Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Greater Manchester skyline

Perspectives Essay: How can sustainability be understood in Greater Manchester?

Any sustainable city must be a place that can provide its people with accessible means to achieve their aspirations, both now and in the future. A sustainable city will enable its people to make logical choices that support sustainable outcomes and increase personal independence.

This means far more than the provision of high quality infrastructure, green and ecologically sustainable environment and low carbon economy, though all of these are key elements. It also requires the existence of high levels of skills in the city’s workforce, of high levels of innovation in the business base and, critically, of an urban culture that promotes respect, independence and achievement for all of the city’s people and diverse communities.

High quality infrastructure

Greater Manchester faces challenges in achieving the levels of change needed in respect of all of these issues.  The city region does not have the quality of infrastructure it needs to meet the challenge of sustainable economic growth and diversification in the 21st century.  While the continued extension of the Metrolink network is a largely significant step it is still the case that the level of penetration of high quality, low emission transport options to outlying towns and, in particular, between outlying areas, is inadequate.

While the provision of high quality radial transport infrastructure is absolutely essential we have to also address the virtual absence of orbital connectivity with the exception of the M60 motorway. Given the strong possibility of significant growth in employment at key sites close to the M60/M62 network (Kingsway, Ashton Moss, Carrington, Port Salford, Airport City, Davenport Green, Cheadle Royal will all see further growth across a range of sectors) it is really important that we enhance sustainable access to such locations if we are to maximise access to employment for residents in outlying boroughs in particular.

The emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework will highlight this issue as part of the wider strategy for investment in transport infrastructure.  The recently agreed GM City Deal (signed with Government in March 2012) creates the potential to accelerate, significantly, the delivery of key transport projects including the building of the new A555 road to connect Stockport, North Cheshire and South Manchester to the Airport and Airport City. Improvement to infrastructure will be key to enabling sustainable economic and housing growth.  Population projections, changing demographics, likely changes to individual’s aspiration and economic power (highlighted in the MIER in 2008) mean that we will need to address growth across the conurbation, not just at its core.  Public transport communication networks and infrastructure needs to evolve to support (and make more environmentally sustainable) this inevitable growth.

Equally we need to invest in our wider infrastructure in order to meet a range of real and present challenges.  Three examples are:

Information technology & high speed broadband access.

Manchester, in common with other UK cities will run an enhanced risk of economic decline and loss of competitiveness if the current approach to broadband roll-out is not changed to enable faster development of genuinely high speed broadband that can stand comparison with current and emerging competitor cities in the Far East and the USA.

"This is not an argument for the public sector to step back. Rather it is a compelling rationale for it to do its job better, in a way that can be afforded and with much more beneficial outcomes for individuals and communities."

This is critical given the importance of sectors such as Creative, Media and Life Sciences to Manchester's Universities and its wider economy. Our ability to attract and retain world class individuals and businesses will be undermined unless we can create a realistic prospect of the delivery of a high speed network and this will be critical in terms of our ability to capitalise on our, relatively few, assets of global significance. An obvious example is that of Media City in Salford where huge investment by the BBC has helped to create the context for huge growth in the city region's already strong creative and media sector. This potential will be at risk if production companies, design businesses and others know that lack of connectivity will limit their ability to compete internationally. Britain's lead in design and development of computer games, currently being lost for this very reason, ought to serve as a warning signal.

Power supply

We operate at the limits of current capacity particularly at the core of the conurbation where the cost of new development can be increased considerably by the need for upgrading of the local grid to facilitate growth in demand.  While this has not prevented growth it acts as a further barrier to competitiveness and, in the medium term, will have to be addressed through an upgrading of capacity.

In the shorter term innovation will be needed both to manage this issue and to help achieve our objective of a low carbon economy. Projects to create local heat and power networks are key to the longer term success of our town centres and the city centre itself.

The creation of a new combined heat and power (CHP) network to service the refurbished civic complex, new office development and existing hotels adjoining St Peter's Square in Manchester is an interesting example of the re-invention of an old idea that is ideally suited to the changing circumstances the city faces.


It is a long acknowledged truth that Manchester is where it is, and became what it was, because we enjoy a singularly damp climate. "Cottonopolis" would not have been born, nor the Industrial Revolution launched, were it not for the rain-shadow of the Pennines. One might wonder what Marx & Engels would have had to talk about as they sat in their window seat in the library at Chetham[s School.

But it is also the case that climate change is driving tangible differences in levels of rainfall which have increased, and that continued development is putting greater and greater strain on a water and waste management network built, in large part, in the centre of the conurbation, about one hundred and fifty years ago.

Insistence on the use of sustainable urban drainage solutions for new development will help alleviate pressure caused by new development in some places but recent flooding incidents in Bury and Salford point to the need for significant investment in the relatively short term in the conurbation’s flood management capacity.  This will become more urgent as the pace of climate change increases and as pressure builds to expand urban settlement into the Green Belt, much of which is in or borders river valleys.

Sustainable places and a sustainable culture

The quality of the conurbation's physical environment has improved significantly in recent decades. Standards of energy performance in new development have risen in line with national standards but have also been pushed to higher levels by local policy interventions such as Manchester City Council’s Design Guide published in 1994.

