Land use is an ongoing source of controversy for local authorities across Greater Manchester. The building development boom in Manchester, has provided the city region with more than its fair share of controversial planning decisions, creating an ongoing cycle of reports in the press airing the concerns of community groups and local residents who believe planning decisions made in the city are not addressing major issues affecting many of its inhabitants, including a housing crisis and a climate emergency.
Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation programme and Right to Buy policy in the 1980’s saw millions of acres of public land sold into private hands. Austerity cuts to council budgets have created more pressure on councils to sell off property, with central government payments to council budgets across the UK being cut by around 60% since 2010, and Manchester council seeing a total £419m reduction in annual funding, over the last decade. In 2019 The Meteor reported that Manchester council had sold off 673 properties, more than any other local authority, in a five year period.
The result has been a rapid and large decrease of public land owned by Manchester council. An academic paper published in the 1980’s reported that Manchester council owned 57% of the land within its boundaries in 1982, and up to 20,900 acres in total, which author of Who Owns England Guy Shrubsole estimates is double the amount of land owned by the council today. The Meteor previously approached Manchester council for a percentage figure of how much property they owned within its boundaries in 2020. The council replied that they did not hold such a figure, giving the impression that they are not that concerned about monitoring the decline of publicly owned land.
This reality of rapidly declining public land ownership and ongoing public consternation about the use of land in development deals agreed by councils across GM were acknowledged by Andy Burnham with his 2021 mayoral election campaign pledge to establish a Land Commission to “make sure we are making the most productive use of land and building returns for our communities.” The Commission pledged was to follow the recommendations of the GM Independent Inequalities Commission report which called for an investigation into the “ownership and control of land in Greater Manchester” and its “impacts on inequality”, which would put forward potential solutions to the issues raised.
Liverpool City Region Land Commission
Leading the way in opening up the debate on the best use of land is Liverpool, another titan of the industrial revolution now undergoing significant post-industrial development, which is also plagued by controversy over its development plans. Steve Rotherham, metro mayor of the Liverpool City Region (LCR) believes that since the 1980’s land has been “primarily treated as a financial asset” and has previously declared that fairness and social justice should be at the heart of everything the Liverpool City Region does.
With those sentiments in mind and inspired by the examples set by socially conscious not-for-profit organisations such as Community Land Trusts and Community Interest Companies in Liverpool, Rotherham authorised the Independent Land Commission. Made up from distinguished figures from academia, property development, planning and activism, Rotherham tasked the Commission to produce a report that would “wring the maximum possible community value from our land assets to encourage sustainable economic recovery.”
The thirteen experts on democratic land reform gathered by Rotherham were asked to “think imaginatively and come back… with radical recommendations for how we can make the best use of publicly-owned land to make this the fairest and most socially inclusive city region in the country”. The Liverpool City Region Land Commission report was published last July and the authors have produced a radical document, which calls into question the primarily market driven paradigm that dominates land ownership and use in Liverpool and across the UK.
The report on Liverpool provides a summary of how we reached the current state of affairs by a gradual and painful process of the commodification of land. A key part of that process was the enclosure of land in the 17th century, where peasants were forced from their land, and their houses destroyed, by lords and nobles appropriating it. A counter movement against this commodification of land, the report describes, was pioneered in Liverpool with the 1842 Liverpool Building Act which ensured adequate space and hygiene standards in new buildings, and using the 1866 Labouring Classes Dwelling act to provide the first municipal social housing development in Europe.
This was followed by a period where the “market strikes back”, the report states, starting with the first Thatcher government in 1979 which deregulated credit and brought large scale house building by councils to an end. The report says:
“As a result, land has today become primarily a financial asset and the object of speculative lending and investment. The owners of valuable property are able to harvest money in the form of rent and capital appreciation, allowing them to buy yet more property, which in turn enables them to increase their capital and rental income. This drives a cycle of wealth accumulation and increasing inequality.”
A key passage that distils the ethos of the report, presented in the first of 13 recommendations made in the Liverpool Land Commission, is that “land must be understood as much more than a commodity. It should be recognised that land is a gift of nature, that in the end ‘belongs’ to none of us. The LCR should therefore develop a long-term vision, in which all land use is progressively directed towards achieving social well-being and environmental sustainability.”
Thirteen recommendations made by the LCR Land Commission
- Recognise and convey the true social purpose of land.
- A local duty to consider all land in LCR in terms of social justice.
- A permanent land commission for LCR.
- A citizen observatory and participatory research process.
- A “new commons” for LCR.
- Progressive use of the planning system.
- A framework for the responsible stewardship of land.
- Green infrastructure.
- Social value and measurement.
- Set up an open access online map of publicly owned land in LCR.
- Publish an annual report of land ownership and use in LCR.
- Lobby central government to open up the Land Registry.
- Lobby central government to task the Land Registry with establishing a register of options over land.
