The UK’s exit from the EU and the GMSF planning process have a number of similarities, writes Paul Martin, managing director of Altrincham-based Patrick Properties. Both have looming deadlines at the end of March; to a greater or lesser extent, neither have enough political support or backing; and both reached key milestones this week, amidst questions over whether they will actually deliver on their purpose.
Although Brexit has dominated the headlines and national politics since the referendum, for the lives of everyday Mancunians like me, the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is arguably more important to our future prosperity.
Given the importance of GMSF to the existing communities and future generations, it is hugely important that every member of the public being consulted fully understands the purpose of the plan, and even more critical that our local politicians are clear and honest with us all about the plan’s implications – both good and bad.
“Myths, generalisations and stereotypes”
Beyond the headlines claiming “radical re-writes” and rhetoric on Green Belt, is there enough explanation to the public about what this plan actually means? Moreover, outside of a few key senior politicians, do the vast majority of our elected councillors even know what this plan represents?
The parallels with Brexit continue. Concerns regarding the lack of honest and informed debate over Brexit have abounded for months, with the CBI director general warning last weekend that the “myths”, “generalisations and stereotypes” peddled by some politicians “who should know better” needed to be dispelled because they hamper proper debate. Is this true of GMSF also?
Take the key question of delivery – are we really being told the truth, or are the local politicians simply playing a Brexit-style game, massaging the facts so as to retain their seats and all the time hoping that the masses don’t notice?
To analyse this further, it is necessary to do a bit of jargon-busting. As with all things in the planning world, it starts with an acronym – the HMA, or Housing Market Area.
According to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the City Region is effectively one Housing Market Area. This means that if homes in Worsley aren’t available for a family living there at the moment, it’s okay, because homes in Stalybridge will be built and it’s expected that a family should up-sticks, uproot children from schools and move areas. Forgive my scepticism, but as someone who has lived and worked in various parts of Greater Manchester for over 25 years, our housing market does not work this way.
Market in crisis
The GMSF is seeking to redefine the way Greater Manchester works, and is attempting to redefine the manner in which many existing residents live. If this is what plan-makers want to achieve then fine, but this expectation of transient Greater Manchester communities should be clearly articulated and presented to the public who are being consulted. The GMSF is also seeking to redefine the way we live in the midst of what is a long-standing “housing crisis” – a crisis that has been principally generated by the fact that as a nation and a region, we have not been building enough homes, leading to demand significantly outstripping supply and a stark increase in house prices, taking the chance to own your own home out of the reach of many.
The HMA point also explains why Manchester City Council is proposing a lot more high-density building, taking significant housing from allocations of other authorities. Manchester Labour has no doubt used its strength to take additional numbers from more politically challenged neighbours, but I am not alone in being concerned this does not represent proper spatial planning. This is pandering to populist political promises about the Green Belt, while ignoring questions from the private sector about the deliverability of such a large proportion of new homes within the urban core, many of which are sold overseas and do not serve the existing communities of Greater Manchester anyway.
There is currently a distinct lack of transparency in terms of the housing requirements of different types of households. As such, it is unclear if this urban land will actually deliver the right mix of homes which local communities are crying out for. The Greater Manchester Housing Survey in 2017, carried out by Ipsos Mori, polled 2,000 Greater Manchester residents and concluded that the vast majority aspire to own their own home in a suburb (80%) and agree that it is important to have a home with a private garden (84%). Does this version of the GMSF deliver anywhere near these aspirations? Unfortunately, I suspect not.
In addition, the GMSF does not specifically identify, allocate or consult the public on the majority of these urban sites, so the local communities in which they are located will most likely be none the wiser, and at this formative stage will not be able to comment on whether they would actually like to have a tower block behind their back garden.
Strategic sites: too big a gamble
A further big concern is the overly-optimistic reliance on large sites to be released from the Green Belt. Independent research has proven that overly large “strategic” sites take far longer to develop out than smaller sites. Some of the Greater Manchester authorities have acknowledged this and do not have any allocations over 1,500 homes, while others have placed huge emphasis on single developments. Just because there is a brownfield site, in an area of the least political and community outcry, doesn’t mean it is the right site for a huge number of homes, or that those homes will be deliverable.
For me, this is too big a gamble, especially when the overall housing target is already lower than it was, and is the minimum number that can be delivered over the plan period. This is a very dangerous bet for our City Region, as the unintended consequences of getting this wrong, and misleading the public in the process like Brexit, have not been properly considered.
Let’s be honest and have a realistic debate about the chances of this proposed plan delivering the housing we need, and upfront about the consequences if it doesn’t: fewer family homes in the places families actually want them; with the houses that are there being prohibitively expensive because of the mismatch of supply and demand; rising house prices generally, more homelessness and fewer jobs.
Just as on Brexit, where the CBI’s director general advised that “each MP is democratically chosen to safeguard the security and prosperity of the country”, it is the responsibility of our elected local politicians to ensure that the GMSF is a plan that genuinely works for all communities and all Mancunians.
Unlike Brexit, where there is a frustrating lack of in-depth knowledge from politicians on both sides, I hope our local councillors demonstrate a greater depth of understanding on the issues, with an openness and an ability to listen to genuine concerns regarding deliverability. If we don’t, we may end up with the same paralysis and inertia we are witnessing in Westminster.
Simply adhering to populist promises that will affect our futures and that of future generations is a betrayal, and we are Manchester after all. So let’s do what our City Region always does – lead, innovate and have an open, truthful and honest debate about the GMSF during this consultation and beyond, on an informed basis regarding the issues and consequences – both intended and unintended.
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