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Understanding the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework

It is well known that the UK has a severe housing crisis. We simply do not build enough homes and we have not done so for many years. As people live longer and in different ways, overall demand for housing has increased. 

As a result housing today is two and half times more expensive than it was in the 1970s. In fact, if general inflation had risen as fast as housing inflation has done since the 1950s, a chicken would cost you about £51 in a supermarket (source: The Economist).

Land restrictions are a big part in this. In the 1950s about 25% of the cost of a new home was the land. Today it's usually over 70%.

This is an absurd system. It means home ownership is unobtainable for millions of people, and the people who can afford it are hugely indebted to large mortgages. Many of these people have grown used to low interest rates and will be in a very difficult position if interests rates begin to rise as they look set to do.

"If a local authority does not provide sufficient land for development, it essentially loses the right to object to developments it doesn't want'

It has also pushed millions of people into insecure private-rented accommodation. In August the Financial Times reported home ownership in the UK had fallen dramatically, with the largest fall being here in Greater Manchester.

But this isn't just a bad housing policy - it's a disaster for social mobility, inequality, and for family’s who just want a decent life.

This is the background to the GM Spatial Strategy. It proposes that Greater Manchester needs 225,000 additional homes over the next 20 years.

Tameside is proposed to meet just 6% of this need. To be honest I wonder if this is enough. But 6% means we need to assign sites for 13,600 homes to be built over the next two decades (680 per year).

To meet that need it proposes, as you would hope and expect, to mainly use brownfield sites. There are sufficient brownfield sites to build 8000 homes in Tameside. Then there are sites which aren't brownfield now but will become so in the next 20 years – these are estimated to provide space for a further 2000 homes. Then there will be some homes that are built on smaller pieces of land not covered by major planning guidance – these ‘windfall’ sites should provide a further 1000 homes.

On any group of sites, a ‘discount’ calculation needs to be applied, as it is unlikely 100% of the possible homes on these sites will be built. But either way, it's fairly clear we cannot meet this demand using brownfield sites alone.

A crucial point of planning policy is that if a local authority does not provide sufficient land for development, it essentially loses the right to object to developments it doesn't want. This is because the developer can then appeal a council’s decision to refuse planning permission on the basis there isn't sufficient land to build on in that area.

In other words, not planning development doesn't stop development – it just means you face piecemeal and unhelpful development without an overall plan.

The Green Belt is a planning policy that came into affect after WW2, when the Government of the day had to build 100,000’s of homes a year to meet demand. Many of these were provided through the ‘new towns’ – one of the country’s most successful ever housing policies.

Places like Stevenage, Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead and Washington were built from scratch with all the facilities they needed. It was the job of the Green Belt to prevent urban sprawl – towns and cities merging into each other, but it has always been the case that it must be reviewed every few 30-40 years. The last time the GM Green Belt was re-assessed was in 1984.

"It seems to me that what is required is that new development comes with the key infrastructure that is needed"

The problem for planners, and the reason the country has such a severe housing crisis, is that no-one wants new homes near them. Sometimes this is NIMBYism, but there are absolutely reasonable concerns about new development. New houses put pressure on transport infrastructure, school places, and other key services. These are real problems that need to be addressed.

I have been thinking about how to square this circle for some time. It seems to me that what is required is that new development comes with the key infrastructure that is needed – just like the new towns did.

But building entire new towns doesn't look feasible any more, and most of the best sites are already taken. But what I think could work is building new villages within existing towns, that come complete with the new schools, facilities and transport links that would be required. These could meet much higher design and specification requirements, and not just be estates built to fit the maximum number of houses in. It would be about building proper communities and not just houses again.

I have been talking to the Government about this for several months, and this idea is included in the Tameside part of the Spatial Strategy. It's called ‘Godley Green Garden Village’, and it's proposed for the area behind Hattersley station which is currently undeveloped, mainly because it is the only site that provides access to a major railway station.

It would allow us, as a community, to specify where we want development to occur and to ensure that when it happens we get the infrastructure we need. I've included an impression of what it might look like – please note at this stage this is a concept rather than a final proposal with planning permission.

Instinctively this seems to me a better option than just allowing developers to pick the sites they want without any major improvements occurring. This proposal is currently part of a bid to Government for funds to develop the idea, because it would be a new departure for housing policy in the UK.

There are other, smaller sites in our area in the Spatial Strategy, which are not part of the Garden Village proposal but which I would like to see similar principles applied to (i.e. housing that comes with infrastructure).

The other significant site is in Stalybridge, on what is called Sidebottom Fold (the land behind Stocks Lane and Mottram Old Road).

"I hope people will engage with this idea and see that it might be a real way forward"

I know that most politicians, when they see housing proposed in their area, simply oppose it. The people who already live there are the people who’ve already elected you, and the people who move in tend not to hold it against you if you tried to stop their houses being built. But I think such a policy:

1) ignores the very real crisis we face; and

2) will only mean the development goes ahead but in a way that takes away local control.

I think we need to do something completely new to resolve this impasse and a new garden village does that. I hope people will engage with this idea and see that it might be a real way forward.

We all want our children and grandchildren to be able to live in decent homes, and everyone’s house was a new development at one time.

The full plan will be published very soon, when it is passed by the GM Combined Authority Board, and will then open to public consultation.

Main image by Flickr user Gavin Clarke.