Who do Ryebank Fields belong to?

The Fields were bought by Manchester City Council (MCC) in the 1960s to protect them for their  ‘amenity value’, and to provide land for school buildings and open space for the children of Manchester to play on. They were allocated to Manchester Polytechnic in the 70s, then still part of the Manchester Local Authority, with a formal agreement that the land would be used for education and recreation. The land was formally transferred to Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) for that same purpose when they became an independent University in 1992. At no point have MMU paid the people of Manchester for the right to use the Fields, or the right to claim them as their own to dispose of.

Who are FORF?

The Friends of Ryebank Fields (FORF) was formed by local people, some of whom have acted as informal custodians of Ryebank Fields since the land was abandoned by Manchester Metropolitan University in 1996. Many of us and our families have loved and cared for the land and its wildlife over four or more generations, and we want to continue to nurture and preserve it for future generations. We became legally constituted as a Friends group in recent times in order to formally oppose any development on the Fields, through campaigning, and through commissioning expertise to support our opposition to any planning application which may be brought forward. Meanwhile we continue to promote the attractions of the Fields and their importance to the community around them and beyond.

What is FORF’s position on the future of Ryebank Fields?

FORF are opposed to any permanent construction on the Fields, and therefore to the existence of a Development Framework. They are demanding: 1.That the Development Framework be overturned. 2.That Manchester Council support the proposal to designate Ryebank Fields as a Local Green Space, so that the Fields can never be built on.

What is the Development Framework and why does it matter?

The Development Framework is an outline proposal for construction on the Fields. The plans are outdated and based on poor evidence which doesn’t reflect the physical and ecological features of Ryebank Fields. We don’t think it is a reliable document to support a planning application. There are many features not included in the Development Framework which are of special historical, scientific, recreational, spiritual and community interest, both to us locals who use the site regularly, and people from further afield with specific interests in its various features.

What is meant by a ‘Local Green Space’?

The land is already recognised as ‘Greenfield’ by MCC and so according to their own policies it should not be built on whilst brownfield land is still available. In order to be designated a Local Green Space, which has even greater protection, a place must be ‘demonstrably special to a local community and hold a particular local significance, for example because of its beauty, historic significance, recreational value, tranquillity or richness of its wildlife’ (Para 102 of National Planning Policy Framework). The report by Dr Jenna Ashton ‘A working Research Report on Ryebank Fields’ describes in depth how Ryebank Fields exemplifies these criteria. It can be viewed and downloaded at the bottom of this list.

Why is Green Space Important?

As well as being home to wildlife, the Fields provide a place to build community, reduce isolation and provide space to breathe away from family life or work. Rewilded spaces in cities are evidenced to encourage a sense of calm and safe connection to nature, and to contribute to mental and physical health. The Fields also perform a number of ‘ecosystem services’ including carbon storage, reducing the local impacts of climate change, flood management, reducing air pollution, and providing a wildlife corridor for the migration and movement of plants and animals from the outer suburbs into the more urbanised areas of Firswood and Old Trafford. Manchester is the second worst performing city in the UK for nature areas. It is already committing to build more than its fair share of Greater Manchester’s housing target. Building on Green Space destroys these nature networks, increases local pollution and flooding, and affects mental health and community connections. In a climate and ecological emergency we must protect these spaces or lose them forever.

Isn’t there a shortage of affordable housing in Chorlton?

Many of us have families and worry about how they will afford housing when they leave home. Chorlton and to an extent Stretford now have high sale and rental prices and affordability is a real issue.
But there are 8,000 empty homes in Manchester alone, and several years’ worth of brownfield (previously built on) land already with planning permission for housing, waiting to be developed. In Chorlton, the Baths site still sits waiting for 40 units to be developed, and the Precinct is expected to provide up to 190 town houses and apartments, with all the services, transport links and facilities right on the doorstep. Ryebank Fields are not in a regeneration area or in a priority development area in terms of proximity to public transport and the district centre. South Manchester is already the most densely populated zone within the Manchester local authority area.
A developer not investing their money on the Fields could build the same number of homes on a brownfield site elsewhere in Manchester. Lower land values elsewhere would mean they could make more homes available for affordable rent or affordable purchase.
We don’t think construction on Ryebank Fields would help to meet genuine housing need in South Manchester, or that that is the motivation behind the proposals.

But aren’t low carbon communities a good idea?

We are fully supportive of urgent action to address the climate emergency. We think a Manchester based Sustainable Low Carbon Housing project like the one proposed by the CLT would be a brilliant addition to Manchester. It could be an inspirational example of how to reimagine urban neighbourhoods in the 21st century. We think to make it an example that would inspire developers and planning authorities elsewhere, it would have more impact built in a more traditional community, or a more diverse community, or one of the more mixed neighbourhoods which have been overlooked in the past for significant new build housing investment. We don’t think building on scarce rewilded urban land, on a site recognised by MCC as greenfield land, would be setting a good example.

But MMU say they are responsible for making the site safe and that developing it is the only way to raise the funds?

