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Why the time is right to review Manchester’s Green Belt

The ten councils who make up Greater Manchester are in the process of preparing a new Spatial Framework to guide development in the region until 2035. The plan will identify both the amount of employment space and the number of new homes that will be needed over the next 20 years. The most controversial part of the plan has been the need to release areas of land from the Green Belt to accommodate that growth. In this post we explain why it is right to do that, despite the political challenges.

What is the Green Belt?

‘Green Belt’ isn’t a description of a site’s characteristics – not every green field is Green Belt. Nor is it a mark of either landscape or environmental quality. It is simply a planning designation, intended to control development in a particular way.

In essence, the objectives of Green Belt designations are to ensure that the expansion of towns into the countryside is controlled, and to prevent neighbouring towns from merging. We’ve covered what the Green Belt is in more detail in this post.

None of that means the Green Belt can never be built on. It just means that any development needs to be carefully managed. National planning policy says areas of Green Belt can be reallocated for development provided there are ‘exceptional circumstances.’

Manchester’s situation

The Green Belt around Manchester was established in 1984. The city was a very different place then. Its population stood at about 2.58 million and had been falling for around 50 years (it would continue to decline for another 20 years). Today, the population is around 2.69 million and is forecast to continue growing.

In 1984, those people lived in just over 1 million homes – an average of 2.5 people per house. Today, there are nearer 1.35 million households – an average of about 2.3 people each. As people marry later, divorce more often and live longer, the number of smaller households is increasing. That means even if the population stayed static, the number of homes needed to house everyone would increase.

This isn’t unique to Manchester. That sort of trend – more people overall but fewer people per household – is repeated across the country.

The pressures that a growing population and falling household size are putting on the housing market in Manchester are already plain to see. House prices are increasing dramatically. In the last 12 months, prices rose by more than any other city in the UK (including even London). Since 1994 (the earliest that the data is available) average house prices have increased by 365%. Rates of overcrowding are increasing, and the number of concealed households (those that live with another household) are also on the rise. The number of homes in multiple occupation is growing too.

With the population expected to rise to more than 3 million by 2035, those problems are only going to get more acute.

It is the beginnings of Manchester’s own London-style housing crisis.

To start to address this crisis, the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework proposes that 227,000 new homes need to be built by 2035. Delivering that number of homes means that some Green Belt land will be needed.

The brownfield alternative

There would be no need to release the Green Belt for development if enough new homes could be built on other sorts of sites. The most commonly cited alternative is to develop solely on brownfield land. But there are challenges to that.

Firstly, most brownfield sites used to be in a use that generated employment and councils often try to protect them for new employment uses in the future. That means getting planning permission isn’t always straight forward, as we explain in this post.

Secondly, because of their previous use, the development of brownfield sites is often technically complicated and therefore more expensive. It is not unusual for the cost of development to be higher than the value of the completed homes, which means they won’t get built.

Thirdly, and most importantly, even if those first two challenges can be resolved, there simply aren’t enough brownfield sites to go round. In July 2016, the ten councils in Greater Manchester compiled a Brownfield Register, listing all those sites which they believed were suitable for new housing. In total, that Register suggests that just over 55,000 homes could be delivered from brownfield sites. Included in that total are:

  • Listed mill buildings.
  • Sites where development has stalled for viability reasons.
  • Sites with existing employment occupiers or which are protected by planning policy for employment uses.
  • Sites noted as being at ‘high risk of contamination.’

So it seems unlikely that all of those houses can actually be built.

Yet even if they could, that still falls a long way short of the 227,000 homes that the councils think are needed. Even CPRE think 198,000 homes should be built.

Other potential sources of housing land

There are two other options that are often cited as ways to avoid the need for development in the Green Belt.

It is not unusual for people to claim that empty homes are a big part of the solution. If only we could bring all those empty homes back in to use, the argument goes, we wouldn’t need to build so many new ones. Yet the most recent data available shows that there are just 11,550 homes in Greater Manchester that have been empty for more than 6 months. That is a tiny fraction of the number of homes that we need to deliver

The other potential solution is to increase the density of development, to put more homes on each piece of land. This is already happening. Currently, just over a quarter of the housing stock in Greater Manchester consists of apartments. Yet of the new homes that are planned to be built over the next 15 years, the intention is that 45% of them will be apartments. That’s despite opinion surveys consistently suggesting that the overwhelming majority of people actually want to live in a house.

Green Belt release is essential

By 2035, the Green Belt will be more than 50 years old. When the boundaries were first set, it is doubtful that anyone involved thought that they were putting a planning policy in place that would still be guiding development half a century later.

Simply, if Greater Manchester is to deliver the number of new homes it needs over the next 20 years, there is no choice but to release some areas of Green Belt for development. If the delivery of new homes was limited to brownfield sites and empty homes, then only around a quarter of the homes needed could be built.

The consequences of failure are significant and contrast starkly with both the ambition that the region’s leaders have shown in the past, and the intentions of devolution.

The Strategic Land Group way

The Strategic Land Group is a specialist land promoter with a proven track record of delivering housing development on sites in the Green Belt. We work with land owners to deliver planning permission on their behalf at our cost and risk. Our return is a share of the value of the site once it is sold. If we don’t succeed, it doesn’t cost you anything.

You can find out more about how we go about that here.

If you have a site that you think might benefit from our approach, get in touch with us today for a free, no obligation assessment.

Find out how we can help