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News feature: How mayor Burnham will shake up development in Greater Manchester

Andy burnam © labour party
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Elected as the city region’s mayor last month, Andy Burnham is already seeking to rewrite the area’s development strategy. But what is his plan, and does he have the necessary powers? asks Colin Marrs

Just days after triumphing in the race to become Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor – and before the tragic events that unfolded at Manchester Arena – former health secretary Andy Burnham made a significant announcement. Speaking to reporters, he promised a ‘radical rewrite’ of the city’s spatial strategy – a strategy that had only just gone through the consultation mill. 

His statement sought to fulfil a manifesto vow prompted by worries over greenfield development around the city.

It also revealed that the Labour politician has no intention of being an happy-to-be-led figurehead and that, as one of a new wave of ‘metro mayors’, he is setting himself up to have a defining role in shaping the future of Greater Manchester.

Because while the recent local elections have typically been viewed through the prism of the forthcoming general election – a bellwether for the bigger political picture – they also signal a major change in the UK constitution, giving the regions far greater control over their own destinies.

Burnham is now one of six newly created city region mayors with varying powers over planning, housing and transport – the others being in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands, and the West of England (see below). 

The creation of a mayor was imposed by central government on each of the city regions as a condition of being granted powers over spending previously overseen by central government. Each devolution deal was individually tailored following negotiations with ministers, and few would disagree that Manchester has emerged the most powerful of these new fiefdoms. 

If there is a mayor who is a strong leader,  you can see that investors would be likely to favour these areas

As well as taking control over transport, housing, strategic planning, waste management, policing and skills, the city has been given control of a £6 billion health and social-care budget. 

On planning, Manchester’s mayor has not – unlike London’s – been given the ability to call in planning application decisions made by individual local authorities. However, compulsory purchase powers have been granted, along with the ability to establish development corporations focused on easing construction in specific areas of the city region.

Architects are likely to be most interested in the final planning tool pledged: a county-wide spatial development framework. Félicie Krikler, a director at Assael Architecture working on a major build-to-rent development on the outer edge of the city, says: ‘This plan has the ability to look at the strategic wider connection of projects and strategies. Planning is always held up as one of the key problems in unlocking development – it takes a long time and can vary considerably from borough to borough. 

‘If there is a mayor who is a strong leader, then you can see that investors would be likely to favour these areas.’ 

Burnham wants to move the balance of the spatial plan further away from development on greenfield sites in between Greater Manchester and satellite towns such as Bury and Oldham. He has said he wants to see ‘a substantial reduction in loss of greenfield space across Greater Manchester … a shift away from more development on the main roads towards the town centres.’

This change in emphasis will require architects to think about higher-density development in existing town centres, with Burnham calling on developers to help reshape them away from retail and towards residential. 

‘It is a bigger question nationally, but the mayor has an opportunity to go for a lot higher density,’ says Ian McHugh, associate lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture. ‘With more innovative design, we can get compact schemes which are still designed to a decent standard.’

Burnham will also oversee the administration of a £300 million Greater Manchester housing investment fund, set to deliver 15,000 homes over a 10-year period. And jointly, with ministers, he will control a new Greater Manchester Land Commission aimed at creating a database of public-sector land to encourage its disposal for new housing.

Ian Simpson, of Manchester-based SimpsonHaugh and Partners, says the arrival of a mayor will help focus minds on addressing the city’s housing needs. He calls for greater attention on using development to help solve the growing problem of homelessness. 

‘A number of hostels have been closed because of cuts,’ he says. ‘We need to replace those and provide move-on accommodation. There is an opportunity to use the new mayor to address these issues.’

Andy Burnham really understands how design and development can contribute to his mandate 

Burnham has appointed Paul Dennett, elected city mayor of Salford, to take charge of the brief covering housing, planning and homelessness, citing his commitment to providing ‘truly affordable housing’. 

This ability to delegate will stand Burnham in good stead, believes Krikler. ‘The mayoral system works best for the built environment when you have a mayor with strategic oversight, but strong support from their entourage,’ she argues.

