It’s been over four months since Andrew Western became leader of Trafford Council, when a Labour minority council took over after 14 years of Conservative control. One of his first acts was to withdraw major development plans at Turn Moss, and set a firm line against potential loss of the borough’s Green Belt at Flixton, however he insists he will not be running “a Nimby council”.
On his first day as leader, Western delivered on one of his main manifesto pledges and pulled council-backed plans to build a training ground and football facilities at Turn Moss for Salford City FC.
“At Turn Moss, we were reacting to what was a really strong community campaign with thousands of people supporting it, on both the Trafford and Manchester sides, and they had a really strong argument; about access to public space, the fact that it was in Green Belt, that it is a community asset,” Western told Place North West. “Whilst there would have been significant investment to improve the facilities, there would have been restricted access to public land as well, so it was a manifesto-led pledge that we made and I intend to deliver on as many of them as possible.”
Meanwhile at Flixton, Western rapidly wrote to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham stating that “Trafford’s Labour administration will never support housebuilding on Flixton’s green belt”, and requested that the area “be removed from the next phase of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework”.
Western’s stance against development on Green Belt is well timed with the wider political context, as the GMSF goes through a radical rewrite, ostensibly sticking to Burnham’s pledge that the 20-year strategy will see “no net loss” of the city region’s Green Belt. Western acknowledged that he had been “fortunate” to take over at a time when Manchester was targeting “brownfield first”.
Business community “essential”
Despite blocking two major plans for the area, Western is keen that the development community still sees Trafford as “open for business”.
“The fear for me is that there will be a view that we are ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-regen’, but it is not the Trafford way, it has never been the Trafford way.”
Western acknowledged that there “had been some reassurance required” in the development community when Labour took control of the council.
“People in the development community were slightly concerned because they might associate Labour with being less private-sector friendly.
“I am very conscious, having come in and scrapped Turn Moss, every intention of scrapping Flixton, and being fairly sceptical on elements of the Spatial Framework whilst in opposition, that people would have that concern. However for me, a strong business community is absolutely essential.
“At the end of the day, it is not just access to employment, businesses make a massive contribution in business rates to our annual budget. It is so significant to our vision for the borough to drive regeneration, but it is about inclusive growth for me, not just about growth for growth’s sake.”
He may not be anti-development, but Trafford’s view of what is the ‘right’ development is changing.
“One of the big things that I am trying to drive through with the GMSF is about the once-in-a-generation opportunity it gives us for having a proper, affordable housing strategy, because in places like Trafford it is an absolute nightmare.
“I pay £835 per month for a one-bed flat and the property market around here is just berserk. Whilst I can understand there are different problems in different boroughs, for instance Rochdale want more, higher value properties, in places like Trafford, parts of Salford, Stockport and obviously the city centre, we have got an affordability crisis.”
That inclusive growth involves rectify some of the historic imbalances across Trafford, according to Western.
“As a borough that is talked about as a really wealthy borough, we still have significant areas of deprivation. People talk about a North-South divide in Trafford and that is really prevalent. There is a 10-year life expectancy gap between a child born in the North and a child born in the South, which is a disgrace in the 21st century. Even in the wealthier parts of the borough, there are areas in Altrincham and Sale, Sale West for instance, where there is significant poverty and deprivation and I don’t think historically we have talked about that enough in Trafford.
“There is a big question mark about what we do with Stretford. We are going to go out to the community later on this year to talk to them about what they would like to see. I don’t want to second guess that, because the community in Stretford have been messed around quite a lot over the last five or six years or so where they have had massive plans, then redrafted along the way, and plans linked to the UA92 proposals dropping out of the sky onto their laps from nowhere.”
A large part of the Civic Quarter masterplan and Stretford masterplan is to capture the potential spend associated with the two major sports facilities based near the Town Hall; Lancashire County Cricket Club, and Old Trafford.
“At the minute, people get off the tram at Old Trafford. They walk past the cricket ground, they go up to the football ground, they come back, they get straight back on the tram, and they don’t spend as much money in Trafford as we would be hoping that they have spent. From an economic growth perspective, that is ridiculous.
“We have hundreds of thousands of visitors, sometimes each week, but we have got nowhere to give them to congregate, but also for the community to use if they want to, places for people to come together.”
Labour’s win in the May elections was not the only change at the top of Trafford Council. Within weeks it was announced that Theresa Grant, the council’s chief executive, was resigning alongside corporate director Joanna Hyde. While there were market rumours that Grant and Western didn’t see eye-to-eye, Western was keen to emphasise that “was not at all the case”.
He said the departure of Grant “was not a political issue”. Recruitment is under way for a new chief executive, and in the interim the role is currently being filled by Jim Taylor, who is also chief executive of Salford City Council.
Meanwhile, providing a critical approach to Trafford’s affordable housing delivery is high on Western’s agenda.
“We committed in our Manifesto to a 20% affordability target, but that is the absolute minimum that we would be looking for. We’ve already approved a scheme in the centre of Hale Village, of all places, for social housing.
“The previous administration would say they had 40% targets in parts of the borough; well, I can’t find schemes that have delivered 40% affordable, regardless of what the targets were. We are looking at the feasibility of publishing viability assessments, which I know is something that Manchester have looked at recently, because if there is a stubborn piece of land for development and people are saying it doesn’t stack up, then you can have a reasonable conversation, but I need to be able to justify to residents why, in that case, we have not upheld that target.
“For me, the default position should always be an absolute minimum of 20%. We have said loud and clear that a massive priority for us is building more social and affordable housing.
“The disparity in Trafford is massive and whereas in previous generations you always hope that your kids could move on in the world, and perhaps if you have grown up in Timperley you might move to Altrincham, now will the kid even stay in Trafford? They can’t afford to. So, I think there has been a real re-set internally here about the focus on affordable and social… The number of social housing units available in Trafford is nowhere near the level that it needs to be.”