A controversial masterplan for the future of Greater Manchester has been 'watered down', according to campaigners who are fighting against it, with commitments about affordable housing and the green belt affected. The Places for Everyone plan, which maps out where almost 165,000 new homes would be built in the city-region, has been modified over the last few months.
It comes as the joint plan for Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan is scrutinised by planning inspectors. The public examination of the document follows a long-run saga which saw Stockport pull out of the plan's ill-fated predecessor – the spatial framework.
Since the public examination started in November, several changes have been made following feedback from the inspectors. This includes policies about the number of affordable homes needed, prioritising building on brownfield land over developing other sites and commitments to becoming net zero carbon.
The nine local authorities that are still part of the plan have also concluded that only 17 of the 49 sites which were set to be added to the green belt meet the legal requirements to be protected from development in this way. The inspectors will still consider all of the sites before any modifications are made.
Local leaders say they are still committed to delivering 30,000 net zero social rented homes and reject claims that the plan's carbon neutral policy has been weakened. But opponents of the plan doubt these aims will be delivered now.
In a statement on behalf of Save Greater Manchester's Green Belt Group and Steady State Manchester, they said: "What these changes ultimately mean is that the policies have been watered down so neither affordable housing nor carbon neutral aims will be delivered. Green Belt will be released on day one of plan approval, so brownfield will no longer be the priority for development and the net amount of green belt loss has increased by over 500 hectares."
Previously, Places for Everyone set out an aim for at least 50,000 additional affordable homes to be built across Greater Manchester by 2037 with at least 60 pc being for social or affordable rent. However, this has been replaced with a commitment to: "Maximising the delivery of additional affordable homes[...]"
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) says this gives councils flexibility when setting their own affordable housing targets. Mayor Andy Burnham's manifesto pledge to deliver 30,000 net zero social homes is not affected and will be progressed through other processes, the GMCA added.
In Salford, the recently adopted local plan says that 80 pc of all affordable housing should be for social rent. This means a policy of 60 pc in Places for Everyone would in effect water down Salford's plan, mayor Paul Dennett said.
The Salford mayor also explained that, due to the departure of Stockport from the joint plan, the nine remaining councils would need a new methodology to justify the 50,000 figure. The Labour leader of Salford council - who is also Greater Manchester's deputy mayor - said this would be a lengthy process.
He said: "The commitment of the Greater Manchester system to providing affordable and social rented homes has never been stronger. The changes made to Places for Everyone have been made based upon best advice as to how to realistically achieve these aims given the present legislative and economic environment."
Elsewhere in the document, the wording of the brownfield first policy - to prioritise building on previously developed sites - has been amended too. Instead of 'prioritising the re-use' of brownfield, the modified policy commits to "making as much use as possible of suitable previously-developed land."
The GMCA says that this modification reflects a request by the inspectors who asked that the policy is amended to say: "In preparing plans, preference will be given to making as much use as possible of suitable previously-developed (brownfield) land and vacant buildings to meet development needs."
A commitment to "be" net zero carbon from 2028 has also been removed. This word has now been replaced with "Work toward being" net zero and sets out specific criteria for new development depending on when it takes place.
The GMCA says that this does not represent a weakening of carbon policy across the nine districts. Mr Dennett also explained that the inspectors said that the joint local plan cannot set higher standards than building regulations.
But opponents of the plan say the watering down of this policy is 'explicit'. They said: "No amount of spin can confer the same meaning on these."
During the public examination, the nine authorities involved in the joint plan have also concluded that 32 of the 49 sites which were set to be added to the green belt do not meet the 'exceptional circumstances' required to do so. The sites which are no longer considered to meet the legal tests necessary are:
- Ditchers Farm, Westhoughton (Bolton)
- Horwich Golf Club / Knowles Farm (Bolton)
- Pigs Lea Brook 1 (Bury)
- North of Nuttall Park (Bury)
- Hollins Brook (Bury)
- Off New Road, Radcliffe (Bury)
- Hollins Brow (Bury)
- Hollybank Street, Radcliffe (Bury)
- Crow Lumb Wood (Bury)
- Nuttall West, Ramsbottom (Bury)
- Nuttall East, Ramsbottom (Bury)
- Broad Hey Wood North (Bury)
- Lower Hinds (Bury)
- Land behind Denshaw Village Hall (Oldham)
- Land within the Roch Valley, Smallbridge (Rochdale)
- Land at Firgrove Playing Fields, Rochdale (Rochdale)
- Land between railway line and Rochdale Canal, Littleborough (Rochdale)
- Land north of St Andrew's Church, Dearnley (Rochdale)
- Land at Townhouse Brook, Littleborough (Rochdale)
- Land north of Shore, Littleborough (Rochdale)
- West Salford Greenway (Salford)
- Blackleach Country Park (Salford)
- Ridge Hill Lane, Ridge Hill, Stalybridge (Tameside)
- Cowbury Green, Long Row, Carrbrook, Stalybridge (Tameside)
- Yew Tree Lane, Dukinfield (Tameside)
- Ardenfield, Haughton Green, Denton (Tameside)
- Horses Field, Danebank, Denton (Tameside)
- Pennington FC Pitches, Howe Bridge, Atherton (Wigan)
- Hope Carr Nature Reserve, Leigh (Wigan)
- Crow Orchard Road, Standish (Wigan)
- North Bradley Lane, Standish (Wigan)
- Coppull Lane, Wigan (Wigan)
Speaking at a public examination hearing in March, Christopher Katkowski KC dismissed suggestions that non-green belt land cannot be protected from development. But opponents of the plan questioned why the conclusion that these sites do not meet the legal requirements to be added to the green belt - based on a Court of Appeal judgement in 2014 - had been reached so late on.
Mr Katkowski told the hearing: "I just simply wasn't prepared to have officers of the various authorities defend things which we well knew didn't meet the legal test. That's the exacting process that's been gone through because I didn't want the people sitting to my left to make fools of themselves."
Opponents of Places for Everyone argue that it is no longer the plan that residents were consulted upon. The GMCA has said that any modifications that are agreed by the inspectors will be subject to further consultation.