Manchester is the engine of the Northern Powerhouse. But it’s not ambitious enough about housing

Terraced houses in the Moss Side district of Manchester. Image: Getty.

 Two years ago, George Osborne introduced the concept of a “Northern Powerhouse” as a way of closing the decades-long economic gap between the North of England and the dominant South East. The Powerhouse would be “Not one city, but a collection of cities sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world”, and which could provide a powerful counterbalance to London’s dominance.

Almost two years on from this speech, no explicit growth targets have yet been identified and the north-south divide has, if anything, widened.  The Powerhouse rhetoric of numerous announcements has not been followed through, particularly when it comes to delivering one of the fundamental elements crucial to developing successful cities – more housing, in the right places.

A good example can be seen in the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), which will define planning policy across the city-region for the next 20 years. The target annual economic growth rate set out in the latest draft of the GMSF is 0.7 per cent – lower than the 1.2 per cent average growth rate achieved Manchester since the last recession. Most controversially, it targets just 0.8 per cent for annual housing growth (10,350 dwellings per year) – lower than the likes of London, Bristol and even its TransPennine rival Leeds/Bradford.

This housing target is barely higher than the official government forecast for overall household growth in England – hardly the level of ambition necessary to allow Greater Manchester to be the “engine”  of the Northern Powerhouse, as its leaders envisage.

NLP has produced a new report for the Housing the Powerhouse campaign to show what Greater Manchester could do to step up to this role, particularly when it comes to sufficiently ambitious housing and economic growth targets.

Our work found that job growth of 1 per cent annually represents a realistic target that reflects past achievements and the ambition of the city region. This is also comparable with cities on the continent which could be regarded as successful models to emulate, such as Dortmund and Nantes. 

We found some key features these places had in common when it came to promoting sustainable economic growth:

  • A strong, but flexible, devolved local government;
  • A clear vision for growth, and understanding of the city’s strengths;
  • A high degree of fiscal autonomy;
  • A pro-active approach towards development from City leaders, providing a mix of homes including larger, family homes as well as affordable housing;
  • A flourishing office sector;
  • Substantial levels of investment in local transport infrastructure; and,
  • Across a wider area, cities working together for a common overall goal, whilst retaining their own specialisms and expansion agendas.

Greater Manchester is the best placed Northern city to embrace this model and has already made significant steps towards doing so, particularly when it comes to governance structures. However, the current lack of ambition when it comes to housing puts this at risk. We found an increase in annual housing growth to around 16,000 new homes a year would deliver substantial economic benefits and help to secure Greater Manchester’s status as the engine of the Powerhouse. 

City region housing growth targets compared. Click to expand.

For the Northern Powerhouse idea to succeed, it is vital that Greater Manchester leads the way. A re-booted, pro-development and ambitious planning strategy in the north’s biggest city would go a long way to delivering a more balanced UK economy.

Colin Robinson is planning director at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners.

You can read the “Greater Manchester – The Engine Driving The Powerhouse?” report here.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.