A major challenge remains the energy performance of the city's older built stock, particularly its housing stock, which remains a hugely significant contributor to Manchester's carbon footprint. A major programme of "retro-fit" for the City's housing stock is proposed, building on the Government's Green Deal and the Combined Authority is promoting an innovative and co-ordinated programme to maximise impact and value.

But the energy efficiency of a home, or the proximity of green space are not the key determinants of the sustainability of urban neighbourhoods.  Far more significant factors are the quality of public realm, the levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, the concentration of deprivation, the quality of local services and the degree of social cohesion that exists.  In too many places in Greater Manchester the combination of some, or all, of these factors remains a critical barrier to those places becoming self-sustaining.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Manchester led the UK in respect of its strategies to tackle neighbourhoods where a combination of these factors had rendered places dysfunctional.  In Hulme and then in East Manchester very large scale interventions were undertaken to try to restore those places to a functional level.  In order to do that it was important to understand the nature of the circumstances that had caused the problem in the first place.

In the case of Hulme we faced one "perfect storm" created by the coalescence of flawed public policy. Hulme had been created as a series of ambitious design experiments with the hugely praiseworthy aim of replacing the appalling slum conditions that preceded the comprehensive redevelopment in the 1960s. The area was planned on the basis that medium rise development, in a very low density environment, with the virtual elimination of ‘unhealthy’ traffic would create a perfect setting for a healthy and prosperous community.

The actual result was the creation of a series of estates that were un-policeable by design, un-maintainable as a result of poor quality and unsustainable as a consequence of their physical isolation and absolute lack of local amenity. All of this would have been resolvable had it not been compounded by an approach to the letting of affordable housing, and sufficient slack in the supply of alternative homes, that left Hulme as the destination of last resort: people lived there because they had to: very few people would choose to because there was no logical choice to do so.

In East Manchester it was a different story. Large numbers of homes were built, by local industrialists, to house large numbers of low paid workers who worked in local engineering and manufacturing businesses.  Then, beginning after the Second World War and accelerating into the 1970s and early 1980s, all of the factories disappeared. Nothing else happened… the area did not collapse but the seeds of its rapid demise in the latter part of the 1990s were sown. Younger people, including the vast majority of economically active people, left leaving the older, long term residents. No inward movement took place, house prices collapsed and the area spiralled downhill as (some) unscrupulous private landlords let properties to residents who, as in the Hulme situation had no choice and no commitment to the area.

So the routes to dysfunctionality differ but the challenge remains the same: to restore the basic level of functionality that can enable people to make a logical choice to be in a place.

That choice will be based on affordability (of course) but also on basic quality: quality of environment, quality of local amenity, quality of transport links, quality of local services (particularly schools), quality of employment opportunities and quality of community.

There are few neighbourhoods in Greater Manchester that face the scale and intensity of challenge that we tackled in Hulme and East Manchester (although the current Government’s antipathy towards anything resembling market renewal, which it still, mistakenly, regards as a demolition frenzy, had left much good work unfinished).  However we still must press very hard to encourage diversification of tenure and the creation of local choices in our most vulnerable places, where we still face the greatest problems of deprivation, poor attainment, low life expectancy, highest levels of dependency and crime, if we are to avoid the same problems of dysfunctionality emerging in new places.  Two current initiatives will, in my view be critical in achieving this.

Public sector reform

Greater Manchester is leading England and Wales in developing new and integrated approaches to the delivery of public services as part of the drive toward Community Budgets (or Total Place as the last Government called the same thing!)  This is, unashamedly, linked to how we make core public services sustainable in what will be a very lengthy period of austerity.  But it is also critical if we are to support some of our most deprived people to become more independent.  The principle aims of the GM reform agenda are to increase the effectiveness of early interventions, right across the public sector, in order to reduce demand for longer term, reactive services.  This approach will necessitate new ways of working for Local Authorities, the new NHS structures, Police, Probation, Employment Services, skills providers and schools.  But it will also have the effect of placing much greater expectations on families and individuals to make fewer demands of the State and increase their own self-reliance and resilience.

So what has this to do with sustainable places… a very great deal. Those places in GM that are at the greatest level of risk in respect of the basic functionality of those neighbourhoods are those where multi-generational problems of worklessness and dependency are at their most concentrated.  Unless we can find a route to reverse that trend then we will allow places to become inherently unsustainable as they become more polarised and deprived.

This is the biggest drag on our ability to not only shape a sustainable urban entity but also to ensure that all of our people can create sustainable economic and social futures for themselves.   This is not an argument for the public sector to step back.  Rather it is a compelling rationale for it to do its job better, in a way that can be afforded and with much more beneficial outcomes for individuals and communities. There is an element of promotion of choice here but also one of constraining the ability for people of making inherently unsustainable choices (i.e. to choose dependency).

The Public Sector Reform agenda is, therefore, far more than a special project as far as Greater Manchester partners are concerned.  It is a means to fundamental, systemic change in the way in which public services are thought of and delivered and in the way in which public agencies relate to their customers and to each other.  The success of this initiative is crucial to the long term sustainability of families and places but it will not be delivered overnight.  We are seeking to unpick the culture of dependency that has emerged over decades in many of our urban neighbourhoods.  This will take time and determination.

