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, Planning, University of Manchester.

Manchester’s core strategy was approved last week (11th July 2012), setting out a series of planning policies to help realise the council’s vision for the city in 2027. The plan had already hit the headlines a month previously, when the Manchester Evening News led its front page with the headline “Manchester: the masterplan”, accompanied by a fine aerial picture of the regenerated city centre[1]. Beneath this were a series bullet points setting out Manchester’s aspiration to “join the ‘first rank’ of world cities – ahead of Milan and Munich”, with 80,000 new residents and 60,000 new homes, a built environment replete with new skyscrapers and pedestrianised zones, and a ‘jobs bonanza’ resulting from continued economic growth.

After years in the doldrums, it was of course heartening to see planning become front page news again. In a context of recurring efforts to discredit planners, it was doubly reassuring to see planning presented in a positive light.  And given the occasionally adulatory coverage of Manchester’s successes in urban regeneration, acknowledgment of the central role of planning was undoubtedly overdue.

The release of the new plan suggests that planning in the city may not be quite as irrelevant or problematic as some critics have claimed. For some years now influential voices amongst Manchester’s policy elite appear to have viewed planning as an impediment to growth. The result has been that planning concerns have often been relegated to the margins of debate about how best to engineer Manchester’s economic, social and environmental revival[2]. Sceptical views about planning have been articulated repeatedly over the last two decades. In 1995, the Manchester Evening News (p.9) carried a full page interview with the chair of the city’s planning committee, Cllr Arnold Spencer, in which he set out in forthright manner his exasperation at the increasingly anti-planning stance of the council, then under Graham Stringer’s leadership. In it, Spencer bemoans the apparent antipathy to planning amongst the city’s leaders: “Stringer has actually said that congestion is a sign of economic growth. For him all that congestion in Cross Street means the city is doing well. People are gasping with asthma, but Manchester is doing well.” This was just one year after Manchester hosted the ‘Global Forum’, a post-Rio Earth Summit meeting, which attracted 1500 visitors from over 60 countries.

For some of the key people at the heart of the growth coalition that emerged in Manchester in the mid-late-1990s, planning was an unavoidable but mundane administrative activity, not unlike environmental health, with which the formerly freestanding planning department was eventually merged. Reading between the lines of the book written by the then director of the Manchester’s planning department,[3] one can just about sense the tension between a view of planning as a formal, ordered and necessary control on development, and the strongly pro-growth, development-first view articulated by the self-styled go-getters driving the city’s growth coalition.

This tension emerged at a time when the city’s policy elites were beginning to piece together a more expansive and longer-term strategy for Manchester’s future development. Emboldened by successful efforts to attract grant funding and high profile events, and encouraged from above by Whitehall civil servants keen to see provincial cities ‘punch their weight’, the city’s leading policy actors embarked on a series of initiatives to develop strategy that extended both spatially (to the neighbouring authorities) and sectorally (to an array of participants from public agencies and business). Marginalised within this otherwise inclusive grouping was the city’s planning department. Amongst the city’s leaders, it seemed, there was little appreciation of the potential for strategic planning to offer a bold, imaginative and farsighted vision of the city of the future. Inspiration and foresight would come from elsewhere – from the movers and shakers of the city’s elite, rather than the technocrats of the planning department.

The paradox here is that although planning, as a profession and as an administrative entity in Manchester City Council, has often been side-lined, planners have often played an instrumental role in shaping efforts to regenerate the city. As Michael Hebbert has argued[4], planning principles – notably from urban design – have been central to many of the regeneration efforts for which the city has been lauded.  Urban design ideas were critical to the redevelopment of the city centre, guided by an overarching masterplan, from the late-1990s. They also underpinned the revitalisation of Hulme, and subsequently informed a design guide which extended across the city. Planners occupied senior positions in the organisation managing the regeneration of East Manchester, as well as Hulme.

The marginalisation of planning in the heyday of Thatcherism is, of course, well documented.  What is perhaps more surprising is that the ‘planner blame thesis’ has endured, undiminished amongst leading policy-makers in Manchester. The perception of planning as yet another form of red tape, stifling entrepreneurial zeal and hampering the city’s economic recovery, has been one that has proved difficult to dislodge.

This was a view that infused parts of the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER). Prepared in 2008-09 at a reputed cost of some £1m [5] the MIER set out to sketch the city-region’s economic destiny, as seen through a series of commissioned position statements prepared by local and external experts. An LSE submission on agglomeration economies, for example, argued in robust terms that planning impeded growth. Whilst the final MIER report and recommendations acknowledged that “Manchester has a record of effective planning policies, with a high degree of co-ordination,” much of the remainder of the report talked of the need to change planning fundamentally to accord to market needs.

The MIER constituted an important part of the background against which Manchester’s newly approved Core Strategy was prepared. It set out in powerful terms the case for strengthened city-regional governance, but exemplified longstanding agnosticism about the potential role for planning in shaping Manchester’s future. Viewed in that context, the bold and expansive vision set out in the Core Strategy, and the high profile accorded to it by the city’s leaders, signals a welcome – if belated – re-embrace of planning.

The leader writer of the Manchester Evening News (19 June 2012, p.8) captures the significance of the document well:

“The plan includes many ideas that should impact on the lives of ordinary Mancunians. If there is one persistent criticism of the redevelopment of the city in recent times, it is that the positive effects have not always been felt across Manchester. There are parts of this city still characterised by deep deprivation. The benefits of a bustling city centre have not been shared as widely as they should have been. Rightly, this plan looks to address this.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves – so welcome and good luck Core Strategy on your adoption. We wish you well.

Related Post: Andreas Schulze Bäing and  Jenni Viitanen “The Manchester Core Strategy development process – could it have been more public?”

Twitter: Nicola Headlam @networknicola, Iain Deas @iaindeas

[1] Manchester Evening News 19th June 2012. See also http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/s/1581573_masterplan-to-take-manchester-into-the-future and the lively debate in the blog that accompanies the on-line version.

[2] See e.g. Peck, J. and Ward, K. (eds.) (2002) City of revolution: restructuring Manchester, Manchester: Manchester University Press

[3] Kitchen, Ted (1997) People, Politics, Policies and Plans, Paul Chapman Press, London.

[4] Hebbert M (2010) Manchester: making it happen, in J Punter (ed) Urban Design and the British Urban Renaissance, pp.51-67, Routledge, London.

1 thought on “Welcome Back Planning…

  1. Pingback: The Manchester Core Strategy development process – could it have been more public? « cities@manchester

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