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  • Writer's pictureNoel

The GMSF endgame

Save Royton’s Greenbelt may have been quiet over the last few months but we have not gone away. The Places for Everyone master-plan (formerly known as the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework) is currently undergoing public examination and, as we head into the New Year, the campaign to save the Green Belt will reach critical mass in the coming weeks. There were four weeks of hearings before Christmas that focused on the Greater Manchester-wide strategic policies, but starting this week the hearings will turn to the housing and industrial allocations in the Green Belt. There have also been some interesting political developments in the background which could have repercussions for the plan, so now would be an opportune time for an update.

The examination in public is finally underway...

Whilst we have made substantial progress, unfortunately a significant amount of Oldham’s Green Belt remains in the plan. The first Oldham allocation up before the inspectors (19th January) is Stakehill, a mixed housing and industrial allocation adjacent to Tandle Hill spanning the Chadderton and Castleton border. The allocation is divided into a north site (which will host 1,680 houses) and a south site that proposes building 150,000 sqm of warehousing all over Chadderton Fold. The hearings for the allocations spanning the Royton, Shaw and Crompton borders (Broadbent Moss, Beal Valley and Cowlishaw) will be held 25th–26th January. Collectively, these three allocations propose the development of approximately 2,400 new homes in the Green Belt and on Protected Open Land (OPOL).

Representatives from at least one of the Royton, Shaw and Chadderton groups will be in attendance at each of these hearings, where we will advance our reasons for why we think the allocations should be deleted from the plan. Whilst these allocations do not directly affect the north of Royton, the impact of 2,400 extra homes in the south will certainly be felt on the roads, schools and public services.

Hanging Chadder's prospects are looking good; despite Peel appealing its withdrawal from the plan, the inspectors have not scheduled a hearing for it, and that is how it will remain unless the inspectors find themselves in the position of needing to allocate more land.

The census shows that Oldham plans to build DOUBLE the number of houses needed...

In recent weeks the Government has made some significant policy announcements in relation to housing targets (which we will come to shortly), but perhaps even more importantly the findings of the 2021 census have been published and vindicate everything we have been saying. The housing targets are based on the Government’s 2014 household formation projections, and the census clearly shows that household growth in Oldham between 2011 and 2021 was only HALF the projected levels.

Perhaps more intriguingly, is that while the number of households increased by approximately 50,000 across Greater Manchester, over 73,000 new homes were delivered across the conurbation. This raises another question: if only 50,000 of the new 73,000 homes have contributed to “household formation”, then what purpose are the remaining 23,000 fulfilling? Investment homes? Airbnb’s? One thing is for certain, in an escalating homelessness crisis the over-supply of new homes is not reaching the people desperately in need of them. Places for Everyone will not change that dynamic now that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has quietly dropped the policy commitment to build 50,000 affordable homes by 2037.

Our fellow Green Belt campaigners at Friends of Carrington Moss have produced an in-depth analysis of the census data on their blog, and it is a well-written piece worth a read.

The Conservatives bring forth a motion to save the Green Belt...

The National Planning Policy Framework provides a “get out” clause that can be invoked to protect the Green Belt from development. Paragraph 61 mandates that housing targets should be determined by the standard Local Housing Need methodology unless “exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach which also reflects current and future demographic trends and market signals”. So Government policy clearly enshrines a council’s right to set its own housing target in order to protect the Green Belt, providing the new target reflects the demographic trends. Given that Oldham has experienced household growth of 340 households per annum on average according to the census, its proposed housing target of 680 is quite literally double what it needs to be!

At full council on 2nd November, Royton North’s freshly minted Conservative Councillor, Lewis Quigg, brought forward a motion to do precisely that: Cllr Quigg proposed invoking the exceptional circumstances clause in the NPPF to allow Oldham Council to set a more realistic target, taking into account the findings from the census. This motion would have enabled the council to deliver the homes that the borough is projected to require over the next 15 years, but without having to build in the Green Belt. Unfortunately the motion was scuppered by a Labour amendment written by Cllr George Hulme, councillor for Saddleworth North, where—conveniently—there are no Green Belt allocations.

Ho ho ho—a Christmas present from the Government...

Fast-forward to December, and some seasonal cheer from Michael Gove (the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), who announced some important reforms that will impact heavily on the examination of the plan. The most important part of the announcement is that the housing target is no longer mandatory and it will be up to local authorities to “determine how many homes can actually be built, taking into account what should be protected in each area—be that our precious Green Belt or national parks, the character or an area, or heritage assets.” Among other changes, councils will no longer be required to maintain a 5-year land supply for housing, provided they have an up-to-date plan. The Secretary of State has also granted a 2-year extension to plans at the advanced preparation stage so councils can reassess their land needs. The Government has finally accepted that its housing targets were too onerous on Local Authorities and has revised national policy to reflect this.

...two rounds of more recent data have shown lower population projections during the P4E plan period, and another round, from the 2021 census... — Sean Fielding, former Leader of Oldham Council

As Cllr Howard Sykes, leader of the Oldham Lib-Dems, points out to The Manchester Mill, "the council has always maintained that it’s been forced to use these targets by government rules, and now it isn't. So why use them?" Cllr Sykes is not alone in asking this. Indeed, none other than Sean Fielding, the former Leader of Oldham Council, has expressed the same concern: "Whilst there is a very strong case for housing targets to redress the failure to build enough homes over decades, targets based on such old data undermine this ... This is particularly the case when two rounds of more recent data have shown lower population projections during the P4E plan period, and another round, from the 2021 census...".

It is certainly a conundrum for Labour, in light of the census findings which show the housing targets severely over-estimate household growth. As a senior council official in Bury confided to the Mill, the announcement “removes the cover we had”.

“It removes the cover we had." — a senior council official

Labour’s commitment to protecting the Green Belt is going to be tested to the limit. If Oldham Council and the other Labour councils across Greater Manchester proceed with building in the Green Belt then they will have to own that decision and won’t be able to scapegoat the Tories.

An exit strategy…

It is not necessary to kill the plan outright to save the Green Belt. Aside from the Green Belt allocations there are some good policies in there for tackling climate change, air pollution and inequality, that politicians of all affiliations should be able to get behind. There is a middle ground here: Oldham could remain in the plan, and—using the provision set out in Cllr Quigg’s motion—set a housing target that takes account of the census findings. This would enable Oldham Council to withdraw the Green Belt allocations and for Oldham Labour to honour its commitment to protect the Green Belt.

If Labour were to implement the elements of Cllr Quigg's motion relating to the Spatial Framework, then they could salvage the plan, save all of the Green Belt, and still meet Oldham’s empirically assessed housing needs over the next 15 years.


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