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The only way is up?

The only way is up?

Stephen Morgan-Hyland 03 Jul 2018
An e-mail confirming Lichfields’ Northern Powerhouse Partner status dropped in to my inbox as I stood surveying the Manchester manor from 2o storeys up; from the delightfully named 20Stories restaurant at No1 Spinningfields. When I moved to Manchester two decades ago, only four buildings in the city topped 20 storeys and you certainly couldn’t enjoy gourmet food with a panoramic view and a raspberry martini; or enjoy living in any of them. I did once take some chips to rooftop of Portland Tower, the building where I plied my planning trade back then, but that was a glamorous as high-rise Manchester got pre-2000.
Back to the future, and I stand watching the construction lifts scuttling like children’s toys up and down the façades of Renaker Build/SimpsonHaugh & Partners’ Deansgate Square Towers – the 67th floor of the tallest of four towers will top 200 metres and be the fifth tallest building in the UK – and wonder whether, for the largest city and metropolitan area in the Northern Powerhouse, the only way is indeed up?
The Northern Powerhouse is characterised by cities with commonality in land use planning issues, and whilst the focus of this piece is the North West, my 20Stories view affords an outlook of the Pennines and I am acutely aware that beyond those hills the same issues are in play; and the same over t’other way too, in Liverpool.
The smart money in the North West is on up, and out; across Greater Manchester. Local election results, amongst other things, have forced back – to ‘later this Summer’ - a consultation on the rewritten Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF); now the ‘baby’ of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. The confidence and supply support from Trafford Liberal Democrats to Labour in a minority administration alliance is dependent upon a brownfield first approach to new housing, and seemingly removes from the GMSF the Flixton Station and Timperley Wedge sites put forward for Green Belt release. The two sites might have provided over 4,000 new homes and represent 6% of the residential development potential from Green Belt release sites (some 65,000 homes) across Greater Manchester.
It remains to be seen how the rewritten GMSF proposes to redress the short-fall. Trafford’s reticence to embrace its housing shortage may well result in opportunities for additional sites elsewhere, across the combined authority area, but there is clearly a need for significant additional high-density, high-rise urban development and that will be driven by Manchester and Salford-focussed demand.  Lichfields knows that market well, leading the planning process on several 30+ storey towers. There is plenty here about Lichfields’ housing and expertise and insight.
One certainty is that Andy Burnham will want the GMSF and a housing strategy for Greater Manchester sorted well in advance of the next Mayoral election in 2020.
Back at a 20th storey terrace lunch table – I was at 20Stories as a client celebration on completion of an important regeneration project – I dropped into the conversation the spatial framework; not the Burnham ‘baby’ but the City of Manchester Plan of 1945. Those who know me will recognise that I am a bastion of topical conversation. Chapter 12 Housing Standards starts with quote from once Bishop of Manchester William Temple ‘We need more space, above all more space for and in the homes of people…’; nothing changes. The 1945 Plan includes page-upon-page of guidance on appropriate residential densities, standards for internal living and principles for outdoor amenity space. I read it recently, and I bring to this into the discussion.  Stick with me my lunch guests did.  
The 1945 Plan’s relevance to modern day society and policy aspirations, through its references to ensuring that the delivery of residential development is ‘…compatible with a sense of well-being’, achieves a ‘softening…of stark lines’ and contributes to ‘enlivening…arid monotony’ is palpable. It goes on to say that ‘…means must be found to bring back living greenery into our inner residential districts’. Whilst the Manchester Plan was seeking a move away from bare, drab too-closely-built Victorian streets the reference to well-being is as applicable now as it was then.
Millennials (born early 80s to mid-90s), often dubbed Generation Rent, are occupying a significant proportion of new-build city apartments across UK towns and cities; Manchester and Salford are no exception.
In the past, Baby Boomers who moved ‘out’ to new-build peripheral housing estates often cited isolation and loneliness given an absence of ‘community’ and facilities; a sense of being a long way out from their traditional inner-city residential areas. As we increasingly embrace building up as well as out, and land availability constraints will demand this, land use planning needs to be increasingly minded of those living a long way up.
Residential tower blocks have always carried the risk of social isolation, all too often a social failing of our elderly citizens. Such discussions about loneliness typically focus on the elderly, but a recent Study by the Office for National Statistics found that young people (aged 16-24) identified with a feeling being lonely more often than is the case with any other adult age group. If Millennials and those who follow (so called Generation Z) are to populate and make communities out of our high-rise cities then the Northern Powerhouse needs to reflect on the foresight of 1945 to ‘…bring back living greenery into our inner residential districts’. It is not the greenery per se that might guard against that threat of loneliness, rather the opportunity carried by open space for social interaction. Moreover, making something of that potential is down to those potential users; the Fortnite versus real world conundrum. Don’t think either that I’m questioning high-rise, high-quality being delivered in our new vertical cities; that is top drawer. It’s the spaces in between that is of fundamental importance to creating liveable and sustainable environments.
Perhaps Yazz –known well by my Generation X cohort – was prophesising about 21st century living when she sang– But if we should be evicted, Huh, from our homes, We'll just move somewhere else, And still carry on – in the 1988 hit The Only Way is Up.  
Generation Rent might be residentially peripatetic and upwardly bound, but that footloose sense captured by Yazz will only meet with success if our urban environments delivery a sense of well-being and belonging. Ultimately the Northern Powerhouse, and its success, is all about, and dependent upon, the people of the North. That is, utilising their economic might to drive forward the new Northern agenda. We can only do this if land use planning creates the right foundations for society, and looking after the social well-being of Northern Powerhouse citizens is paramount as our cities grow up as well as grow out.