Many highlight the difference between Burnham’s approach – encouraging affordable housing on brownfield sites – and national politicians whose focus often appears to be solely on numbers of units delivered. 

Ged Couser, architect director at BDP and president of Manchester Architects, harbours hopes the new mayoral team will also encourage good design. ‘I had the benefit of meeting Andy before the election when he was putting his manifesto together,’ Couser says. ‘He really understood how design and development can contribute to his mandate. He was listening. It is pretty clear he is pro-development but he wants to do it in the right way.’

But lacking call-in powers, and in charge of a strategic plan that lacks any statutory status, Burnham will also have to rely on his soft power to influence authorities in Greater Manchester. 

McHugh says the new mayor has an opportunity to provide a counterweight to the power of council leaders – often lacking due to Labour’s dominance in the majority of councils in the city region. 

‘I think there is a feeling that some at the top of Manchester City Council need challenging,’ he says. ‘The big problem is that there is a lack of a tall-building policy, and each proposal is judged on its own merits.’ 

He points to the council’s support for Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs’ twin bronze-clad towers designed by Make, under review since March following protests from heritage groups. ‘The council were too close to it and it blurred their judgement,’ he says.

A move to brownfield development is likely to create some anxiety among councils in the wealthy south of the city

Burnham starts with one advantage: Manchester councils have a good track record of collaboration, stretching back to the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bombing. Indeed, the track record of the combined authority – created in 2011 – and its predecessor, the Association of Greater Manchester, went a long way to persuading the government to trust the city with the health and social care pot. 

David Rudlin, director at Manchester-based URBED, points out: ‘Unlike London, where the London Assembly has separate elections, the combined authority is run by council leaders, which leads to a more integrated structure.’

But he says it would be unwise to underestimate the amount of diplomacy Burnham will need to make his mayoralty a success. ‘Burnham does not have a deep-rooted background in Manchester politics,’ he adds. ‘There will be some tension between the districts and Burnham coming in and announcing big changes during the election campaign.’

Announcing a move towards more brownfield development is likely to create some anxiety among councils in the wealthy south of the city, where development sites are few and far between. 

‘Everyone wants to move south, and there is a lot of pressure to expand into green fields in Cheshire,’ says former BDP chairman Richard Saxon. ‘Cleaning up messy development in Oldham sounds worthy but is not as glamorous. Aspirant house-buyers in Trafford in the south will not necessarily be attracted to move to Bury.’

Others take the view that the mayor’s presence will help smooth such tensions. ‘Once the spatial plan is manifest, there will be some challenges, but I think the mayor can help get some unity,’ says Simpson. 

The new city region mayors

James palmer crop

Cambridgeshire & Peterborough: James Palmer, Conservative

Businessman James Palmer had been leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council since 2013 and a councillor for 10 years. He has pledged to speed up the delivery of 100,000 new homes across the area, including creating a Mayoral Housing Fund to help small and medium sized building firms. 

Steve rotheram crop

Liverpool: Steve Rotheram, Labour

Since being elected as MP for Liverpool Walton in 2010, Rotherham has sat on the communities and local government select committee. During the mayoral campaign he promised to convene an emergency housing summit and, like Burnham, has stressed the importance of ‘genuinely affordable’ housing. 


Ben houchen crop

Tees Valley: Ben Houchen, Conservative

Houchen, formerly the leader of the Conservative group on Stockton Borough Council, won a surprise victory in this former Labour heartland in the North-East. He has promised to take back Durham Tees Valley Airport into public ownership and implement a masterplan for the site including hundreds of new homes.


Andy street crop

West Midlands: Andy Street, Conservative

Street stepped down as managing director of John Lewis Partnership to run for mayor. He has promised to increase density on brownfield sites in order to reduce pressure for greenfield development.


Tim bowles crop

West of England: Tim Bowles, Conservative 

Bowles rose to become mayor after serving as South Gloucestershire councillor for Winterbourne. He has raised concerns about wealth disparity and has pledged to increase the availability and affordability of housing in places where people want to work.


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