Spatial profiling

Greater Manchester plans to build new homes in a Stockport suburb are unfair and mirror the way the north has been treated by government, argues Julia Brosnan

Hero image

Looking back over 2020 as the rows about lockdown start up again, I couldn’t help but reflect on another row, which has also been brewing for months and which came to a climax in December. It mirrors the tier rows in that many of the arguments are the same, as are some of the personnel. In the case of the tiers it’s been Andy Burnham against the government, and in the case of Greater Manchester’s brave new plan for homes, jobs and the environment (known as the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework), it’s a small suburb in Stockport against Burnham.

Due to an accident of history and not a little irony, both rows have been going on at the same time. Like many others here I admire Burnham, our very own King of the North, and the way he has spoken so ardently in our defence. I just hope that the new year will bring some space for fresh perspectives – so that he can apply that same sense of justice and fair play to matters back home.

I live in Stockport, in Heald Green, a small suburb close to Manchester Airport. Judging from the correspondence received by councillors, the turnout at public meetings and from conversations on the doorstep, it’s fair to say that the majority of Heald Green residents are opposed to the GMSF proposals for our area. This is not simply because of a nimby desire to preserve the view, but compared with the rest of Stockport, our part of the plan is deeply unfair. And that is after it’s been considerably revised.

It proposes 1,700 new homes, with no guarantee of a corresponding uplift in facilities and services. This increases the existing housing stock by a third, all of which is to be built on green belt. To put it in context: Heald Green makes up 5 per cent of Stockport’s population and the GMSF proposes it takes 67 per cent of Stockport’s green belt build. Even taking green belt out of the equation, the average allocation of new homes for each of Stockport’s 21 wards is 641, but Heald Green is somehow expected to absorb nearly three times that.

As metropolitan mayor, Burnham has overall responsibility for the GMSF. Indeed it was he who held “crisis talks” with Heald Green councillors, and others from Stockport, before the final vote. That vote had been deferred for a month from the beginning of November when the Stockport leadership realised, belatedly, that it might not have the numbers to win. And it wasn’t just Stockport’s plan that was at stake. The idea of the GMSF was that in order to be viable it needed to be passed by all 10 boroughs, and after Stockport deferred its vote, Salford, Bury, Trafford, Oldham and Rochdale deferred theirs too. All eyes were on Stockport.

It’s not that we oppose all new development. Most people recognise the need to build new homes

And at the very same time all eyes in the country were on Greater Manchester. You’ll remember that back in late October/early November, the government was intent on imposing harsh Tier 3 restrictions on our region without the corresponding support. Burnham declared the Tier 3 plan to be “flawed and unfair and something which people can’t just be pressurised into”. Looking on from Heald Green and thinking about the effect the GMSF would have on us, it was as if he’d taken the words right out of our mouth.

It’s not that we oppose all new development. Most people recognise the need to build new homes. Indeed, over the years councillors and residents in Heald Green have worked on the detail of the GMSF. Here, they urged council leaders to go with their own brownfield first policy, and identified alternative smaller parcels of brownfield land that could be used. They also argued that the GMSF is based on the now discredited and considerably inflated 2014 population growth projections, which could easily be revised. They also evidenced the impact of this disproportionate number of new buildings to be dumped on a small community with already over-flowing schools, doctors’ surgeries and other facilities. The roads are also highly congested, with some of the worst pollution in the borough. But none of these arguments made any difference. To sum up, for Heald Green the GMSF is “a punishing plan without proper support for those affected” – which, as it happens, is exactly what Burnham said about the Tier 3 proposals.

Stockport’s final vote was rescheduled for 3 December. I, along with many others, watched the debate online. I was astonished to witness David Meller, Stockport Council cabinet member for economy and regeneration, singling out Heald Green,  as he seconded the GMSF motion. He said: “I personally have a lot of sympathy for Heald Green and would have liked to see their allocation further reduced.” In fact representatives from all parties also acknowledged this in the debate that followed. It was official: Heald Green had been unfairly targeted. Again there are parallels with how Burnham felt about Greater Manchester, saying our region had been singled out in some sort of an “experiment”, like a “canary in the coal mine”.

His words gathered sympathy across the nation, but the government would not be moved, even though Burnham’s arguments were incontrovertible and justice was clearly on his side. It’s just a shame that he couldn’t see what was happening on his own doorstep.

This may have boiled down to just another planning row in which a small fish gets swallowed up by a bigger fish, had it not been for two game-changing events: the global pandemic and Brexit. Heald Green councillors and others made their own incontrovertible arguments: the pandemic has blown a hole through everything including the usual patterns of work, play and travel, with millions of people no longer needing to live within commuting distance of the office. Crucially for Heald Green, Manchester Airport, with whom our development future is so closely tied, has been partially closed for the past nine months. We are also reportedly facing the largest recession in 300 years, with mortgages increasingly hard to come by.

So the crisis talks with Burnham, although apparently critical, didn’t amount to much

Ironically Burnham knows more about the impact of the pandemic than most – it’s exactly what he’s been arguing with the government about. Then there’s Brexit, another once-in-a-lifetime event, whose impacts are also as likely to be far-reaching as they are uncertain. What’s more, there is also provision within the GMSF to rethink its approach “where exceptional circumstances justify an alternative”. And if the events of this year don’t qualify as “exceptional circumstances”, what does?

Yet none of these arguments made any real difference. The answer seemed to be that none of this counted and the GMSF was inter-linked over the boroughs and had to go ahead more or less as planned. So the crisis talks with Burnham, although apparently critical, didn’t amount to much. The main thrust of the final offer was to knock 70 units off one of the sites, meaning that Heald Green would grow by 32 per cent instead of 33 per cent. It was, as Burnham said of Johnson, “too little too late”. And so, on the 3rd of December, at the reconvened meeting, Stockport voted no and, in the words of one Rochdale chief, that vote rendered the GMSF “dead”. There followed dark murmurings that without a plan, our green spaces would be at the mercy of private developers, but to be honest, that’s how exactly it felt inside the plan. The nine other councils have since voted to go ahead without Stockport, thus proving that the GMSF can adapt to circumstances after all.

I wouldn’t have thought Johnson did himself any favours up here in the way he dealt with Burnham, whereas Burnham, by contrast, continues to be seen – rightly – as a hero. And as the new year is a time for new reflections and new beginnings, let’s hope that might does not always win over right. In such uncertain times, we in the north need to stick together.

Heald Green resident Julia Brosnan is co-founder of the social enterprise Dovetail

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Spatial profiling

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.