1. Environmental
May 6, 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 2:43pm

Manchester is the engine of the Northern Powerhouse. But it’s not ambitious enough about housing

By Colin Robinson

 Two years ago, George Osborne introduced the concept of a “Northern Powerhouse” as a way of closing the decades-long economic gap between the North of England and the dominant South East. The Powerhouse would be “Not one city, but a collection of cities sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world”, and which could provide a powerful counterbalance to London’s dominance.

Almost two years on from this speech, no explicit growth targets have yet been identified and the north-south divide has, if anything, widened.  The Powerhouse rhetoric of numerous announcements has not been followed through, particularly when it comes to delivering one of the fundamental elements crucial to developing successful cities – more housing, in the right places.

A good example can be seen in the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), which will define planning policy across the city-region for the next 20 years. The target annual economic growth rate set out in the latest draft of the GMSF is 0.7 per cent – lower than the 1.2 per cent average growth rate achieved Manchester since the last recession. Most controversially, it targets just 0.8 per cent for annual housing growth (10,350 dwellings per year) – lower than the likes of London, Bristol and even its TransPennine rival Leeds/Bradford.

This housing target is barely higher than the official government forecast for overall household growth in England – hardly the level of ambition necessary to allow Greater Manchester to be the “engine”  of the Northern Powerhouse, as its leaders envisage.

NLP has produced a new report for the Housing the Powerhouse campaign to show what Greater Manchester could do to step up to this role, particularly when it comes to sufficiently ambitious housing and economic growth targets.

Our work found that job growth of 1 per cent annually represents a realistic target that reflects past achievements and the ambition of the city region. This is also comparable with cities on the continent which could be regarded as successful models to emulate, such as Dortmund and Nantes. 

We found some key features these places had in common when it came to promoting sustainable economic growth:

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  • A strong, but flexible, devolved local government;
  • A clear vision for growth, and understanding of the city’s strengths;
  • A high degree of fiscal autonomy;
  • A pro-active approach towards development from City leaders, providing a mix of homes including larger, family homes as well as affordable housing;
  • A flourishing office sector;
  • Substantial levels of investment in local transport infrastructure; and,
  • Across a wider area, cities working together for a common overall goal, whilst retaining their own specialisms and expansion agendas.

Greater Manchester is the best placed Northern city to embrace this model and has already made significant steps towards doing so, particularly when it comes to governance structures. However, the current lack of ambition when it comes to housing puts this at risk. We found an increase in annual housing growth to around 16,000 new homes a year would deliver substantial economic benefits and help to secure Greater Manchester’s status as the engine of the Powerhouse. 

City region housing growth targets compared. Click to expand.

For the Northern Powerhouse idea to succeed, it is vital that Greater Manchester leads the way. A re-booted, pro-development and ambitious planning strategy in the north’s biggest city would go a long way to delivering a more balanced UK economy.

Colin Robinson is planning director at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners.

You can read the “Greater Manchester – The Engine Driving The Powerhouse?” report here.

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