Town centres

Now that Mary Portas has brought the fact that town centres are in trouble to our attention… well surprisingly enough we had already spotted this as a hugely significant issue.

The (currently draft) Greater Manchester Spatial Investment Framework highlights the significant role of the 8 major town centres in Greater Manchester.  It recognises the absolute need for continued investment in the City Centre as the largest single driver of economic growth but also places clear emphasis on the role of the smaller centres as localities of sustainable economic activity and employment.

This is not mere window dressing to assuage the outer boroughs: it is a clear acknowledgement of the need for radical action to ensure that our town centres survive the step changes in the scale of high street retail demand and move to diversify their role and functions to best address their current and anticipated weaknesses and to exploit their advantages and opportunities.

The relevance of this to the sustainability of vulnerable neighbourhoods is clear.  In many cases in Greater Manchester the relationship between a town centre and the more affluent suburbs in that borough is weak.  Put bluntly the middle classes shop in their neighbourhood (district/village), the City Centre or in major out of town locations (Trafford Centre being the most significant).  They do not use, nor do they depend on, their local town centre in the same was as more deprived communities do, for shopping, for leisure or for employment.

A small task force is being set up, by the Combined Authority and the LEP (through the Business Leadership Council) to undertake a critical review of the strategies for each of the 8 centres (plus Eccles) to report to the CA in the Autumn.

Low carbon

Linked to the work on Town Centres which are, by definition, inherently more sustainable than outlying locations, is the work to enhance the low carbon economy of the city-region. This forms a major part of the Greater Manchester Deal signed with Government in March 2012.  A pathfinder agreement with BIS, DECC and Defra, is being finalised which will see the establishment of a low carbon ‘hub’ to oversee and co-ordinate projects with the aim of reducing GM carbon emissions by 48% before 2020. In addition a Joint Venture is being planned between GM and the UK Green Investment Bank to fund projects including CHP, retrofit and low carbon transport infrastructure.

Key to the success of GM’s bid to reduce its carbon footprint will be the scale and speed of our response to the need to retrofit the city-region’s housing stock which is a very significant contribution to carbon emissions.  This is particularly a problem in the private sector and we are working to put together a joint venture, utilising resources under the Government’s Green Deal, to enable us to support investment to retrofit 25,000 homes per annum by 2015.

Sustainable economy

The Greater Manchester economy has been transformed over the past 20 years.  Large scale engineering and manufacture has all but disappeared.  High value, niche manufacturing remains a key element in the city’s economic future and this seems to highlight a key issue for us in delivering sustainable economic growth.

The UK has had a national, one size fits all, approach to training and skills for decades.  The coalition government is seeking to end that through the introduction of competition on the basis of funding following the student.  This will have the impact of pitching institutions against each other in the Post-16 / FE sector and will tend to drive up supply of currently popular provision.

One thing that can be said with some certainty is that this will not serve to fix a major failure in existing skills outcomes, namely an acute shortage of the skills needed to support advanced manufacturing and engineering.  Employers in this sector, in GM, consistently complain that this is a major barrier to the future success of their businesses.

Greater Manchester has placed this issue at the heart of its City Deal with Government, seeking to create an Apprenticeship and Skills Hub that will bring local employers to the centre of the design and delivery of skills programmes.  This will ensure that the real needs of employers are addressed and that apprentices and students have access to real market intelligence when they are making choices about their own learning.

This work, coupled with our work on public sector reform, will help to drive a step change in labour market participation and help us achieve our core aim of reducing dependency.


Our aim is ambitious, but essentially so.  A sustainable Greater Manchester is a city that will continue to transform itself and its people.

We have set ourselves a set of challenging targets which will be set out in the revised Greater Manchester Strategy, to be published later this year.  Those targets relate to key outcomes in respect of:

  • Number of jobs
  • Rate of business start up
  • Gross Value Added growth rate
  • Early Year Foundation Stage
  • Level 4 attainment
  • Median Salaries
  • Reduced dependency
  • Reduction in all age all care mortality rates
  • Sustainable reduction in crime
  • Increase non-car travel
  • Housing supply and quality (including retrofit)
  • CO2 emissions

We believe that we can achieve the necessary step change in these areas:  we acknowledge that we must achieve that change.

Greater Manchester’s sustainable future depends upon our ability to make it a logical choice to live, work, and invest, in competition with other emerging world cities.  That is our goal. The whole thrust of the collaborative agenda built through AGMA and the Combined Authority, is to try to join up our approaches to tackling the physical, environmental and social challenges that obstruct us in achieving that goal.  That is not going to be delivered through the creation (and imposition) of a grand plan.  It is dependent upon all our accountable agencies working together, to command credibility locally, enable priority to be defined and establish a shared, co-designed and collectively owned agenda for sustainable change.


This Perspectives Essay was written as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform's (GM LIP) 'Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena' project. The GMLIP is one of five global platforms of Mistra Urban Futures, a centre committed to more sustainable urban pathways in cities. All views belong to the author/s alone.