Manchester is the City Region that has most enthusiastically embraced the devolution agenda – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given its long standing commitment to the cause of devolved powers and city region autonomy.
In addition to embracing the Metro-Mayor concept at an early stage, Manchester has been at the forefront of moves to put in place a spatial strategy for the City Region. On October 31 2016 the Greater Manchester Combined Authority initiated an eight-week consultation on the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF).
The draft plan proposes a housing requirement of around 227,200 net additional dwellings across Greater Manchester’s ten local authorities over the period 2015-35, with a quarter of these to be built within Manchester City Council’s boundaries. While there is a strong emphasis on directing new development to brownfield land in urban locations, 28 per cent of the new homes proposed for the city-region would be built on Greater Manchester’s green belt. This suggested level of green belt release has already prompted concerns from MPs with constituencies that will be significantly affected, in particular – Andy Burnham, the Labour candidate for Greater Manchester Mayor.
While Greater Manchester has continued to make relentless progress towards fiscal and functional devolution, other areas have not advanced at anywhere near the same pace and in some cases appear to have gone backwards. This is perhaps a symptom of the rather rushed nature of the formulation of the initial deals, with constituent authorities, in the cold light of day, subsequently reviewing the small print of what they signed up to and apparently having second thoughts. For example, in the North East, the wheels appear to have come off the initial devolution deal as a result of the seven constituent councils failing to come to an agreement, with Sunderland, Gateshead, Durham and South Tyneside voting against the deal in September 2016. The North East devolution deal had included a commitment to review all land held by the public sector in the area to identify surplus land for housing and economic use, and would have seen the region benefit from enhanced compulsory purchase powers. The region was also due to develop a North East planning development framework aimed primarily at accelerating housing delivery. Following the rejection of the deal, plans for an elected North East mayor were also cancelled.
What is currently emerging as a result of the devolution agenda is a patchwork quilt of planning policies to be interpreted by a variety of planning bodies with differing agendas who will be exercising a range of planning powers. All well and good if it helps to deliver sustainable growth and rebalance the economy - but at first blush this is a complex legal and policy landscape. How is it proposed to link all of these disparate arrangements together in a coherent narrative for the North? Part of the answer may lie in the creation of a Great North Plan, providing an overarching vision across the City Regions and which could go some way to differentiating between the roles and contributions of the constituent areas.