Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Memorandum from Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA)


  • The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is a successful partnership which has achieved significant success in delivering benefits for Greater Manchester through voluntary collaboration.
  • AGMA is evolving and has already established new governance arrangements comprising an Executive Board (the decision making body comprising the leaders of all 10 local authorities) and six Commissions, including a Planning & Housing Commission. AGMA has an agreed strategy—The Greater Manchester Strategy—which sets out a vision for a new model of sustainable economic growth.
  • AGMA agrees that spatial planning should be undertaken at the correct spatial level—for some issues this will be district or below, however for others it is necessary to plan across district boundaries. AGMA believes we need to collaborate at the level of the "functioning economic area"—which for GM is the 10 districts—to properly drive economic growth and provide essential infrastructure more sustainable and efficiently.
  • AGMA is producing a non statutory Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, to be agreed by the 10 Councils on an entirely voluntary basis, which will form a core element of our integrated investment framework and will provide the context for the work of the districts when progressing their Core Strategies.
  • AGMA is not seeking formal planning powers for our LEP at this time as we are not clear what added value this would bring.
  • In GM we have a ready supply of housing land with political and community support for housing growth however the restriction of development and mortgage finance is preventing development. AGMA is unsure that the New Homes Bonus would be successful in unblocking this.


The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) was formed in 1986 as a voluntary collaboration between the Local Authorities in Greater Manchester, to co-ordinate the delivery of functions at the metropolitan level after the abolition of Greater Manchester County Council. More than 20 years on, our successful partnership has matured enormously, and continues to evolve, to reflect our growing understanding of the importance of Greater Manchester as a functioning economic area, and our ambition to influence key policy levers to address our economic challenges and reach our full potential as an engine of national growth which can complement London and the South East to rebalance the national economy.

New governance structures are taking place; we established the Executive Board, comprising the leaders of the 10 local authorities; and six "commissions" which are charged with overseeing the new economy, planning and housing health, environment, public protection, improvement and efficiency functions on behalf of the Executive Board. The Commissions have a mix of public /private/third sector membership. The Planning & Housing Commission is chaired by Councillor Derek Antrobus, Lead Member for Planning at Salford City Council.

Our proposals for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority provide a platform for the devolution of powers to ensure that key issues are dealt with at the most appropriate level—which we believe is increasingly at the Greater Manchester and local level. They have been developed through a willing coalition of the 10 elected leaders—across all three political parties—and have been democratically ratified by each of the Councils. The proposals have received overwhelming support from the business community. The Greater Manchester LEP, recently announced by Government, is a natural addition to these governance arrangements and builds on the unique public-private partnership already in place within Greater Manchester. Together the Combined Authority and the LEP will enable the private sector to play an even more active leadership role in securing sustainable economic growth and allow for the effective alignment of decision making and delivery in key areas such as economic development, regeneration, planning, transport, housing, inward investment, business support, marketing and tourism, environment and employment and skills.

Our understanding of the economic potential of Greater Manchester was supported by the independent analysis of the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER). MIER demonstrated that while the scale of the opportunity in Greater Manchester is of national significance, we face two significant challenges: to increase our productivity and the competitiveness and the efficiency of our labour markets; and, secondly, to ensure that all parts of Greater Manchester and its people benefit from and contribute to growth by tackling low skills levels, worklessness and public service dependency. MIER presented us with hard-hitting challenges over our priorities for spending and how we use the levers of Government, both national and local, to support growth. These levers need to operate at the optimum level: Greater Manchester for strategic direction; and at the most local—city and neighbourhood—for effective delivery.

We translated these challenges into a Greater Manchester Strategy, a well-directed and coherent response focused on creating wealth through private sector growth by building a bigger critical mass of skilled activity and focusing on the particular needs and opportunities for the local economy. The Strategy sets out our vision for a new model of sustainable growth, supported by a series of added value priorities for action across Greater Manchester, which provides a focus for public service reform and presents a framework for making choices about our priorities for investment.

We successfully submitted a joint programme proposal to Government for the Greater Manchester Transport Fund, and more recently, for a programme of investment across GM through the National Affordable Housing Programme.