Remediation means ‘removal of contaminants or pollution’. The land has been assessed as safe for recreational purposes, and any liability to MMU can be covered in other ways – such as with public liability insurance, which is a standard requirement for landowners. The land had already had significant remediation work in the early 1970s under ‘Operation Eyesore’, when topsoil was laid over the site. It’s thought the recent findings of hazardous waste were brought to the surface by site investigations. Recent studies are looking at the effectiveness of remediating toxic soil using plants. Our universities’ environmental studies departments would, no doubt, welcome the opportunity to develop excellence in this form of green technology by studying what is already happening on site.

What do MMU mean when they say they have a ‘fiduciary duty’ to maximise the value of their assets?

Fiduciary duty means the University must make decisions according to their stated charitable mission and policies. It does not mean maximising financial gain, as the wording on their website might suggest. Retaining Ryebank Fields, or passing them to an organisation who would maintain them as a rewilding space with public access, would contribute to all of their 12 Environmental Sustainability policy commitments, whilst selling the site to housing developers goes against a number of them. There is also a question as to whether, as an exempt charity under schedule 2 of the Charities Acts 1993, they are required to follow the usual restrictions with regard to disposal of assets.

What are the alternatives for Ryebank Fields?

We would love to work with MMU and other Manchester based academic institutions, Manchester Council, Manchester, Stretford and Old Trafford communities, Greater Manchester Ecology Unit and others to develop an alternative vision for Ryebank Fields. There are a number of ideas bubbling around mostly relating to community, education, arts and research, and we look forward to a day when we might be able to develop these further in a creative partnership.

Haven’t MMU tried to build here before?

A proposal to build 96 homes was rejected by MCC, and then at appeal. Reasons for refusal were:
a. Loss of playing fields/recreational/ green space in an area where provision is already inadequate.
b. There was a failure to demonstrate fulfillment of a significant city or local housing need
c. Significant loss of amenity from increased traffic, noise and pollution.

MCC did not support planning proposals brought forward by MMU, so a formal planning application was not submitted. These proposals were not supported by the planning officers on a basis of policy (RPG UR4) which stated that 90% of housing in the city should be on previously developed (brownfield) land. This same policy still exists within the Core strategy (H1). As the land did not lie within a HMR pathfinder area it was stated that the proposals should be assessed on local need.

What are the practical barriers to building on the Fields?

Known Problems

Extensive contamination due to unregulated tipping for over 20 years following the closure of the clay pits, which covered the whole site (excluding the Nico Ditch section) and were excavated to a depth of 40 feet. Remediation could involve the excavation and removal of toxic materials including asbestos and a high likelihood of WW2 explosives, followed by extensive pile driving work to create solid foundations through the fill material. Much of the site is subject to toxic landfill gases which could also affect air quality in neighbouring and future homes if not able to escape passively as they currently do.

Utilities (gas and water) pipes which run through the site and may need to be relocated.

Drainage issues – there is regular flooding on the Fields and during site investigations many test pits were abandoned before completion due to rapid flooding or collapse. The vegetation and soil structure of Ryebank Fields, including its 1400 trees, intercept a great deal of rainwater. FORF has multiple reports from local residents whose properties are affected by surface flooding and flooding in houses (some have had to install pumps). Climate science predicts more extremes of rainfall and rising water tables locally, and developing the fields would exacerbate these localised problems by removing this natural passive sponge and adding pressure on the existing drainage and sewerage system.

Access from the North of the site is hampered by the presence of a protected community garden, and the promise by Trafford Council that there will be no access granted through Rye Bank Road Stretford.

The Development Framework says that there must be no development across the historic Nico Ditch – which divides the North and South fields. This, together with the ancient hedgerow it joins along the Longford Park boundary, will isolate the North field from vehicle access.

Traffic congestion and associated air pollution have long been a problem on Longford, Ryebank, and the surrounding roads, and 120 additional housing units would considerably increase traffic, in this area of narrow roads which are heavily used by children and adults on foot and on bikes on their way to and from the two schools, the sports centre and the park. The implications for safety, congestion, and air pollution would be significant. The words ‘traffic’ ‘congestion’ and ‘pollution’ appeared 653 times in written responses to the Development Framework consultation back in 2017.

Demand for local services would increase, especially for doctors, dentists and schools which are already oversubscribed. There are up to 6 other housing developments locally with no apparent plans to increase provision.

Known Unknowns

Background investigations in 2020 identified a need for extensive further investigations into the physical and ecological characteristics of the site. There is a high degree of uncertainty and risk around the viability and ongoing liabilities of any potential development. What if developers got so far with destroying the fields, and only then discovered they couldn’t go ahead?! These areas requiring further investigation include:

Extent of contamination including asbestos, heavy metals, toxic gas and other unknowns – An officer of MCCs Environmental Protection Section confirmed in Autumn 2020 that investigations to date were insufficient for planning submission.

Location of unexploded WW2 ordinance (adjacent houses were damaged in bombing raids) which may have landed in water filled clay pits and could be disturbed by remediation works.

Ecological surveys, including protected species, plus the need to accurately represent tree cover (current plans do not)

Traffic and air quality studies to ascertain fully the impact of removing a significant area of ‘green lung’ and adding significantly to the already problematic traffic flow in the area.

The Nico Ditch, a registered Ancient Monument at other locations in Manchester, should be the subject of a full investigation by Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service (GMAAS).

NB for more detail and reports on these land issues please see https://saveryebankfields.co.uk/mmu-reports/

Dr. Jenna Ashton Report on Ryebank Fields: