped by AGMA (the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (now the GMCA)) officials that the GMSF would be adopted in 2018. The housing package agreed between GM and Government and announced by Andy Burnham as far away as March 2018 stated that the second draft of the GMSF would be published in June 2018, with publication of the plan in early 2019, submission in summer 2019 and adoption in late 2020.
Something must have happened between March and June though because it was confirmed recently that Mr Burnham’s ‘radical rewrite’ of the first GMSF would not now emerge until October. The reasons for the delay are likely to be numerous, but the stated reason, that ‘it would be daft to publish the GMSF if new population projections suggest a lower number of houses will be required’, points to the practical and political realities of maintaining whatever consensus there was four years ago.
Something that changed between March and June was May’s local elections, which saw new leaders in Trafford, Oldham and Wigan, in addition to a new leader in Tameside in January 2018. In fact, the political leadership across GM that is now tasked with nursing the infant GMSF is very different to that which brought it into the world in 2014. Of the ten leaders at that time only Richard Leese remains. Further Manchester has a new Chief Executive and Salford has a mayor that is striking a different tone on new housing in Manchester and Salford than the previous one. As the new leader of Oldham has observed recently, the dynamic of GM politics has shifted very quickly.
Making progress with any development plan document is hard enough, but the mayor’s spatial strategy, remember, requires the unanimous support of his or her cabinet. In addition to the changes of council leaders since 2014 there is, of course, the arrival of Andy Burnham himself. Mr Burnham and Tory mayoral candidate Sean Anstee did not appear too far apart on issues like skills, transport and the digital economy during last year’s mayoral election, but they were a ship canal apart on the GMSF and it’s proposed Green Belt allocations, which, it seems, has now come to dominate the entire GMSF debate. Anstee was unashamedly pragmatic on the issue, whilst Burnham’s ‘radical rewrite’ pledge was born out of a clearly expressed desire to see a ‘substantial reduction in the loss of Green Belt’. That is typically achieved by sweating urban supply as intensively as possible, setting higher density requirements, or reducing the overall requirement.
The March 2018 housing package states that the GMSF will deliver 227,200 homes by 2035. This figure is not too far from that included in the first draft GMSF and is approximately 6% more than the new standard Government calculation for housing need that will be introduced later this year. The standard calculation for assessing housing need is based upon household projections, which are themselves based upon population projections. The ONS has recently published it’s latest forecast of population projections and this points to a downward trend. Putting aside the myriad technical reasons why the population projections should only ever be a starting point for assessing housing need, it is fair to suggest that the credibility of GM as the ambitious beating heart of a Northern Powerhouse economy and the flagship for joint working and devolution is being undermined by the GMSF’s slipping timescale and seeming reluctance to allow a housing requirement to be a corollary of economic ambition rather than the other way around.
There is no doubt that some Green Belt will have to be built on to meet even GM’s bare minimum future housing needs. A Green Belt that, it should be pointed out, is 45% larger than GM’s urban area and which could accommodate 50,000 homes with ten minutes’ walk of existing train stations. If 1000 homes were built on GM’s Green Belt every year it would take 900 years for half of it to be built on. These though are not attractive campaign slogans and there is always a local election on the horizon.
As can be typical, when the first draft GMSF emerged it raised the hackles of placard-waving residents who became a misleading proxy for public opinion. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey released by Government, in contrast, finds that 55% of people are supportive of new homes in their local area, compared to 28% in 2010. Only 21% of people are opposed to new homes in their local area, compared to 46% in 2010. Research by Ipsos MORI in 2017 into the housing experiences and aspirations of GM residents provided more evidence, if any were needed, that younger people in GM are suffering disproportionately from the housing crisis. Interestingly, 52% of 18-34 year-olds’ support building on a small proportion of the Green Belt if it generates investment in services and infrastructure. If only those people organised a march into Albert Square to say so.
There was a pre-World Cup documentary on BBC2 recently about ‘the toughest job in sport’: Managing England – The Impossible Job. The officers and executives responsible for the GMSF probably have the toughest job in planning: a voluntary DPD with no statutory basis that requires the support of ten council leaders and a mayor. Is it impossible? It is not, but it is a high bar to get over (note how news of the delay was received in Bury's town hall) and anything above the lowest common denominator needs direction and ownership at the highest political level. #GarethSouthgateWould has been trending on Twitter this week. I think that Gareth Southgate would get the big decisions out of the way early, and then focus on achieving his long-term objectives. He would say that, yes, some Green Belt development is required as part of the response to an emerging GM housing crisis, but the GMSF is the best way of coordinating planning across the city region and achieving more as a team than 11 individuals can.
Back in the real world, it is the case that the GMSF might still achieve more and in a shorter period of time than, looking back to 2014, ten local plans would otherwise of done. If it does not though then Manchester will not have done anything differently at all.