Mixed messages over GMSF future

As Greater Manchester looks beyond Covid-19, debate over the long-running creation of its Spatial Framework, the plan to guide development for the next 20 years, has once again reared its head with seemingly contradicting messages from the Mayor’s office and others close to the process.

A report heard at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s latest meeting on 29 May, the first held virtually since the coronavirus outbreak, included minutes from a meeting in February. This stated the GMSF was due to go out for public consultation between June and July to September 2020, with submission of all responses expected by late 2020 or the beginning of 2021 for examination by Government.

Due to lockdown restrictions on meeting, a delay on these timescales was to be expected. Speaking to a senior council officer on Friday, plans are being worked up for sign-off by the 10 Greater Manchester council leaders, which would see the draft go out to consultation between October and January 2021.

Ever since Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham announced his plans to rewrite the draft GMSF when he took the post in 2017, messages from the Mayor’s office have sometimes gone against conversations with staff across the 10 authorities.

In particular, his election promise that the rewritten plan would see no net loss of Green Belt was met with resistance, largely from the northern boroughs who saw strategic green belt release as necessary to fulfil their plans for employment-led development.

Across Rochdale, Oldham and Bury, the Northern Gateway is the largest employment site in the GMSF, with the potential to build 12m sq ft of employment space, and create 10,000 jobs. Despite the Green Belt release needed, councils such as Rochdale have argued this would still only see its Green Belt reduce by 2%.

After sustained arguments between the mayor’s office and various council leaders, the latest draft of the GMSF saw a reduction in Green Belt loss, a downscaling of development plans in some areas, but the retention of major employment sites, such as Northern Gateway.

Burnham had initially pushed back the next wave of consultation into the GMSF until after the mayoral election, which had been due to be held in May 2020. Following coronavirus, this was delayed until 2021, leading to speculation the consultation would be delayed also.

Sources close to the process within the local councils have continued to be insistent the 2020 timescales were broadly being adhered to.

A Covid-related review of the GMSF was reported by the BBC on Friday, however those close to the GMSF have said a review was already scheduled anyway, in order to prepare the document for the subsequent consultation.

However, Burnham told the BBC on Friday the review would reflect the challenges to the economy “with implications to the spatial framework and the five-year delivery plan which sits within it”.

Burnham pointed to the need to use high streets in particular. He said the plan “had to take account of the new reality we are going into”. He confirmed the leaders were committed to progressing with the framework.

A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said: “The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is a strategic plan for the whole city-region, and is part of a shared commitment to ensuring that growth benefits all of our people and places.

“The coronavirus pandemic has already had a significant impact on the local economy, and its effects on employment and housing are likely to be felt for some time. For this reason, it is essential that any plan recognises and responds to these new circumstances. Acknowledging these circumstances will be vital to ensuring that Greater Manchester is prepared for the challenges that lay ahead, and that we seize the opportunity to build back in a way that’s better and fairer for all.

“Our focus is on getting the right plan in place, and a revised timescale for consultation will be published as soon as possible.”

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