November saw the publication of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) which outlined plans for over 227,000 new homes and 60,000 of these being built on the Green Belt. It’s the first time that Greater Manchester has produced such a comprehensive and controversial planning document and I can tell you that if you tried to do the same thing in some areas of the South East there would be open revolt before the ink was dry on the paper!
In Manchester the long, albeit intermittent history of devolution, has led to quite a united front from councils that make up the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). Of course what helps is that politically there is a shared mindset, with 9 out of 10 councils being run by Labour (Stockport is a Labour minority administration) and the Conservatives run Trafford Council. They all know that the billions in Northern Powerhouse funding is predicated on getting the GMSF through on time and its built a shared purpose in local politics for these administrations. This is despite the fact that elections are held every single year (if you include the mayoralty) and should make councillors ‘risk adverse’.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the GMSF publication, with 28% of Green Belt development, wasn’t met with opposition and we have already had local politicians such as Liz McInnes, MP for Heywood and Middleton, indicate that the plans will lead to the ‘destruction’ of the Green Belt. We’ve also had all manner of opposition councillors in Greater Manchester promising to fight ‘tooth and nail’ to prevent these plans being realised. Most importantly, Andy Burnham, the Labour candidate for the Greater Manchester mayoralty, has called for a ‘root and branch reform’ of the process and this was before the controversial plans were even published!
With that being said, the majority of MPs locally seem to recognise that the new Framework is probably the best that can be achieved in time for the Government’s March 2017 deadline for submission and have decided to keep a low profile. So far it looks like the only MP to welcome the plans is Jonathan Reynolds, MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, who has stuck his head above the parapet. This is admirable as politically its far easier for MPs to herald the Green Belt apocalypse in the knowledge that in all likelihood it’s not going to derail the process of the GMSF.
So what makes Social think that the GMSF is going to be progressed?
Firstly, the document has the support of the council leaders of the GMCA who ultimately have to approve the document. This is evident in the drafting process when you consider that there has only been a 10% uplift in housing numbers from the 2015 draft and the 11,360 homes per annum provides enough leeway at Examination In Public (EIP). The figure is also far short of the what the development industry feels is necessary to meet the ambitions of the Northern Powerhouse, but it was never going to be that high. After all these council leaders have to sell the plans to their backbenchers – a process that is never straightforward I can tell you having been Conservative Group Leader during the time our own Council was pushing through its local plan!
Whilst MPs are certainly very influential in local political parties, these council leaders have their ‘backs against a wall’ and need to approve the GMSF and safeguard housing delivery. The alternative is speculative development in their boroughs without any way of defending against it. You only have to look at places like Harrogate who went down that road in the past and are still not out of the woods!
Secondly, whilst the GMSF needs to be ratified with a vote by all ten local authorities if you dig down into the political composition of them you will see that nearly all of them have a heavy majority of seats for the administration. Take for example Manchester City Council, even if the Labour Party lost every one of the 32 seats up for election in 2018 it would still be in power as every local authority in Greater Manchester elects a third of its seats at a time. So whilst opposition parties are going to get ‘up on their soap box’, realistically the GMSF is still going to be ratified by the respective councils and their backbenchers.
The only caveat is Stockport Council, which is under Labour minority administration with 23 out of 63 seats and the Liberal Democrats, who have 21 seats, have already come out against the Green Belt plans. This is despite the party having run the council prior to May 2016 and almost certainly being involved in the GMSF drafting process. I believe that it is no coincidence that Stockport’s housing allocation has seen a below average increase compared to the other local authorities, despite having high house prices and heavy pressure for development. The move has been designed to help the Labour Council Leader, Alex Ganotis, in negotiating with the Conservative Group (who hold 14 seats and can give him a voting majority) to ensure that the plans get voted through Full Council. Otherwise failing to ratify the document is going to cause a political headache for planning in Greater Manchester in the same way that the EU was forced to ‘freestyle’ a bailout plan for the Euro when David Cameron vetoed the proposals in December 2011.
It is not without coincidence that the devolution deal creating a new mayor for Greater Manchester sees the first election for the post in May 2017. The election comes after the GMSF has passed all of its key milestones and in all likelihood will have been submitted for EIP, or at the very least published. You can be pretty sure that after Andy Burnham’s recent comments, the GMCA is going to throw everything but the kitchen sink to ensure that the GMSF is progressed as much as possible before the mayoral election next year.
Therefore, the new mayor is going to be presented with a finalised document and told that to make substantive changes is going to require going ‘back to the drawing board’ to take account of updated information. They will be told it will lead to a developer free-for-all in the interim. The local authorities will then blame the mayor for every single unpopular scheme that needs to be approved. Therefore it’s not looking great for re-election in 2021 when you need a record of success and local political allies to retain your nomination. This is without even looking at all the major infrastructure schemes earmarked in the GMSF that with a best case scenario would be delayed, or see funding cut from the Northern Powerhouse agenda if the process has to be restarted.
This leads us to think that the new mayor is going to adopt the ‘devil you know’ approach to planning rather than opt for unchartered territory. If it’s Andy Burnham then he will be pointing to the £300m Greater Manchester Housing Fund and dialling up the rhetoric to ensure that it reflects his priorities for social housing. The political capital gained from this will compensate any fallout from not making changes to the GMSF and is consequences.
As a result of this and the other factors discussed above, it seems unlikely that the current opposition to the GMSF is going to translate into wholesale changes of the document or a reversal of Green Belt sites.
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