Further delays are expected to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, as the Combined Authority responds to revised population and housing figures; however behind the scenes a gap between the Mayor’s priorities, and the growth agenda of some of GM’s 10 councils, is increasingly growing.
In July, the Office for National Statistics announced that population growth was less than expected for Greater Manchester, prompting Burnham to announce that the publication of the GMSF would be deferred until October to allow for the full implications on the city region’s housing need to be assessed.
The ONS figures feed in to the Government’s Sub National Housing Projections, which have been released this month. Previously, Greater Manchester was working up its plan based on a figure of 211,000 homes needed over a 20-year period. However, based on the changes to population predictions, the number of homes Greater Manchester is now understood to need to deliver is around 154,000.
On the face of it, this figure has been good news for Mayor Andy Burnham, who as one of his key policies has been pushing for a drastic drop in planned Green Belt release, previously justified as necessary to meet the higher housing targets.
A figure of 154,000 homes, senior council planners have said, could be delivered on Greater Manchester’s brownfield sites alone.
The draft GMSF has been going through a rewrite since Burnham became Mayor in 2017. He has publicly called for an 80% reduction in planned Green Belt release, and behind the scenes his political advisor Kevin Lee is understood to have been pushing councils to stop release entirely.
However, certain councils have been pushing back, arguing that delivering the minimum number of homes is not a message of growth for the city region, and targets should be more ambitious. In addition, the GMSF is not all about housing, and is also supposed to identify land for employment uses to enable jobs growth, something which seems to have slipped down the Mayor’s agenda. For councils who have struggled with the recession, dramatic funding cuts, and and exodus of residents and employees from their boroughs to jobs in the city, these targets are important to their future success.
The Government itself is also not confident about its own figures. With a national target of 300,000 homes to be delivered each year, and questions over whether housing projects factor in years of unmet demand, the Government is now consulting on the ONS figures, and is expected to release its own targets by mid-October. Some are predicting that for Greater Manchester, this could take the figure back up towards 210,000.
While the debate is over the level of Greater Manchester’s ambition, Green Belt release is also a massive political football, and in councils with marginal seats, they are taking a more cautious approach and are understood to be insisting that the target of 154,000 homes is correct.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority meets today, and place directors across the city region are expecting an announcement on the next stages for the GMSF. The GMCA will be waiting on the Government to released its revised housing targets in mid-October, but after that the leaders of GM will still need to debate whether they are happy with that figure, what changes to the GMSF will be needed, and when the draft should be put out to public consultation.
The chief executive of the Combined Authority, Eammon Boylan, is understood to be urging leaders not to delay the process much further, as it will risk pushing the GMSF timescale towards May local elections. Election periods generally bring political uncertainty, leadership changes, and a deadlock on decisions as councillors resist backing vote-losing policies like Green Belt release.
Even once the GMSF is fully formed, it still needs to be approved by all 10 council leaders, and Burnham.
Speaking at Place North West’s Greater Manchester development update yesterday, Cllr Linda Thomas, leader of Bolton Council, described the 10 leaders as “the most unified they have ever been” however did remind the audience that “the GMSF has to be signed off by all the local leaders. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to approve it”.
This all comes with a backdrop of a GMSF which is already massively delayed. The first draft set a target of 227,000 homes a year for the next 20 years, but included release of 4,900 hectares of Green Belt, which was massively unpopular with the public and was spread unevenly across the 10 GM boroughs. Burnham tapped into this wave of discontent when he campaigned to be Mayor in early 2017, and promised a radical rewrite of the GMSF. Once he was voted in he put Salford Mayor Paul Dennett in charge of shaping the plan, focusing on reducing Green Belt release, factoring in more affordable homes, and increasing delivery of homes in town centres.