AGMA is clear that spatial planning strategy has a critical influence on our ability to influence and enhance our economic performance. It provides a framework for development and investment, both public and private, in respect of employment, transport connectivity and housing, and prioritises areas for economic development and regeneration investment, given the need to focus limited resources where they have the greatest impact and make the best use of existing assets. To enable us to deliver this, AGMA has agreed to develop the non-statutory Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, now in preparation through the voluntary collaboration of the 10 districts.

We are clear that to plan for sustainable economic growth, the most appropriate spatial level is that of a functional economic area, rather than historical administrative units. Strategy must reflect the real influences on our economy; complex drivers and multi-layered interdependencies, in terms of work, leisure, shopping etc, around a core economy. Using these realities and relationships as our building block enables us to build on assets such as catchments for skilled labour, supply-chain relationships, knowledge transfer and the benefits of agglomeration.

Perhaps the most useful way of understanding the functional economic area is from analysis of its economic "reach", or the "flows" of activity. These can be examined in terms of travel to work, business supply relationships, use of retail or leisure facilities and housing market activity. For Greater Manchester we consider the 10 districts comprising the "conurbation" to be our "functioning economic area"—the area which will be addressed by our Local Enterprise Partnership.

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is, therefore, AGMA's voluntary and non-statutory strategic planning framework for the functional economic area of GM. It will form a core element of our spatial investment framework, through which we will plan and co-ordinate investment and the delivery of infrastructure to promote private-sector led growth.

AGMA broadly supported the main thrust of published RSS NW in 2008, and its core objectives, of improved, sustainable economic growth and a more competitive, productive and inclusive regional economy. We also advocated and supported RSS NW's "city-region" approach, believing that this would be most effective in providing a spatial policy framework by which the NW could achieve its goals.. However, we were, and remain, of the view that the region itself was an artificial construct which, given its size and diversity, did not reflect how places actually work, and could not effectively influence their success.


Notwithstanding AGMA's reservations about the appropriateness of the region as a basis for strategic planning, our view is that the abolition of RSS has resulted in a policy "deficit" between national policy statements and local development frameworks. As already outlined, administrative boundaries mean little in the lives of people, in the minds of investors and developers and in the users of services and facilities. However, the inability to co-ordinate activity and investment across a spatial scale greater than individual local authorities would result in inefficiencies and lost opportunities, for example in achieving much-needed housing growth, coherent investment in infrastructure and creating the conditions in which business can flourish. This is relevant, and of concern, both within GM and beyond GM.


The "Regional Centre" is recognised as an economic powerhouse for the whole of the North and is "shared" between three districts (Manchester, Salford and Trafford). Even the more tightly bounded "City Centre" straddles both Manchester and Salford. The continued success of the Regional Centre is a policy priority for all GM districts (and many beyond); however following the abolition of RSS there is no formal mechanism to plan for this.

AGMA already collaborates across a range of areas of direct relevance to spatial planning. We have the benefit of long established officer groups, in particular the Planning Officers Group (POG) which comprises the "Chief Planning Officers" or equivalents in all 10 districts. POG is chaired by Chris Findley, Assistant Director of Planning and Sustainable Futures, Salford City Council, who is the Planning Lead for GM.

GMPOG is one of the mechanisms we have used to implement significant joint working, and one of the critical issues it is currently working on, is identifying opportunities for further collaboration within the context of localism. We believe, from our extensive experience that collaboration between willing authorities, rather than statutorily imposed to down arrangements is so important—and more effective.

We have already collaborated to produce:

  • a Strategic Housing Market Assessment;
  • Strategic Flood Risk Assessment (Level 1 at GM level and Level 2 through clusters of LAs working together);
  • Employment Land Supply assessment;
  • transport modelling work to assess the cumulative impact of proposals in our LDF;
  • a decentralised energy study; and
  • a study of our eight sub regional town centres.

We are currently working on:

  • joint waste and mineral Development Plan Documents;
  • a framework for green infrastructure;
  • a Surface Water Management Plan for Greater Manchester funded by Defra; and
  • are concluding a piece of work to advise the 10 districts on the most cost effective and efficient way in which to respond to the new responsibilities under the Floods and Water Management Act.

