Through the Space in Common project we are using a series of workshops to learn how we create more constructive and inclusive conversations about what gets built where in Greater Manchester and beyond. In our latest workshop we were fortunate to have a planner from a local council present to talk us through how this works at the moment, and what it looks like from the inside. This blog shares what we learnt.

Deciding how Greater Manchester Takes Shape: How it works

  • Central government publishes a National Planning Policy Framework that sets out the government’s planning rules. It’s a short document but this means there’s quite a lot in the footnotes. Legal precedents are also quite important in this country.
  • Each of the ten Greater Manchester councils produces a Local Plan setting out how they want their area as a whole to take shape. These plans (and so the planning decisions that are informed by them) have to conform with the government’s planning rules. The government’s view is that these Local Plans are needed to make sure that local areas plan to make enough new housing. If councils don’t produce or review plans quickly enough, there are threats of government intervention
  • ‘Local planning authorities’ (such as Greater Manchester’s ten borough councils) make decisions on planning applications. The system is ‘plan-led’ – i.e. the policies in the Local Plan are the starting point for making these decisions. The biggest planning applications are usually decided by the Planning Committee, but most applications are delegated to council officers to decide on.
  • There are lots of things to think about that stretch across council boundaries, and lots of things where acting together makes sense in a large conurbation like Greater Manchester – such as overall strategy, the distribution of new housing, and the infrastructure to support this . Because of this the ten councils in Greater Manchester are working together on a Spatial Framework, which is a kind of Local Plan that they are required by law to make. The ten councils and the Greater Manchester Mayor have to unanimously agree on this plan for it to happen.

The History of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework

  • The first draft of Greater Manchester’s Spatial Framework was developed by the ten Greater Manchester councils, and subject to a major public consultation exercise. There were 27,000 responses to this Spatial Framework, many from individuals and groups opposing the release of green belt land for development.
  • The consultation preceded the election of Greater Manchester’s first elected Mayor, Andy Burnham. In his election campaign Andy committed to a ‘radical rewrite’ of the Spatial Framework.
  • The ten councils and Mayor Andy Burnham are now drawing up a revised draft Spatial Framework for Greater Manchester, which will require the unanimous agreement of the Mayor and the ten council leaders. They also have stick to the rules laid out in the National Planning Policy Framework, including for calculating how many new homes to plan for.

What this System Looks Like in Practice

There is scope for the mayor and ten councils to decide what they deal with through a Greater-Manchester-wide plan, and what they deal within in individual Local Plans. The decision was made that the Spatial Framework should focus on strategic planning issues, and that decisions about releasing greenbelt land to meet needs for housing and employment should be made at this Greater-Manchester-wide level, rather than through individual Local Plans.

Reaching agreement between all ten councils and the mayor is potentially difficult. Local areas come with their own unique needs, and have their own focus on what is important and what is not.

While there are rules laid out by central government, these still leave significant scope to use plans to shape and develop policy within Greater Manchester to meet real needs and to make sure that the city region develops in the right way through to the end of the 2030’s.

Within councils and at the level of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority there are only limited numbers of planning staff available to draw up plans. Developers and landowners can make a lot of money from favourable decisions about what gets built where. Because of this they invest time and resources in scrutinising council plans and coming up with strategies for challenging them. There is a challenge for the Greater Manchester councils, Combined Authority and Mayor to ensure enough resource is put into developing a Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and Local Plans that are well-enough evidenced to stand up to examination by an independent inspector.

Where the Voice of the Public Fits In

Local Planning Authorities have to produce a Statement of Community Involvement, which sets out how they will involve the community in planning decisions. Each of the ten councils in Greater Manchester has one of these, and each is different. They all go beyond the legal minimum requirements for consultation, but they are all different. The Spatial Framework consultation has to be consistent across Greater Manchester, and consistent with each council’s Statements of Community Involvement.

Effectively reaching out to the community and getting their input into plans is time consuming and resource intensive, and councils have very limited resource . Generally, landowners, developers and special interests will respond to strategic issues, but members of the public are unlikely to respond unless there are specific proposals which are seen to be controversial at the local level. During the first consultation on the draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework lots of people wrote replies rather than submitting these online, because they thought these would be given more attention. This made for much more work as people had to be employed to scan these responses and remove personally identifiable information before putting them online.

Public discussion of planning decisions is mainly based on opposition to particular developments. Everyone recognises that people need homes, but those living close to a proposal will be concerned about its local impact. It can be hard to discuss the longer term in this context. Neighbourhood Planning is an attempt to do things differently, where local communities themselves proactively decide how they want their area to take shape, although in doing so they also have to accept that housing is needed and that planning for this involves making often difficult choices.


After listening to this insight, we asked participants at the workshop to share their thoughts about the topic. You can see some of the key points they told us in this blog post.

This is part of a series of workshops on this topic. You can express interest in taking part in our next workshop through the Eventbrite page or by contacting . You can also click the following link to find out more about the Space in Common project.

[Image by XAndreWx ]