'In light of 2016, GMSF statistical thinking no longer stacks up...' - the view of a Stockport businessman

The following write-up was submitted to us by a successful High Lane businessman, following conversation with a well-known Stockport-based estate agent and housing developer. He explains in his email with the article attached, 

"Although I voted 'Remain' this year, I have come to realise there is a huge mood for change in England in particular - of all the UK nations - for a different kind of settlement. A big part of this includes halting the recent rapid population growth that GMSF appears to rest its case upon.

As somebody who started life as a tradesman and built up a national multi-million pound company, I have learnt all too well that you need to 'know your reality' - and accept that your reality frequently changes ('best laid plans' and all that). Politicians need to wake up to the new Brexit reality and, in turn, keep a check on the planners and their sponsors."



2016 has proven to be a momentous year. And in light of 2016, when you sit down and start to crunch the numbers, it is clear the whole house-building programme for GMSF is now based upon compromised statistical thinking - not least the headlines of projected 2.8% per annum 'accelerated' economic growth rate and projected population growth of 301,000 for the Greater Manchester region by 2035 (Source 1).

Reality 1 - Rapid population growth is no longer a certainty...

This year, perhaps more so than ever, has seen regular reporting and discussion about the UK's rising population in the public domain - tied in with the EU referendum debate. Population growth is on people's minds.

If we look at population trends, it is clear there has been rapid population growth over the past decade. For mid-2015 to mid-2016, the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in the UK population by just over 500,000, with England carrying most of the load (Source 2 and Source 3). This is broken down to two causes. Firstly a higher birth to death ratio - with 171,800 births. And sat alongside this, net migration of 335,600. If this trend was to continue, it is said the UK population will grow by 10 million by 2036 (Source 4).

The current GMSF plans use these population growth stats as their public case for a mass housing programme. Advocates for the GMSF plans argue that 227,000 homes will be needed over the next 20 years to meet this continued rapid population growth - and that there is a necessity to build on greenbelt land across the Greater Manchester region, including Stockport's green eastern fringe.

However, there is a counter-argument that the 'current' GMSF plans - originating in 2014 - are in fact now outdated by the new reality of Brexit and the likelihood of EU-sourced 'inflow' migration returning to pre-2003 levels of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. It is also likely to result in significant 'outflows', particularly if there is economic instability, as seen in 2008 (Source 5).

There is also an additional argument that Brexit is not a 'flash in the pan' given the reality of an English public particularly motivated in their voting habits by a resolve to reduce all migration. This was borne out not just on the 23rd June 2016 but also on the 7th May 2015 which saw significant General Election gains in England, in terms of votes cast, for parties taking hard stances on immigration (namely the Conservatives, but also UKIP). This is also reflected in 'political attitudes' polling for years preceding the 2015 and 2016 voting events which sees immigration repeatedly occurring as a predominant concern (Source 6).

Reality 2 - Population growth across the regions is not evenly distributed...

Having noted these national population trends, it is also worth pointing out that national population trends do not necessarily repeat themselves equally across the various regions, cities and towns of the UK. It is well known that population increase has tended to centre on London and surrounding areas, as the country's economic hub - with population growth in the capital being twice that of the rest of the UK (Source 7).

From 2004 to 2014 the population of Greater Manchester grew by 183,100 but this was focused more on Manchester Local Authority areas ('Central Manchester') rather than surrounding areas (Source 8). In turn, this part of Greater Manchester had tended to see the biggest infrastructure investments.

Rapid population growth has historically not been a trend or long term policy issue in Stockport - for example, from 2001 to 2011 the 'growth' rate was in fact -0.5% with the total population dropping by 1300 (Source 9). Again, this is perhaps reflected in the fact Stockport has not had any radical overhaul of infrastructure compared to Central Manchester, or many other Greater Manchester towns for that matter - the lack of Metrolink trams being the most obvious example.

There is evidence, due to higher births and a population living longer, that Stockport will experience some natural growth over the next decade of just over 13,000 by 2024, focused largely on more children and more older people. But this will not be the rapid population growth envisaged, and set to be deliberately engineered, by the GMSF plans (Source 10 and Source 11). In short, Stockport does have particular housing needs going forward but not the mass building of 4 to 5 bedroom luxury housing already seen in places such as Woodford and now being mooted for Cheadle Hulme, Heald Green and High Lane.

Reality 3 - Established economic policy has been blown out of the water by 2016...

As well as throwing population forecasts into disarray, Brexit has also caused - in just six months - a sudden brake on existing economic policy and the start of a process of re-evaluation. With the Brexit-triggered resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, and the ascendancy of Theresa May, the early signs are British government policy for the foreseeable future will be more focused on industrial growth as the main engine for economic growth (Source 12).

Putting it plainly, to date Theresa May's speeches as Prime Minister on economic policy - alongside Greg Clark's speeches as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - appear to represent the early stages of an attempt at making the existing population highly-productive as a way of fuelling economic growth - rather than continuing to import moderately-productive (and nonetheless valuable) EU workers as a way of fuelling economic growth (Source 13 and Source 14).

And whilst Labour might currently trail in the polls, they too have embarked on radical re-thinking about Britain's future economic policies. Whilst less clear on migration, their focus also appears to be on increasing the productivity of the existing population (Source 15).