In addition we have undertaken two major pieces of work in collaboration with our independent Business Leadership Council to examine market demand for large employment sites and the future of our eight sub regional town centres.

AGMA considers that the model of working which has evolved over time meets the needs of the 10 districts and demonstrates added value over and above that which could be achieved separately.


Greater Manchester is not an island—we have strong relationships with neighbouring authorities and there are mutual dependencies, particularly with local authorities to the south of the conurbation. Policies agreed at the regional level, in respect of housing for example, reinforced our policy priority to repopulate the conurbation core, one of the most deprived areas in the country, and supported GM in delivering significant new housing development. Prior to the publication of the Government's Localism and Decentralisation Bill, it is not clear to us how the proposed new arrangements will work, for example, will LEPs be subject to the "duty to co-operate" with each other on issues of cross boundary importance?


As we described above. the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which is being developed voluntarily in collaboration with, and for agreement by, the 10 GM districts, will support and add value to the districts' Local Development Frameworks, and address matters of wider strategic and cross-boundary significance, such as the requirements for infrastructure, employment sites and housing growth, to help the districts and GM as a whole to grow and prosper.

However, AGMA is not seeking formal planning powers through its LEP at this time.

In our view, it is essential that any planning powers ceded by local planning authorities do not result in a loss of democratic accountability, and are fully supported by all parties involved. It is difficult to see how LEPs, as currently constituted, could acquire planning powers when they are not democratically elected and not accountable to the residents of GM. While we may wish to consider the acquisition of specific powers over time, with the complete agreement of the Local Authorities, we would need to be convinced of the probity and demonstrable benefits that a LEP with planning powers would bring to all communities in GM before we could decide to pursue this course of action.


AGMA is concerned that the rationale behind the abolition of RSS appears to be that the "imposition of housing figures" at district level resulted in the lowest housing figures for many years. GM has produced high housing figures up until 2009-10, a period which coincided with RSS, but more crucially, with a period of unprecedented economic growth. What is constraining the delivery of housing is clearly not the imposition of regional targets, but rather the lack of development and mortgage finance. We are firmly of the view that this situation will not change until finance availability increases.

The incentives offered through the New Homes Bonus pre-suppose that development will go ahead - that is not our experience. A recent review of our housing supply, including sites under construction and those in the pipeline (with planning permission or allocated in development plans) indicates that there is an abundance of land for housing, but little possibility of development starting on site in the short to medium term, due not to local opposition, but, as above, to the shortage of investment and mortgage finance.

The AGMA authorities are committed broadly to the figures which were in RSS as these were figures which reflected or demographic projections. In general all districts are attempting to bring forward significant housing growth over the new 15 years.

AGMA considers that financial incentives which underpin development viability of schemes to "kickstart" development would be more beneficial in a GM context and could result in significant levels of new house building—our emerging development plans are making provision for around 200,000 new homes. This funding needs to be "up-front" whereas the New Homes Bonus funding seems likely to be retrospective. We are currently working with the Homes & Communities Agency to maximise the impact of the funds remaining in their capital programme for 2008-11. Through close collaboration with housing association and private developer partners, we currently anticipate a mixed programme of NAHP, Kickstart, Homebuy and local authority new build investment will secure in excess of 700 new homes from a programme of less than £30 million

This illustrates the potential impact of relatively minor investment, even when this is constrained by the rules of existing programmes and the need to focus only on projects able to start on site this financial year. If New Homes Bonus funding could form part of a more flexible cocktail of funding in line with Government's decentralisation ambitions, then we see an opportunity to bring it together with other levers such as the use of public sector land assets, new models of private sector investment in housing delivery focusing perhaps on opportunities to develop for private renting, etc, to help drive housing delivery. We will pursue those other options with our partners through our second GM Local Investment Plan, but it would seem to be a missed opportunity if the terms of New Homes Bonus funding prevented it being used to add further momentum.


AGMA's history of collaboration means that a duty to collaborate is not of itself a matter for concern. The establishment of our Combined Authority and Local Enterprise Partnership are a natural extension of our effective collaboration over the past 20 years.

October 2010

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