Positive examples in Liverpool and Greater Manchester
Neil McInroy, then CEO of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies based in Manchester, chaired the Liverpool Land Commission. He now works for the Democracy Collaborative based in the US, promoting the concept and practice of Community Wealth Building there and across the globe. I spoke to McInroy over a Zoom call about his work with the Land Commission, and the good examples of land ownership and stewardship already present in Liverpool.
The report constructed from the deliberations of the commissioners, that occurred over a four-month period, includes a number of case studies. One of these concerned Granby Four Streets, a not-for-profit community land trust democratically controlled by its members, which took over control of rundown former council houses with the aim of renovating them rather than leaving them to demolition and development. The scheme has been so successful that it has won a Turner Prize in 2015, the first time a housing project has won a national art award, and was named as one of 5O New Radicals in 2016 “offering us a glimpse of a different better society” by the charity Nesta.
Baltic Creative Community Interest Company, formed by local social innovators in 2009 to find a way to stop creative and digital businesses being displaced by development and rising rents, was the focus of another case study. With support from the council Baltic Creative acquired 18 Large warehouses in inner city Liverpool, leasing premises to local small businesses at favourable rates it has, since its inception, provided space to over 180 businesses. McInroy said that organisations such as these had been included because:
“There is a consideration of how ownership, and ownership of land can be a lever by which we can accrue greater wealth and recirculation of wealth through an economy opposed to just selling it off to developers and the wealth extracted.” McInroy went on to say that these businesses were still primarily aiming to develop a return on their property and land acquisitions, but crucially “that return is then recirculated back in the community.
“And that’s in essence what the Land Commission work was advocating for, particularly in Liverpool. There have been decades, centuries of the extraction of wealth from land, and development of land and appreciation occurring which wasn’t benefiting the citizens of that fine city there. I think that’s a similar problem we have in Greater Manchester, land is the fundamental source of wealth, and if there’s not respect for the plurality of ownership, then wealth and appreciation in that land will be extracted.”
What organisations would make good case studies for Greater Manchester? Amongst the organisations suggested by Neil are the Kindling Trust, which last year launched a community share offer to buy a farm for an innovative and sustainable agroforestry project, and Derive a Salford council owned housing development company which plans to build up to 3,000 homes in Salford over the next decade. Another contender for inclusion would be the GM Community Led Housing Hub, which is providing advice and support to organisations across GM interested in setting up community land trusts and housing co-operatives, including a project in Langley, Rochdale, with plans to build social housing.
Citizen’s observatory to augment local democracy
Recommendation four in the Liverpool CR Land Commission calls for a “citizen observatory”, a kind of rolling citizens’ assembly, to be set up, for the “continued assessment, monitoring and generation of ideas for innovative policies around land – and putting them into action.” This is a recommendation that would no doubt appeal to the growing number of people in Manchester disgruntled with planning decisions, who often describe the consultation process carried out by councils prior to development as a “box ticking exercise” that doesn’t give enough weight to their views.
To oversee and scrutinise council decisions to make sure they are in the best interests of its citizens is fundamental to local democratic accountability, Neil says, but the planning committee stage of development is lacking in its power to sufficiently scrutinise decisions due to its over reliance on councillors. The commissioners felt they “needed to boost” the scrutiny currently underpinning decisions with a citizens observatory mandated to make sure land development was in the interest of the people, Neil says:
“So you’ve got representative democracy in the work of planning committees and so forth, but you’ve also got this participative democratic form. It seeks to augment democratic accountability over planning and development decisions and there’s no reason why that should be seen as a threat. It’s there to strengthen the accountability.”
The observatory would require careful planning and facilitation by a body independent of the local authorities, to prevent bias in the authorities’ favour. The LCR Land Commission describes the observatory as a “citizen-led body” which would form part of a permanent LCR Land Commission. Care and consideration would be needed to get the right cohorts of people involved to avoid “nimbyism or an anti-developer” contingent forming, McInroy says, and it would also require some form of capacity building and training to give participants a full understanding of the issues involved and get them up to speed on what they need to do. McInroy described how examples from our democratic peers abroad, add weight to this recommendation:
“Some of the spatial plans in Canada and Australia, do have a standing citizens assembly. Real forms of participatory democracy that are standing to make sure that those plans are developed according to citizens wishes. So these are not outlandish, other Western democracies have those sorts of bodies and I see no reason why we shouldn’t have them in our city regions too.”
Will there be a GM Land Commission?
Politicians are known for making promises and then failing to keep them. To keep this promise from Andy Burnham, at the top of his agenda and prevent the idea being kicked into the long grass campaigners from over 60 organisations concerned about current development and land use in the city region, called for the GM mayor to uphold his promise, last May. Mark Burton, in his role as a member of campaign group Steady State Manchester, endorsed the open letter to Burnham, calling for a more planned and democratic approach to land use. Burton explained some of his hopes and fears around what this commission could achieve and said that the greatest problems facing land use in GM were:
“Excessive power and influence of developers. Speculative development, powered by the search for profitability and excess spare capital. Pressure to build instead of making best use of existing buildings. Pressure to build on green spaces.
