The poverty of thought that passes for planning today was underlined with the recent Greater Manchester Strategic Framework (GMSF) launch. Having bizarrely invited landowners and developers to suggest sites (how is this ‘planning’? - I never got taught this at planning school), they simply put a red line around four bits of Green Belt to the south of Stockport, a town with a proud history, excellent transport links and plenty of spare urban land, but in desperate need of regeneration (see ‘Jones the Planner’ for a great description) and consigned Stockport itself to the dustbin.
High Lane is a typical Green Belt site, now earmarked for 4,000 houses. It is pleasant farmland that stops High Lane, Marple and Hazel Grove merging. The area relies on the A6 which is already congested all day with average speeds of 5-10mph. GMSF suggests that the much-loved Middlewood Way could be sacrificed to provide a tram-train link to Manchester, but this form of transport doesn’t currently exist anywhere in Britain. In any case, it would require a Transport and Works Act Order, cost over £400 million, and would take 15-20 years to build based on the experience of Metrolink (tram) schemes. By this time the volume house builders will be long gone.
Yes, we do need more, quality, well located and affordable housing. But we should look where there is already land or underused buildings next to good public transport services with spare capacity. The obvious place is Stockport centre which has a surprisingly interesting urban landscape but a centre like a swiss cheese. I wouldn’t live there now, but I probably would if we could create sustainable development based on European models.
Of course, GMSF did assume that some housing would be developed in town centres (1,500 in the case of Stockport). But the business model of volume house builders revolves around large new greenfield developments. If Green Belt sites like High Lane are released, these will be developed first, and the opportunity for real regeneration in Stockport (and other satellite towns that desperately need development like Ashton, Hyde, Oldham, etc., etc.,) will be lost for a generation. Forget about the 1,500, Stockport will be lucky to build 150.
So what to do? First we need a proper, objective urban capacity and design study, together with an assessment of what is needed to make towns liveable again. And then we need to do it, rather than take the lazy way out with the red pen by building on the Green Belt.
Britain used to lead the world in town planning, and people came from all over the world to see our garden cities, new towns and other wonders. But no more. Our leaders in Greater Manchester need to get on a cheap Ryanair flight to The Netherlands or Germany to see how it should be done. In the meantime it is left to local people to do the planning for the planners.