Similarly, in the United States, Donald Trump's election heralds a brake on previous economic policy and a potentially radical change in direction - with a focus on reviving homegrown manufacturing and re-writing global trade deals (Source 16)

And, come 2017, there are a number of European countries - namely Germany, France, Italy and Holland - all facing general elections and the potential for further 'anti establishment' / 'anti status quo' results (Source 17).

Finally, if we return to the housing market, there are already signs of slow downs in demand for privately-owned housing due to general economic uncertainty on the one hand - and on the other hand, radical changes afoot to key housing policy areas such as buy-to-let and mortgage affordability criteria (Source 18). Again, one must question the thinking behind the current GMSF agenda of Woodford-style developments on Stockport's greenbelt.

In conclusion...

This write-up is not designed to champion anti-immigration politics, Brexit, Theresa May or Donald Trump. Nor is it to deny that Stockport's population has housing needs. It is written to drive home this point - 2016 has already radically changed the political and economic landscape and things are set to change further. All this renders the GMSF plans - rooted as they are in 2014 and already with many existing 'holes' - completely out-of-touch with today's reality.

Given the multi-faceted uncertainty over the future, Stockport's historic greenbelt land (or any other greenbelt land for that matter) should surely not be parcelled up by GMSF and handed over to developers until there is a clearer vision of the UK's - and Greater Manchester's - political, economic and social trajectory post-2016.

And, if GMSF is dogmatically persisted with by the powers-that-be - despite these emerging signs of a new reality - one must question the ulterior motives of some of those involved.

It is understandable that the many planning professionals, estate agents, landowners involved in GMSF have livelihoods to worry about - alongside the vested interests of private development companies, who as recently as early December 2016 were openly lobbying for GMSF to be expanded further rather than rescinded (Source 19).

Similarly, our elected politicians may have their personal interests - and egos - to contest with. The prospect of having a visible legacy, something to show for their time in office - something big and built to last for years to come - is understandably tempting.

But, as we reach the end of 2016, it is perhaps fitting to heed the words of Robert Burns, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry..."  2016 has certainly left the 'best laid plans' of GMSF looking awry, likely obsolete - and whilst it may serve the needs of some to carry on 'business as usual', it clearly no longer serves the public interest to persist with GMSF in its current form.

1) 'An accelerated growth scenario for Greater Manchester' - http://gmsf-consult.objective.co.uk/file/3648890
2) 'Office for National Statistics - Population and Migration' - http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/compendiums/compendium-of-uk-statistics/population-and-migration/index.html
3) 'England is most crowded country in Europe' - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/2967374/England-is-most-crowded-country-in-Europe.html
4) 'UK population grows by half a million in a year to reach 65.1 million' - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-population-grows-half-million-year-651-a7097651.html
5) 'UK Migration Observatory - October 2016, Page 5' - http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Briefing-EU_Migration_UK.pdf
6) 'YouGov UK Attitudes Polling' - https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/na190nomoq/YG-Archives-Pol-Trackers-Issues(2)-Most-important-issues-030315.pdf
7) 'London population growth rate twice that of UK, official figures show' - https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/12/london-population-growth-twice-that-of-uk-official-figures-show
8) 'New Economy - Greater Manchester Key Facts' - http://neweconomymanchester.com/media/1474/ne-key-facts-dec-15-web.pdf
9) 'Census Results - Population Growth in the North West' - http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http:/www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mro/news-release/census-result-shows-increase-in-population-of-the-north-west/censusnorthwestnr0712.html
10) 'Stockport Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JNSA) 2015' - https://stockport-haveyoursay.citizenspace.com/stockport-council/copy-of-jsna-2015-demographics-population/supporting_documents/2015%20JSNA%20%20Demographics%20%20Population.pdf
11) 'Projected Stockport population change, 2014 to 2024' - http://www.stockportjsna.org.uk/2016-jsna-analysis/demographics/
12) 'UK industry welcomes Theresa May’s strategy pledge' - https://www.ft.com/content/b51df920-4db5-11e6-8172-e39ecd3b86fc
13) 'An industrial strategy is hard to achieve. But at least laissez-faire is over' - https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/17/industrial-strategy-laissez-faire-is-over-greg-clark
14) 'Theresa May prioritises immigration curbs over single market' - https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/02/brexit-theresa-may-prioritises-immigration-curbs-over-free-movement
15) 'John McDonnell unveils Labour’s leftwing economic prospectus' - https://www.ft.com/content/fe98b944-83ea-11e6-a29c-6e7d9515ad15
16) 'Donald Trump's economic promises' - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37921635
17) 'These six elections are set to change Europe forever' - http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/italian-referendum-french-presidential-election-german-election-european-union-europe-euro-change-a7449266.html
18) 'Property market demand set to fall in UK in 2017 and prices rise by up to 4%' - http://www.propertywire.com/news/europe/property-market-demand-set-fall-uk-2017-prices-rise-4/
19) 'Industry sends open letter to council leaders over GM plan' - https://www.placenorthwest.co.uk/news/industry-sends-open-letter-to-council-leaders-over-gm-plan/