Plans to launch the new Greater Manchester Spatial Framework draft in a blaze of publicity next week have been cancelled amid a row over an industrial estate off the M60 - and concerns that the pandemic situation makes such a move inappropriate.

But a ‘Future Greater Manchester’ event due to take place on the same day, which would have brought together a range of regional strategies in a show of ambition, has been shelved.

It comes as an eleventh hour row erupted over whether to expand an industrial estate off the M60, leaving Tameside and Stockport councils at loggerheads. 

The Bredbury Park area earmarked for expansion under the GMSF, as it stands

Stockport council still wants to add 90,000 sq m of new warehousing into the green belt, expanding Bredbury Park industrial estate with new units near the river that have been described by critics as ‘horrifying’.

While Stockport’s leadership insists the move is essential in order to boost jobs in the borough, particularly going into a recession, the plan is vehemently opposed by next-door Tameside council, a fellow Labour authority, as well as Labour MP Andrew Gwynne and Conservative MP William Wragg, who represents the constituency in which it sits.

Part of their objection is environmental, as a result of the impact it would have on the green corridor stretching through from Stalybridge to Stockport.

But they also have concerns about the displacement of HGV traffic through Denton.

Part of the green space in question, taken from the Tameside side of the river

Despite that disagreement having dragged on for several years, it appears to have fully erupted over the past seven days ahead of the latest long-delayed draft being published at the start of next week.

At last Friday’s private meeting of Labour council leaders it is understood a row broke out between Tameside’s leader Brenda Warrington and Stockport’s leader Elise Wilson over the site.

Yesterday Labour MP Andrew Gwynne, whose constituency straddles both boroughs, issued a furious open letter - also signed by Denton South councillors - to Stockport council’s Labour leader Elise Wilson about both the site's allocation in the GMSF and an existing planning application that fits within its footprint.

They argue that that plan, which had been submitted last year ahead of any change to the site’s green belt designation under the GMSF, should long since have been thrown out.

A CGI of Quorum's proposed development, looking south from above

Inviting Coun Wilson to visit the riverside space in question, in order to 'appreciate the natural beauty of this part of the Greater Manchester green belt', it warns of 'environmental destruction' and a 'horrifying approach' within the GMSF 'to remove it from the greenbelt completely, eliminating any protections'.

“We can only imagine that you as leader do not have an adequate understanding of the site and the destruction this development will have to our shared border and beautiful countryside,” said the letter, in what amounted to a blistering Labour-on-Labour public attack. 

“That is why we would like to invite you to the area so you can see for yourself the abhorrent nature of what the developer, and indeed Stockport’s proposal for the GMSF, is proposing for our area.”

After weeks in the planning, last night the mayor’s office emailed council leaders saying the planned GMSF launch event due to take place on Monday, which would have echoed the last one in 2019, was to be cancelled.

Andy Burnham re-launching the spatial framework in January 2019

It pointed to Boris Johnson’s press conference yesterday afternoon as the reason. Some insiders expressed scepticism, although Greater Manchester sources insisted there was genuine concern that now was not the right time - against the backdrop of rising Covid cases and another recession - to hold such an event.

“Following the Prime Minister’s statement this afternoon, which was pretty downbeat with the threat of further restrictions, plus the extension of restrictions in Merseyside and other parts of the North West, Andy feels that now is not the appropriate time to be going out with a large scale event talking about the future of GM,” wrote the director of the mayor’s office, Kevin Lee, to leaders.

“Given the frustrations that people are feeling and the difficult situation many businesses and people find themselves in, the approach we had planned, and which felt right at the time it was agreed, now feels discordant with the current position.

Boris Johnson at his latest Covid press conference yesterday

“Andy has therefore decided to scale down the event. This will not delay the consultations on the GMSF and Clean Air Plan which will still be launched on Monday but via a toned down media briefing.”

However insiders admitted the version currently circulating within the system could yet change again between now and then.

Yet despite the latest anger from within Tameside, several senior Stockport council figures said the Bredbury site was absolutely needed.

It fits closely with work underway in the town centre to build thousands of homes, upgrade the Merseyway and connect it to the Metrolink, they said.

A vision for Stockport's new transport interchange, released last year

“Where Bredbury becomes important is because there’s businesses on this site that want to expand and are looking for new places to go - and without allocated land for employment, it has an impact on our ability to regenerate,” said one.

“The other reason it’s important is because of jobs. We know we’ve got a 108pc increase in unemployment benefit claimants since March and 43,000 people on furlough. We will need jobs.

“That Bredbury site is the only employment allocation in the GMSF for the borough.”

A second admitted the multi-dimensional politics around the framework made it ‘intensely’ complicated.

Nevertheless the Bredbury site was not only crucial to jobs as the region heads into a recession, including in next-door Brinnington, but to the 'mayoral development corporation' currently overseeing regeneration in the town centre - plus the wider transport and infrastructure plans the GMSF is linked to, they said.

Stockport town centre: the council's Labour leadership believes new employment development is key to its regeneration

“It will be much harder to get that funded if we don’t get this through, because we won’t have a joined-up plan," they said of transport in particular, which has been a priority for the council for years.

"That tends to get lost.”

While Stockport Labour - in common with other leaderships across the conurbation - continue to make the argument locally that without the framework, they will lose control of planning because developers will simply win case-by-case on appeal, the borough remains the weakest link where the overall framework is concerned.

Once published and approved by the ten council leaders in principle, it will start going before each local authority for a vote later this month, effectively meaning any of the authorities has the ability to veto it.

But while most Greater Manchester councils have a Labour majority so are highly unlikely to do so, in hung Stockport, which is the first to vote on the plan, the political maths is highly precarious.

William Wragg
William Wragg

With Hazel Grove’s Tory MP William Wragg and Cheadle’s Tory MP Mary Robinson both critical of the GMSF’s use of green belt, the ability of Stockport’s Labour leadership to take a handful of Conservative councillors with them at October 22’s meeting - thwarting any Liberal Democrat attempts to vote it down - will therefore be crucial to the entirety of the Greater Manchester framework.

That would be a blow not only to the mayor and council leaders collectively, but to the premise of the devolution vision laid out long before now.

Outside of the glare of a major press launch, a fraught few weeks therefore still lie ahead for a plan that has been six years, six delays, multiple rows and three versions in the making.

With or without Covid, nobody really knows for sure what will happen next, admits one Labour figure in a borough near to Stockport. “We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we.”