The Subplot | Greater Manchester’s big plan, science surge, EV chaos
- Places for Everyone: the panto season comes early as the public examination of the Greater Manchester plan gets underway
- Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who is going up, and who is heading the other way
CURTAIN RISES ON GM’S PLANNING DRAMA
Places for Everyone: the panto you daren’t miss
The public examination of the development plans by nine (of 10) Greater Manchester councils has begun. It’s already a comedy and might become a tragedy.
If you haven’t been watching the YouTube feeds of the first sessions of the public examination of Places for Everyone (PFE), the strategic planning document for nine of Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs, then you really should. It’s basically panto. There’s a dashing lead called Kit Kat who takes some eye-watering risks, there’s a chorus of angry barons (developers), and peasants (green belt protectors) and, at the centre, the unlikely figures of the three put-upon inspectors. Subplot gives it an enthusiastic five stars.
The story so far
PFE represents what could be saved from the attempt to agree a Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), an effort that began in 2014 and collapsed in 2020 when Stockport pulled out. It provides for 20.5m sq ft of allocation for office space, 35.8m sq ft of industrial and warehousing floors space, and lots of new homes (56,528 of them in the city of Manchester by 2037). The problem is that to escape from the ruins of the GMSF, the nine councils have to show the new plan is “substantially” the same as the old one. If the Nine can’t establish this, the whole thing collapses (Subplot, 20 July 2021).
Introducing Kit Kat
Act One of the examination in public saw the councils’ counsel, Christopher Katkowski KC (Kit Kat to his friends), lock horns with William Fieldhouse, one of the three inspectors. Kit Kat was sharply suited, smooth, very relaxed, definitely channelling Prince Charming, while Mr Fieldhouse seemed to be more like a flustered Buttons, his necktie a bit so anyhow. Fieldhouse asked again and again how the inspectors could know whether the PFE was “substantially” the same as the GMSF, and Kit Kat replied again and again that they didn’t need to worry about this, because it was legally-speaking none of the inspectors’ businesses, but he was very happy to have a little chat if it pleased them.
The battle with Buttons
This was a bold and fearless approach, relying on a KC’s authority and a touch of theatrical hauteur, and Kit Kat was probably expecting Buttons to give up. But Buttons didn’t. Buttons got quite assertive. First he smelled a rat. We asked this question in April, July and October and you didn’t say we had no legal standing then, he pointed out. “Something prompted you to tell us last week, and you weren’t prompted to tell us earlier” he added. Kit Kat said the magic words were “legal advice” which the inspectors had mentioned last week. He then repeated his view that the inspectors had no right to look into this problem. “It sounds terribly rude on my part, but I don’t mean to be rude, we’re very happy to chat about all these things,” he added, politely, assuming victory was now his.
It’s behind you!
But Kit Kat, look behind you! Buttons crept up and tipped a bucket of confetti all over him. Okay, Mr Fieldhouse said, if law is a problem, then let’s try a different law, in particular the one giving the inspectors the right to decide the soundness of the plan. If PFE isn’t substantially the same as GMSF then it can’t be “sound”, no? Kit Kat’s answer was that you can’t suddenly expand soundness to include things already dealt with by different laws. But by now Kit Kat was using the expression “with great respect” and his previously open body language had turned into arms folded.
The serious point here
The Nine’s position is that the plans are “substantially” the same because the nine councils decided they were, and if anyone wanted to challenge them they could have launched a judicial review, but didn’t. So case closed. An awful lot is hanging on that claim. But as Buttons pointed out, this was just Kit Kat’s view, not one tested before the courts or supported by case law. And they both know that the inspectors’ report or secretary of state’s decision on the report, could be judicially reviewed in the future. This one isn’t over yet.
Act Two the following day starred a new character, inspector Steven Lee. His subject was PFE’s allocation of land for industrial and warehouse development and he too, revealed how much the Nine are gambling on the turn of a single card. The issue here is how the Nine got their numbers for the volume of new industrial warehouse space needed. The plan identifies 35.5m sq ft of need 2021-2037, based on the amount of development that took place between 2004 and 2020 with the addition of a “flexibility margin” of 31%. Both Green Belt campaigners and developers told Mr Lee that the number feels arbitrary. Matt Kingham, speaking for Eden Planning, called the effort to justify the figures “quite cursory”. Green Belt campaigners flicked pellets from the other direction, pointing out the existing supply pipeline was underestimated, and listing a few schemes the report failed to include.
So Mr Lee asked about the origin of the numbers, and got long, complicated, technical answers. His response was to pause and, very slowly in absolutely silence, write longhand notes. This was smart and raised the tension wonderfully. Then he asked, perhaps the figure for new build 2004-2020 was suppressed because of a lack of suitable land, and so following the 2004-2020 trend will artificially lower the requirement for new-build in the future?
The magic answer
Kit Kat had been watching this technical discussion, but now sensed the danger and took over from assistants, who’d been answering up until this point. “Adjustments have been made, including the flexibility allowance or buffer, if that’s what we want to call it. All roads lead back to that,” he said. Lee asked whether the flexibility allowance is a catch-all answer to all questions about the numbers. “Yes it’s our answer to a whole host of points,” said Kit Kat. Mr Lee did more silent writing, ominously. If the inspectors don’t think bumping up all numbers by 31% is supported by evidence, or does not count as “positively prepared, justified and consistent with national policy” then the plan is in deep, deep trouble.
The early feeling from week one was that this is comedy gold, a box set to cherish, but if the Nine insist on betting so much on the turn of a few uncertain cards, it could be a drama with a final act that feels more like a tragedy.
Going up, or going down? This week’s movers
Salford shows some leg in the science property sector, but the North walks into a nightmare on its electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Going down.
Competition between the Salford and Manchester versions of a science campus just got a bit more real.
English Cities Fund’s £2.5bn Crescent Innovation North project in Salford has taken a step forward. Consultation on the scheme has now begun with a view to creating 1.6m sq ft of innovation, research, education and commercial space, and 950 homes of various kinds. It is the first 27-acre slice of a masterplan that includes 2.4m sq ft of research space and 2,650 homes. A planning application for the rest of Crescent Innovation North will come early next year.
On the Manchester side of the Irwell is the £1.5bn ID Manchester project moving equally fast? The good news is that in February Bruntwood SciTech and Manchester University signed up as joint venture partners, with Stanhope as development manager. Since then, it’s hard to say. Subplot asked for a chat but was politely turned down.
Petrol and diesel car production ends in 2030, so you’d think there would be urgency about completing electric vehicle infrastructure in advance. Well, think again.
Transport for the North reckons the North West, Yorkshire and the North East will need between them 161,000 charging points in the next seven years. There are just 8,000 charging points today. So to meet the target this means cranking out 470 a week to 2025, then stepping up output sharply in the final five years. TfN has a strategy, but of course no money.
In a region with public transport visibly falling to bits, and the prospects for major new projects looking dire, this is genuinely serious. The net result could be that the North misses out on major public transport infrastructure – RIP Northern Powerhouse Rail – and then misses out on essential private transport infrastructure, too. In which case, curtains.
Get in touch with David Thame: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Subplot is brought to you in association with Oppidan Life.