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Will Manchester’s spatial framework match its ambitions? I hope so

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The RIBA’s Andrew Forth applauds the joined-up thinking of Manchester’s plans for building housing and infrastructure

It seems like an odd thing to say, but I’ve been heartened by the ferocious debate that accompanied the creation of Greater Manchester’s regional spatial framework. While it’s a little disappointing that the latest iteration announced earlier this month lacks some of the ambition of previous drafts, it’s worth remembering that Greater Manchester is probably the only place in England that has both the powers necessary to produce a comprehensive spatial plan and the political will to deliver it. 

Even with revisions to reduce the amount of green-belt land earmarked for development, it’s striking that Greater Manchester is proposing more than 200,000 new homes – a quarter of which will be classed as affordable with around 30,000 for social rent. This makes a clear statement that new housing is essential to the sustainability and prosperity of the city. 

Manchester is streets ahead of its rivals when it comes to both the scale of ambition and the willingness to do things differently

The plans go beyond housing, showing sustainable growth needs a holistic approach that encompasses transport, town-centre redevelopment and public services. Could this be evidence that transferring responsibility for housing, health, transport and skills policy from Westminster to Manchester has kick-started joined-up policy-making across the city region? If this comes into fruition it might encourage other regions to follow suit. How to ensure that housing, planning, infrastructure and economic growth go hand-in-hand was the subject of an RIBA report in 2018, I hope more of the country will gain the powers necessary to try and replicate what Manchester is trying to do. 

All of this has led me to think that while there is some dispute (mostly in the West Midlands) about Manchester’s status as the UK’s second city, there’s no question of it being streets ahead of its rivals when it comes to both the scale of ambition and the willingness to do things differently. As someone who grew up in Yorkshire and now lives in London, saying nice things about Manchester doesn’t come easily, but in this case there is a lot that merits a wider audience. 

Reading the responses of local MPs to the plans, it’s clear that there are still significant concerns – particularly when it comes to proposals to build new homes on the green belt. Jennifer Williams from the Manchester Evening News has trawled through the plans in forensic detail, highlighting what this means and how the plans have changed in response to the ferocious criticism of the earlier drafts. They are now out for consultation until 18 March, and there is a lot to be done to make them a reality. 

That said, Manchester City Council has done excellent work already to raise the quality of new homes through the Manchester Residential Quality Guidance. I hope that we’ll see similar standards adopted across the city region and that there will be a focus on innovation when it comes to the delivery of new homes for all users, including improving housing for older people. 

Finally, I hope that we’ll see a recognition that the housing market, in its current shape, can’t build the homes and communities that cities like Manchester needs. The lifting of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap has the potential to fundamentally alter the market. This won’t happen without a recognition that quality housing can’t be delivered by procurement methods that focus on pushing down costs rather than seeking quality, or see land sold to large housebuilders to generate returns rather than build communities. Manchester has a proud architectural history, but it also gave birth to the Hulme Crescents. I hope the people taking the decisions will bear the lessons of history in mind.

Andrew Forth is head of policy and public affairs at the RIBA

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