GMSF and the coronavirus ‘new normal’

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GMSF and the coronavirus ‘new normal’

GMSF and the coronavirus ‘new normal’

Maximilian Kidd-Rossiter 16 Nov 2020
Following a 19-month impasse, on the 30th October 2020, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority [GMCA] approved a revised Publication Draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework [GMSF] for consultation, subject to the approval of the 10 constituent authorities. Since the publication of the 2019 Draft the rapid evolution the Greater Manchester’s built environment has continued; the political landscape has shifted with the UK leaving the EU; and now, the coronavirus pandemic has had profound unforeseen impacts on the City Region’s economic and social composition. As a result, the context for the GMSF has shifted significantly since the preparation of the Plan commenced in 2014.
This is the third entry in a series of blogs produced by Lichfields covering various GMSF related topics. For a general summary, see Brian O’Connor’s GMSF in a nutshell blog[1] and for a comprehensive overview of the topic of housing, refer to Colin Robinson’s diminishing returns blog[2]. This blog will look at the shift in work and lifestyle trends accelerated by the pandemic and consider whether the GMSF aligns with the ‘new normal’.

Prevailing uncertainty

It is clear that we remain in times of great uncertainty. In now what feels like a daily occurrence, economic forecasts are routinely revised in light of the latest news and statistics. Within this context, it could be argued that planning for the future in 2020 is more challenging than at any other point in recent history.  What is clear however, is that the flexibility of growth targets and policies in the GMSF will be vital in enabling the City Region to capitalise on the opportunities that arise during the expansion of the ‘new normal’ economy.
Despite the strong statements such as ‘COVID-19 has had a major impact on the way people live and work’ in the opening paragraphs of the latest draft, the GMCA has taken the decision to proceed with the Plan without making significant changes to the policies or growth targets as a result of coronavirus. This is following an initial assessment by Nicol Economics on the potential implications of the pandemic on the GMSF which concludes there is not enough certainty or evidence available to inform a ‘reasonable alternative’ to the Plan’s growth targets. The GMCA will instead use the process of the Plan Review to monitor the situation and if necessary undertake a formal review outside of the statutory review timetable.
So, in light of this approach, how well tailored are the policies in the GMSF to the ‘new normal’?

Home working

One of the most noticeable impacts of the pandemic has been the mass shift to working from home. Undoubtably, as the health outlook improves, workers will return to the office. However, it is highly unlikely that the overall percentage of employees commuting to, and working in, an office will return to pre-pandemic levels.  A recent YouGov survey commissioned by Locatee[3] found that only 7% of the 4,373 British adult workers interviewed wanted to return to the office full-time, with a significant number wanting work from home full-time (18%) or most of the time (32%).  In all probability, a new equilibrium of home/office working will be found, which for most employees will fall somewhere between the current and pre-pandemic approach to home working and result in less of a demand for office space.
Despite this, the ‘new normal’ for home-working is not referenced in the latest version of the GMSF. GMSF Policy GM-P 3 sets a minimum target of 2,500,000 sq.m of new office floorspace over the Plan period 2020-37 at an annual average of approximately 147,000 sq.m. This is an increase in the average annual amount office space being planned; with 2019 Draft including a minimum annual requirement equivalent to approximately 129,500 sq.m (2,460,000 sq.m over the slightly longer Plan period of 2018-2037).
What is more apparent in GMSF Policy GM-P 3 is that the four areas of focus (Manchester City Centre, Salford Quays, Manchester Airport Enterprise Zone and Town Centres) remain unaltered since the 2019 Draft, with 88% of new office floorspace (2,200,000 sq.m) to be delivered in Manchester City Centre. It is unclear what the long-term impacts of the pandemic will be on city centre office take-up, but there have already been indicators to suggest that companies are opting for smaller regional ‘hub’ offices and flexible shared workspaces. If this trend materialises in the long-term, offices floorspace will have a much greater level of dispersion and typical city-centre offices may become surplus to requirements.


Like most major cities, Manchester has a well-established commuter network which been majorly disrupted by the pandemic. Standing nose-to-nose with fellow commuters on a packed Metrolink Tram or Northern Rail Train has never been more unappealing. It is unlikely workers will want to return to the pre-pandemic commuter culture now they have tasted a more desirable alternative.  In relation to public transport objectives, GMSF Policy Strat 14 remains unchanged, stating the need to create a ‘much larger, integrated, rapid transit network – incorporating bus, Metrolink, tram/train and rail services’
The number of cyclists on Greater Manchester’s roads increased by 16% during first coronavirus wave and this is where the GMSF aligns more closely to the ‘new normal’. The GMSF outlines the Greater Manchester Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Proposal (Bee Network), which is a vision for Greater Manchester to become the first city-region in the UK to have a fully joined up walking and cycling network, covering over 1,800 miles of route.

Digital connectivity

“Can you hear me now?” has been the soundtrack to the pandemic for many workers with sub-par home internet speeds. Only 10% of UK premises (around 3 million premises) have access to full fibre broadband[4]. This is significantly lower than many of our European neighbours, such as; Portugal (70%), Spain (77%) and France (38%).
Despite growing frustration over internet speeds in some areas of Greater Manchester during the pandemic, GMSF policy remains unchanged in relation to fibre broadband. Policy GM-N 2 requires new developments to have full fibre premises connections but stops short of setting out a strategy to upgrade existing premises.

The mixed-use ‘home’

During first lockdown period, many peoples homes also became their workplace, gym, and even (for some) a classroom! Lockdown was a significantly different experience for people in homes with a private garden compared to those residing in a high-rise apartment with no outdoor space. This experience has changed how people perceive their home and could have a significant impact on housing preferences in the future.
As previously pointed out in Colin Robinson’s blog[5],Table 7.3 of the latest GMSF identifies that 58% of all the residential land supply to 2037 comprises apartments. Not only does this overlook the pressing need for family housing in Greater Manchester, it is contrary to people’s newly found preference for a private outdoor garden and additional space for a home office.

Online shopping

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the steady rise in online shopping meant that it already contributed to over 20% of total retail sales. Then, during the first wave of the coronavirus in the UK, online sales increased to more than 30% of the total and will probably settle at a level permanently higher than pre-pandemic levels. As a result, demand from retailers could shift away from their typical premises and towards more logistics and distribution floorspace.
GMSF Policy GM-P 4 sets a minimum target of at least 4,100,000 sq.m of industrial and warehouse floorspace over the Plan period 2020-2037 at an annual average of approximately 241,000 sq.m. This is a slight increase of 19,000 sq.m a year from the 2019 Draft annual average (222,000 sq.m), but the policy does not place any additional emphasis on the need for logistics and distribution premises created by the change in consumer behaviour towards online retail. The wording and explanatory text of subsequent Policy GM-N 6 (Freight and Logistics) also remains unaltered in relation to the growth of online retail.    


It remains unclear if, and to what extent, the recent shift in social and economic behaviours will become inherent in people’s post-pandemic lives. On the whole, the GMSF does not align what we anticipate the longer-term ‘new normal’ to behold. If there is a significant permanent shift, then it might not be too long before the GMCA has to seriously reconsider the growth and spatial strategies contained in the latest Draft.  Without factoring in the potential paradigm shift in behaviours as a result of COVID, the GMSF may be out of date as soon as it is adopted if it is not out of date already.

[1][2][3][4] Ofcom, Connected Nations 2019, 20 December 2019, data collected in September 2019.[5]