Greater Manchester Spatial Framework: the future environment begins now

Manchester Cityscape Storm. Photo: Paul Rhoades

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) is an ambitious, county-wide plan for homes, jobs and the environment. It covers the period through to 2037 and has been in the pipeline since 2016, when 27,000 residents provided feedback on its first iteration, leading to a radical rethink regarding the Green Belt, with a further 17,500 people, businesses and community organisations giving their views on it last year.

It has a publication plan that went to the AGMA Executive Committee at the end of October, with all ten councils needing to give their approval after that, with a final plan available for consultation from December 1st to January 26th. Following that, it will go to the Secretary of State, who will ensure an independent inspection process takes place prior to its implementation, which is proposed for 2022. Let’s consider the plan in more detail.

The major purpose of GMSF is to decide what land is suitable for different types of development during the period it covers. Here is what the plan covers in total:

  • It sets out how Greater Manchester should develop up until 2037
  • identifies the amount of new development that will come forward across the 10 districts, in terms of housing, offices, and industry and warehousing, and the main areas in which this will be focused
  • supports the delivery of key infrastructure, such as transport and utilities
  • protects the important environmental assets across the city region
  • allocates sites for employment and housing outside of the existing urban area
  • defines a new Green Belt boundary for Greater Manchester

The hope is that the plan will do much more than simply build homes for people. On top of that, it is designed to reduce inequalities, improve people’s lives, and, as you might expect, aid in the ongoing transformation of Greater Manchester.

What is the context?

The plan is mandated by the government, which requires every local authority to produce plans that identify enough land to meet local housing and employment needs, by a deadline of December 2023. Greater Manchester Combined Authority has this to say regarding what has changed since the 2019 iteration:

“Covid-19 has had a major impact on the way people live and work over the shorter term with a high degree of uncertainty over its impact in the long term. In response the Government has been very clear that we need to positively plan for recovery. The Prime Minister made his Build, Build, Build announcement at the end of June 2020 setting a context for England as we recover from Covid-19. 

The Chancellor’s Statement at the beginning of July sought to kick-start the UK’s economic recovery. A three-point Plan for Jobs was unveiled to support, protect and create jobs, with total fiscal support amounting to £30 billion.  Whilst the arrival of Covid-19 was not anticipated and its impact is very significant, our approach needs to be flexible to address unpredictable challenges that will arise over the course of any long-term strategy.”

It is worth quoting GMCA at length, as of course we are living in unprecedented times; what many of us have got used to calling the New Normal. But where there is crisis, there is hope for change, and one of the myriad effects of Covid is an increased acknowledgement of the need for a co-ordinated, joined-up approach to our environment, along with an increased pushing of corporate social responsibility by both the public and private sectors. In this context, not only is the pandemic not a reason to delay, but rather the opposite; it should actually be a catalyst for greater focus on how we live. Let’s have a look at what is says about sustainability, carbon emissions and energy.

Sustainability, Carbon & Energy

The plan‘s overall strategy is informed by the overarching goal of sustainable development. This can be seen by the proposed scale and location of development, and the individual policies and allocations. It includes the following approaches

  • protecting and enhancing key environmental resources
  • following the waste hierarchy
  • reducing waste generation
  • using sustainable construction techniques
  • combating climate change
  • reducing carbon emissions to meet Greater Manchester’s 2038 carbon neutrality target date

The hope is that these methods will support high levels of economic growth to benefit all residents, and deliver sustainable patterns of development to reduce car usage. This will be done in line with the following strategy:

“To help tackle climate change, development should aim to maximise its economic, social and environmental benefits simultaneously, minimise its adverse impacts, utilise sustainable

construction techniques and actively seek opportunities to secure net gains across each of the different objectives.

Preference will be given to using previously-developed (brownfield) land and vacant buildings to meet development needs.

In bringing forward previously developed sites for development, particular attention will be paid to tackling land contamination and stability issues, ensuring that appropriate mitigation and remediation is implemented to enable sites to be brought back into use effectively.”

Alongside this, there is ambition regarding tackling climate change, through policies that aid the region’s desire to become a carbon-neutral city by 2038. AS you’d expect, working towards being carbon-neutral is an aim that is woven throughout the plan, rather than a discrete, stand-alone policy. That’s not to say that delivering that is not attached to a specific range of measures. Here are some of them:

  1. Promoting the retrofitting of existing buildings with measures to improve energy efficiency and generate renewable and low carbon energy, heating and cooling
  2. Promoting the use of life cycle cost and carbon assessment tools to ensure the long-term impacts from development can be captured
  3. Taking a positive approach to renewable and low carbon energy schemes, particularly schemes that are led by, or meet the needs of local communities
  4. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground
  5. Planning for a balanced and smart electricity grid by identifying geographical locations which could support energy assets
  6. Increasing the range of nature-based solutions including carbon sequestration through the restoration of peat-based habitats, woodland management, tree-planting and natural flood management techniques
  7. Development of Local Area Energy plans to develop cost effective pathways to achieve carbon targets

Furthermore, there is the expectation that new developments will be 2028 follow the energy hierarchy in order to minimise energy demand, maximise energy efficiency, and utilise renewable and low carbon energy. There are also recommendations concerning electric vehicle charging, renewable and low-carbon heating, reducing energy demand in terms of both heating and hot water, on-site renewable energy and energy statements.

Stumbling blocks

In the latest iteration, 180,000 new homes are planned, down from the original figure of 227,000 mooted in 2016, a reduction caused to a large degree by a 60% reduction in planned Green Belt development. Despite that reduction, its safe passage to implementation is not assured, with building on the Green Belt remaining the major point of contention. It’s still not clear if it will get through all ten councils, as Stockport Conservative councillors have said they will join Lib Dems in voting it down. This has led to Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, appealing directly to the councillors with a plea not to rip it up, but to engage in dialogue. He had this to say regarding the importance of a unified approach:

“That’s where we want to be, that’s what we think we have done by putting this revised plan forward today. It’s always going to be a compromise, let everyone be clear about that . Nobody can get everything they want from any plan of this kind – everybody has to compromise.

“So let’s show Greater Manchester at its best, have one last go at a conversation around this plan. But let’s everybody stick with this process, agree it and then move on confidently in the new year.”

Burnham’s view has been echoed by council leaders in a number of the other boroughs, with the general view being that the plan is an efficacious example of cross-party work, with the attendant inference that some people are playing politics with people’s futures.

It’s also the case that if the plan were to fail, it could actually lead to more speculative development, plus councils who opt out could actually need to build more homes, to make up for the ones that would be lost, and the attendant government funding; in short, councils would have less control over both the space in which we all live – meaning residents would have as well – and planning for growth.

We should be hoping that these bumps in the road can be overcome. If we are to tackle climate change and build a sustainable world, it is vital that efforts are co-ordinated and joined-up.