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Hands off our land: behold the miracle of Manchester

 Hands off our land: behold the miracle of Manchester

Enjoy Manchester! not long ago that was an oxymoronic injunction – and not just because of the city’s reputation for rain. for it was pretty depressing, with an uninspiring city centre surrounded by vast tracts of decaying industry and housing. As with cities all over Britain, there was an exodus: by 1990, fewer than 1,000 people remained in the centre.

Two decades on, the place has been transformed. People have flocked back and the city-centre population has shot up to over 15,000. The proportion of Castlefield – the area where stood the original Roman fort of Mamucium, which was named after a “breast-shaped hill” – that has been given over to housing has increased at least fivefold since 1988 and more than 5,000 new jobs have been created. Long-term unemployment is falling fast, and Manchester ranks in the top 15 cities worldwide for attracting investment.

So this newspaper is glad to wish David Cameron and his party an enjoyable few days as they meet in the city, even though the Prime Minister has apparently taken to calling us the “f—— Telegraph” for our campaign against his Government’s woefully misconceived planning “reforms”. At the risk of annoying him further, can I add that the existing planning system was largely responsible for bringing about Manchester’s extraordinary regeneration, and that the proposed National Planning Policy Framework threatens to prevent such miracles in future?

Popular mythology dates the city’s resurrection to an IRA bomb – the biggest in mainland Britain since the second World War – which exploded in 1996, claiming no lives but damaging over 100,000 square metres of buildings. sure, that provided an opportunity and incentive to rebuild, but the origins of Manchester’s metamorphosis go further back to more than a decade before and initiatives by mrs Thatcher’s government.

The 1981 riots – most famously in Brixton and Toxteth, but also in Manchester’s Moss side – focused attention on the inner cities. As a result, the Central Manchester Development Corporation was set up in 1988, forming a remarkable partnership between the city and private companies which caused hundreds of millions of pounds to be invested in regeneration.

But while the corporation drove the transformation forward – assisted by the staging of the Commonwealth Games and two unsuccessful Olympics bids, which also attracted investment – it would not have happened without good planning and, perhaps counter-intuitively, strong policies to protect the surrounding countryside.

Tight green belts ensured that developers had to focus on the city, rather than going for the easier pickings of urban sprawl. and this was reinforced in 1998 by the introduction of a target to build 60 per cent of housing on brownfield land.

“it was all achieved by more planning, not less,” says Tony Burton, director of Civic Voice, who served on Richard Rogers’s Urban Task Force in the late 1990s. Nick Johnson, deputy chief executive of Urbansplash, one of the key players in the regeneration, calls the brownfield policies “very important”.

Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo Regeneration, adds: “there is no question but that the National Planning Policy Framework, as it stands, would endanger further regeneration.”

Tens of thousands more homes, for example, could still be built in northern and eastern Manchester, he says, but developers will instead flock to easier greenfield sites if they are not obliged to prioritise previously developed land.

And it’s not just Manchester. Birmingham and Liverpool – this year’s other main party conference venues – are on the same road to recovery, as is Leeds. something similar needs to happen in other large towns and cities around the country, whose centres are still in decline. and what about the country’s 1,600 market towns, home to more than a fifth of its people and guardians of so much of its spirit, that are losing their young people and jobs and seeing their high streets drained of life by out-of-town supermarkets?

None of this is to say that there should not be relatively minor changes in the existing set-up. Brownfield land, in the sense of what has previously been developed, could be better defined: some such sites have become wildlife havens. Ministers’ proposed substitution of “land with the least environmental or amenity value” would be an improvement, if only they then did not qualify so much as to make it meaningless.Similarly, local targets for prioritising its development, backed by central policy, could well be better than a single national one.

But good planning that protects the countryside is also vital for the health of our towns and cities. Mr Cameron and his ministers may come to appreciate this as they enjoy the miracle that is Manchester.

Big Apple honey is sweeter now the bee ban’s been binned

The bee or not the bee? The question faced by the city synonymous with buzz has been resolved – and now the big Apple is swarming with the insects.

For long, honeybees were banned from new York for being as dangerous as hyenas and poisonous snakes. But last year – partly shamed by Michelle Obama’s installation of a hive on the White House’s south lawn – the city’s department of health lifted the prohibition (it still outlaws wasps and hornets, by the way – though how the authorities plan to halt them at the city limits remains unclear).

Beekeeping had always gone on illicitly, with hives often disguised as air conditioning units on the roofs of homes, co-operatives and synagogues. But it has boomed since the ban was lifted, and new York has just witnessed its first Honey Festival on a one-acre “rooftop farm” in Brooklyn.

Swarm warnings have been issued (“Don’t freak out. they won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them”). and when Hurricane Irene ripped off a tree’s branch, exposing a natural hive of 40,000 bees, two associations of keepers fought for their custody.

Inevitably, the insects have adopted new York ways, as became evident this summer when they started producing red honey that tasted like cough medicine. it transpired that they were ignoring natural nectar to gorge on junk food – the sickly sweet waste sugar water produced by a factory that makes maraschino cherries for all those Manhattan cocktails.

Warm as toast? That’ll be the Met Office’s ‘sandwich summer’

It’s not been a season for barbecues, but the Met Office now has a new culinary metaphor: this, it told me yesterday, has been a “sandwich summer”. Before its critics leap into print, let me hasten to say that it was not referring to picnics – just describing how two nice warm bits of meteorological bread have enclosed some very chilly meat.

March and April, of course, were unseasonably warm, with April the hottest on record. then things got worse: much of southern England had its chilliest recorded August day.

Now we are back to heat again – and, incidentally, seem to be exceeding the 43 “bad air” polluted days that the Government promised would be our limit in a successful attempt to stave off EU legal proceedings.

The jet stream, the river of air high in the atmosphere, went into a big meander in the spring, trapping high pressure over the country. then it straightened out, sending us a series of depressions, in what should have been high summer. and now it has gone bendy again, anchoring a high to the east of us, which is bringing up hot, dry air from the south.

Why? who knows? Meteorologists are looking to see if there’s a pattern, but it’s more likely to be natural variability. Thankfully, I’ve not heard any environmentalists citing the hot bits as proof of global warming. But that won’t stop the sceptics, equally erroneously, claiming that the next cold snap proves it is a myth.

Hands off our land: behold the miracle of Manchester

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