The Manchester Core Strategy development process – could it have been more public?

by Andreas Schulze Bäing (Research Fellow) and  Jenni Viitanen (Research Associate) at the  Centre for Urban Policy Studies, University of Manchester.

After a long while in the doldrums, we have a piece of good news about planning in Manchester. Since 11 July 2012, the city has an adopted core strategy. This key planning document sets out the future development strategy and vision for the city and it is part of the Local Development Framework (LDF), which was introduced by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Embracing the principles of ‘spatial planning’, the LDFs have incrementally replaced previous plans, namely local and unitary development plans which were more narrowly focused on ‘land use’. The complex nature of ‘spatial planning’ meant that practical implementation has taken years, and Manchester has proven to be no exception to this rule. Nevertheless Manchester’s ‘slowly but surely’ approach has paid off, as the formal adoption of the core strategy was preceded by successful ‘test of soundness’ by the Planning Inspectorate, a test that many English planning authorities have indeed failed since the LDF process was introduced. One criterion for ‘soundness’ is robust public consultation – after all this is a statutory requirement in the planning process. However, to secure and support public participation in planning is more toilsome than is often acknowledged. It is easy to criticise the shortcomings of such efforts; among the substantial barriers that practitioners face are institutional and political factors discussed in the twin blog about Manchester’s trajectory (link), as well as public perception of planning more widely.

When the Manchester Evening News (MEN) printed the  headline “Manchester: the masterplan”, the immediate reaction among our colleagues was – ‘a masterplan for Manchester, have we missed something?’. As it turned out, the technical nature of planning jargon can create confusion in the public domain. On the rare occasion that planning hits the headlines for reasons other than the perpetual myth of it being a barrier to economic prosperity (a view challenged by the RTPI here[1]), or the well-publicised disputes and delays over controversial schemes, it is prone to being misrepresented. Precisely because of these barriers, we warmly welcome the MEN’s positive coverage of planning. Although a planning document of Manchester city council, the core strategy places the city and its vision firmly within a broader spatial context, not only the ten Greater Manchester authorities but also Cheshire East and High Peak, and the region as was, the North West. The city region, which the document routinely refers to, is not a ‘fixed’ space. This in its own right poses questions about aspects of public participation and representativeness in creating an overarching vision which crosses the boundaries of several planning authorities. The future of Manchester airport, for example, provides one obvious example of wider impact.

It is worth reflecting on the wider dimension of this story, particularly we wish to consider the extent of the public’s awareness of and participation in creating the spatial vision for Manchester. How has the document been developed over recent years?

As noted earlier,  there is a legal requirement for what is called community consultation in planning. For the Manchester core strategy this multi-stage process is documented in detail in a Consultation Statement from February 2011[2]. The process started with a series of public events on 17th May 2005 titled “What’s the plan”, explaining the process and gathering issues that the core strategy should consider. As part of the ensuing engagement methods, 13,000 postcards were distributed asking to name the three most important future planning issues for Manchester, while planning officers went on a tour of the libraries with an exhibition about the core strategy and collecting feedback. Following this, the development of the core strategy went through further stages, Drafting Objectives followed by Issues & Options, Refining Options and finally the Proposed Option. Each of these steps provided the opportunity for input from the general public. This included comments by email or in writing and attendance at various public ‘showcase’ events. The planning team even kitted out a dedicated bus which toured supermarkets and community venues with an exhibition about the core strategy options.

The Planning Inspectorate deemed Manchester’s community consultation process to be ‘sound’. The consultation statement provides figures on the number of people involved in the process. An impressive 700 organisations and individuals have been kept up to date throughout the process by email or post. From the 13,000 postcards distributed early in the process, 387 were returned (a response rate of 3 per cent). Throughout the process the Issues & Options document received the largest extent of formal feedback with 909 comments by 80 organisations and individuals. A long list of stakeholders, companies, planning authorities, pressure and community groups who took part is detailed in the consultation document. While it provides a snapshot of ‘interested parties’, it does not reveal the extent of their influence over the final vision, or whether people felt that their voices have been ‘heard’.

Can this be described as successful community consultation? Can or should we ‘quantify’ public participation in numbers? The core strategy process certainly allowed many opportunities for the relatively limited number of individuals, groups and institutions interested in planning in the first place, to contribute. An issue often overlooked is a qualitative evaluation of who was involved; young people, for example, tend to be underrepresented, as well as ethnic minorities, to mention but a few groups whose stake in a successful city vision would seem essential. It is telling that the consultation statement notes that whilst information on individual respondents’ age, sexuality, ethnicity etc. was gathered at the early stages of the consultation, this was abandoned as the response rates were too low to be meaningful. This is not surprising – the efforts of the planning officers involved were laudable, but the fruits of their labour in terms of sparking wider interest and debate about planning are limited. Creating a city-wide debate reaching people less enthusiastic about planning might require more pro-active efforts and perhaps a different approach. We should not forget the influence of leadership, and acknowledge the limited scope that planners sometimes have ‘on the ground’. It is still worth exploring how the principles of ‘collaborative planning’ might be implemented more effectively in practice.

One idea would be to set up an urban forum at an early stage of such a planning process combined with a media strategy reporting about the events and their impact. One of the cities where this has been tried is Berlin, where planners faced huge challenges in the early 1990s following reunification. Based on experiences in cooperative planning from the IBA in the 1980s, the so-called Stadtforum Berlin was introduced as an advisory committee for urban development. Its 50 expert members included different social groups and interested politicians, as well as planning academics and practitioners. Its monthly meetings were public, often held in large lecture halls[3][4] allowing larger audiences to attend. Findings from this forum were fed into the formal policy making process of the Berlin city council. The forum exists to this day though meetings and events are less regular[5]. The idea of a Stadtforum has subsequently been applied in a number of other European cities including Copenhagen, Graz, Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Hannover and Linz[6].

It will always be challenge to capture the public’s  interest in sometimes abstract and large scale ‘spatial planning’ and related participation processes, be it local, regional or national focus. Most people are mainly concerned about their immediate neighbourhood or about specific planning issues such as traffic congestion or particularly in England developments on greenbelt land.

In seems that the team behind the core strategy development in Manchester attempted to create two events in 2005 and 2008, provided on a smaller scale and offering a similar public forum of debate to the one in Berlin. But a more continuous public discussion with input from academic and practising planners and more regular reports in the local media could be worth trying for the next big plan in Manchester. It would also provide a welcome challenge for the research community to stick their heads above the parapet.

Related Post: “Welcome Back Planning – with the release of Manchester’s Core Strategy, a new vision for the city emerges” by Iain Deas, Nicola Headlam, and Graham Haughton.

Twitter: @baeing and @jenniviitanen

2 thoughts on “The Manchester Core Strategy development process – could it have been more public?

  1. Pingback: Welcome Back Planning… « cities@manchester

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