“I’m not necessarily confident that a Land Commission would change that, but it could potentially act as a counterweight. The idea would be that land use is informed by evidenced need, with a wider variety of considerations in play than growth and profitability.
“However, that won’t necessarily happen. We know that local government tends to work with boosterist, pro-development assumptions, and that citizen and critical voices have a hard time achieving sufficient critical mass and power to effectively oppose that. However, by making the deliberative process more visible, with a publicly accountable Land Commission, it is possible that the balance of power could be shifted towards real social needs and pro-environmental priorities.”
The Meteor previously contacted the GM mayor’s office when the open letter was published to see what progress had been made towards establishing a Land Commission. The Greater Manchester Combined Authorities (GMCA) response, avoided mentioning a Land Commission but did say they were working towards bringing land into use for housing. We approached the mayor’s office again this week, and a spokesperson for the mayor said:
“The Mayor is bringing together a number of stakeholders into a new Greater Manchester Land Commission, with a focus on ensuring that public land ownership and use is in line with our ambitions to deliver the housing that our city-region needs.
“We continue to monitor the progress of the Liverpool Land Commission and will draw lessons from it as we move forward.”
So it’s official, the GM Land Commission is going ahead. The mayor’s office did not provide any further details or timeline about when the Commission would be initiated, or who would be chairing and facilitating the process.
McInroy believes further decisions about the GM Land Commission may be made, and details released, during the GMCA’s upcoming review of the Independent Inequalities Commission’s work, which should happen within the next six months.
Opening the door to an alternative Greater Manchester landscape
There are many similarities between Liverpool and Manchester, but it is the differences between them that will need to be addressed to make the report a useful one for the citizens of Greater Manchester. Manchester city centre and parts of Salford have witnessed rapid development over the last 25 years. Liverpool, conversely, still has large undeveloped areas of vacant and derelict land near the city centre such as the North Docks.
Liverpool is catching up fast, Neil says, and the speed and momentum of the GM building boom may create difficulties in trying to “change the direction of that juggernaut, and the juggernaut basically is driven by private investment, capital flows coming into the city, building predominantly commercial outlets, office outlets or housing. That’s a massive juggernaut and it has big international players Involved in it.”
Another aspect the GM Land Commission will also need to investigate thoroughly is the changes in where and how we work, where we live, commuting, shopping and leisure activities that the pandemic has brought into play and which we are still coming to grips with. Research is needed on the changes that have occurred and whether they are likely to persist or increase post pandemic. “We can’t just keep trucking on thinking it’s going to be development in the city centre. That’s just not where people’s heads are. People are moving out and using space in different ways now,” Neil said.
There is one recommendation in the LCR Land Commission to, “set up an open access online map of publicly-owned land in LCR”, which Manchester has already made some progress on. Researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Manchester have created an online interactive map of Manchester council’s property holdings, which also shows property disposals by the council in central wards of Manchester. To achieve the vision of an online map of publicly owned land in GM covering all ten boroughs, funding would be needed to create and maintain it.
McInroy believes initiatives like these are “pretty essential”, and points out that there is some information held by councils that people can access but “it’s all disparate and it’s not quite clear”. An open access register of public land with an online map, as proposed in the LCR Land Commission, “makes a great basis to come to decision making about what should happen” to that land Neil said. “I think at times across England that transparency is not there… there’s some suspicion around and to overcome that suspicion, just create as much transparency you possibly can, and so I think it’s very essential to have that record of public lands.”
The Liverpool Land Commission was the first Independent commission in England to give a broad scope analysis of land use in a city region, in regards to creating a fairer and more socially just way of using and developing land in the future. Neil says the Liverpool City Region report has “opened the door” to “reveal the issues”, and then it is “up for people working every day with planning and planning decisions to consider that report.”
Alongside the planners making the decisions, I would argue that more of the public need to get their heads around the concept of “owning” the land we live and depend on and get their shoulders behind pushing the development juggernaut that dominates Manchester, down a more equitable and sustainable route. McInroy summing up emphasized the importance of realising who actually owns this land, when it comes to making decisions on how we use it:
“Public land, is our land. It’s owned by the people, through the democratic bodies. So Manchester council, Rochdale, Oldham they own land, that in essence is our land. They’re stewards of that land, they own it for us on our behalf. So it’s important we know where it is and what’s getting done with it. And we know from many examples where public land has been sold off because councils are skint, and they’re trying to make money, and I understand that.
“But at the end the day, they could be selling off the family silver. So we need to have that open access, that clear understanding of what is in public hands, our hands, and what are the plans for it?”
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Feature image: Glen Cutwerk