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09/01/2017

Manchester's regeneration game is not over yet

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Manchester's green belt, which stimulated regeneration of the city centre, is worth protecting, argues Chris Shepley

Bit of a kerfuffle in Greater Manchester at the moment about the green belt. One of many unusual features of that GB, which is only about 30 years old, is that those who concocted it are still alive.

I am aware that, in contemplating planning history, it’s fine to admire such luminaries as Abercrombie and Ebenezer, but not to take too much notice of more recent work. That’s why ministers keep making the same mistakes. I’m also aware that it is conventional these days to write the Greater Manchester Council from history, indeed to recoil in horror at its mention.

Despite this, I shall not be prevented (all too briefly) from blowing the trumpets of those involved, especially as I was one of them, nor from describing the importance of that particular green belt, which changed perceptions and altered national guidance.  
 
In the 1970s the ‘inner city’ was not yet a thing. Regeneration was not a buzzword. The term ‘brownfield land’ was not invented until 10 years later – in Strathclyde, as it happens. But some people had observed the hollowing out of American cities, and bothered that it could happen here. 

For Manchester this was a big worry and the structure plan set out to change it. A string of policies sought to limit residential and other uses round the conurbation’s edges and to get people to think about investing in the middle. Other metropolitan councils did the same, and it’s hard to exaggerate what a big shift this was. (We started it, minister, and there’s no need to lecture us about it.)

"It is fine to admire such luminaries as Abercrombie and Ebenezer - but not to take too much notice of more recent work"

What the green belt did, in the words of David Kaiserman (who led the team with distinction) was to “put an OS base on what the Structure Plan had already determined”. It was of course partly aimed at fulfilling the usual important aims of stopping sprawl and keeping settlements separate, which matters a lot in that conurbation. But it was mainly an urban regeneration exercise, and it led to the addition of that as a purpose of green belts in the national guidance.

The house builders hated it, and said development in the inner city was too hard. A long inquiry ensued, and inspector Roger Wilson supported the plan (with a few exceptions), saying inter alia that: 

“…. in parts of the county it is appropriate and often necessary that it should act as a severe restraint on development, thereby bending past trends… and redirecting development in such a manner as to serve to implement the primary theme of urban concentration.”     

This policy has been successful and it brought about the desired change, encouraging (eventually) much development in the inner city to happen. Strategic planning is not just a meaningless concept.

Now the 10 districts have got together and produced the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF). This must have been hard, but it is an impressive strategic review. I don’t know enough to judge whether the development proposed in the green belt is justified. But I think it is fair to say that it was drawn fairly tightly to achieve the aims I have described; we saw it as long term, but not permanent. This may justify some modification. But it’s also fair to stress – strongly – that regeneration is not finished yet.

Politicians such as the mayoral favourite Andy Burnham (“I would like to carry out a root and branch reform about how this whole process is being done”), and various MPs (e.g. the little-known Hazel Grove Tory William Wragg’s petition to “protect our green belt”), have expostulated enthusiastically.  So all is unlikely to be plain sailing. I wish the team well, and I’m sure they won’t ignore the origins, purposes and successes of the green belt during its short life.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland

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