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Planning matters

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As we begin the run up  to next year’s general election in earnest, it appears that senior politicians from all the major parties (and even UKIP) have finally started to face up to the need to build more homes, given the clear social and economic benefits of residential development.  The recently published Lyon’s Review (commissioned by the Labour Party) recommends policies that would help unlock 200,000 new homes a year. David Cameron recently pledged that he wants ‘to help more young people achieve the dream of home ownership so today I can pledge we will build 100,000 homes for young, first time buyers’. Furthermore, Tim Farron (Liberal Democrats) followed suit and stated that ‘we can and must choose to build a new generation of homes for those on ordinary salaries’.
This would all appear to indicate the general consensus across the main parties that a significant increase in housing completions is required to solve the UK’s housing crisis. Whilst the under-delivery of housing is harming UK plc’s economic growth prospects, the last few weeks have seen a northern shift in the debate. A cynic could interpret the recent announcements on HS3, the devolution of powers to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority [GMCA] and particularly plans for a powerful new, directly elected, city-wide mayor, as an attempt to win over undecided voters in key northern marginals. The even more cynical might point to the perceived benefits to key voters in the southern shires.  Even so, the plans to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to maximise the economic potential of the north, with the Manchester city region at its heart presents a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to stimulate economic growth and to plan strategically.  Central to this will be the delivery of sufficient quantities of high quality homes to accommodate the expanding workforce.
It is therefore very timely that the GMCA has begun the process of producing the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework [GMSF] which seeks guide growth over the period to 2037. The initial draft, recently been out to public consultation, outlines a housing requirement for the ten combined authorities of 224,823 dwellings over the 25 year plan period of 2012-2037 (10,706 per annum). There is a concern expressed by many in the house building industry that the figure is too conservative and needs to be boosted significantly to take into account the ambitious economic proposals for the area, and ever worsening market signals. Some estimate that the actual level of need could be in the order of 50,000 or even 100,000 more than the initial GMSF figure.
As currently drafted, there is a real risk that Greater Manchester’s (GM) economic aspirations would be stifled by a strategic plan that would ultimately restrict access to high quality family and executive housing in sustainable locations across the conurbation. A key question is where should these new homes be located? A number of the GM authorities have only a very limited amount of brownfield land suitable to accommodate housing needs, whilst much of the surrounding countryside is identified as Green Belt – amounting to some 60,000ha.
Since it was formally adopted in 1984, GM’s Green Belt boundaries have remained relatively unaltered and the Green Belt represents the proverbial political hot potato. However, if we really are to grasp the nettle and match the rhetoric concerning future economic growth potential with the homes needed to sustain it, then there needs to be an informed debate on where this growth can be sustainably accommodated.
Green Belt release need not necessarily conflict with other sustainability goals – indeed, recent research by NLP has found that some of the most sustainable potential housing sites in Greater Manchester are located within the Green Belt.  NLP mapped all Green Belt areas within Greater Manchester that are within 10 minutes walking distance (i.e. around 800 m) from a train station, tram stop or bus interchange (both existing and proposed).
Figure 1 Greater Manchester Green Belt within 10 Minutes Walk of a Station

Figure 1: Greater Manchester Green Belt within 10 Minutes Walk of a Station

As can be seen from the illustration, there is a surprisingly high number of Green Belt sites within easy walking distance of stations – indeed, we calculate this could comprise around 3,990 ha. of Green Belt land, less than 7% of the total designation.  Of course, a significant proportion of this land is likely to be unsuitable for development due to flood risk, land contamination etc. However, if we were to suppose that just half of this land were to come forward (so around 3.5% of GM’s Green Belt), then around 50,000 additional homes could potentially be delivered.
To put this into context, if the Manchester Green Belt land were represented by the football pitch at Old Trafford, the loss necessary to accommodate an extra 50,000 homes would roughly equate to the area within the centre circle.
It is still very early days for the GMSF, but clearly there are fundamental strategic Green Belt issues that must be addressed at an early stage in the plan-making process – perhaps most appropriately through a strategic Green Belt Review.  NLP has demonstrated that a substantial addition to the conurbation’s housing land could be achieved, whilst preserving almost 97% of its existing Green Belt. Perhaps with the added political stimulus of a new, all-powerful ‘Boris of the North’, looking to establish a northern powerhouse in Greater Manchester, we can look forward to targeted and well-planned Green Belt release to increase provision and choice in the housing market in the years to come. This is a difficult area to grapple with through an election mandate for any ‘wannabe’ Mayor, but is one to watch with interest over the coming months – and years.