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Architects welcome devolution to city regions as opportunity for work  

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Plans to devolve more power to England’s cities represent a huge opportunity for architects and the wider development community, leading figures including Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson said this week.

Ferguson, a former RIBA president who was elected mayor in 2012 after standing as an independent, described devolution as an ‘absolute no brainer’ for driving growth and boosting development and called on England’s major cities to prepare the partnerships necessary to claim such powers.

His words follow chancellor George Osborne’s agreement to devolve transport, strategic planning and housing powers – along with £1 billion of funding – to the 10 local authorities that make up Greater Manchester, on condition that an elected city-region mayor is introduced to take the reins.

With further city-region pacts expected by the end of the year, Ferguson said he believed control over strategic planning for city regions could play a greater role in providing the kind of certainty that developers were looking for.

‘The advantages are obvious,’ he said. ‘Devolution will boost the local and national economies.

‘Whatever is said about localism, planning is always [dogged] by the threat … of an inquiry.

‘We do need more ability for making decisions locally without the fear of schemes being hauled in nationally. More important is the ability to plan strategically across authority boundaries.  

‘That is the big win.  This is where we’d need architects’ strategic thinking.’

Neil Bennett, partner responsible for infrastructure at Farrells, said the creation of new city-region blocs would reduce local-authority-level competition for investment. He agreed they would offer many new opportunities for architects.

‘We’ve done various bits of research on what drives growth, and in particular the provision of infrastructure,’ he said, ‘and the first thing you need is political consensus to change things at regional level.

‘This is a dissolution of boundaries, and architects are well placed to take advantage of that.  The field is open for us to step in with vision work.’

Bennett said practices would be well advised to get more deeply involved in both regional and neighbourhood planning work, to fuel their awareness of the opportunities on offer.

Richard Rogers told the AJ he hoped the drive towards devolution would herald ‘a period when city leaders across the country will be able to strengthen urban renaissance through excellent architecture, urban planning and design’.

And Hawkins\Brown founder Roger Hawkins revealed his practice was looking to set up a Manchester studio. He said he saw the proposed HS2 rail line as ‘a catalyst’ for creating a presence in the North.

Meanwhile Andrew Carter, acting chief executive of the Centre for Cities think-tank, said the capital’s experience offered pointers as to how devolution could boost growth through better regional co‑ordination.

He said: ‘If you look at London, you can see the real benefits of the London Plan, with its opportunity areas that send strong signals to the market, and the mayor’s powers in relation to Transport for London’s requirements. We would hope to see that mirrored in part in Greater Manchester.’

Carter pointed to the regeneration of King’s Cross and the planned extension of London Underground’s Northern Line to the Battersea Power Station redevelopment as examples of projects where an elected city-wide mayor had been able to offer a unifying influence.

Rachel Haugh, director at Ian Simpson Architects:

‘There’s a long way to go yet, but the prospect of more autonomy for Manchester is very appealing. The city and its leaders are the ones who are best positioned to understand the needs of the people of Manchester and the wider region.

‘The priority is obviously creating more jobs and ensuring that the Manchester workforce is capable of responding positively to all opportunities. This obviously relies heavily on education and dissemination of knowledge.

‘The city is making great steps to ensure that Manchester has a global reach and can attract investment. Positioning the city, through control of funds and new infrastructure, allows it to focus on priorities. New jobs create demand, which, in itself, leads to regeneration. After six years of the ‘great recession’, the north needs reinvigorating.

‘The creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and devolution will go a long way to providing the required boost to the region and allowing the northern cities to more effectively control their own economies and shape their own destinies.’

Mike Lampard, director at Corstorphine + Wright:

‘The most successful projects are often in places where there is a local will and a sense of determination for change. The leadership in Manchester is, however, in stark contrast to other towns and cities across the UK where development is stifled by political interference.

‘The devolution of more control to help shape towns and cities can only be a positive step toward the creation of better places for us to live and work.’

Nick Johnson, former deputy chief executive at Urban Splash and current director of Market Operations:

‘Manchester has always been ahead of the curve in terms of progressive governance. I’m not sure how collegiate, organised or politically stable any of the other city regions are. The principal issues with Manchester are its long term political stability and almost apolitical stance, which is absent from many of the other city regions.

‘If the city regions are free to step outside the procurement orthodoxies set down by national and European governments, streamline procedures and take a lot of the procedural nonsense our of the way we commission buildings and the way they get built then that’s great news for architecture and the people who build buildings. If it’s yet another layer of unnecessary interference then it’s a step back.

‘I’m not a great fan of the ‘state’ - local or national - interfering in the marketplace. It has the power to distort the market and wider strategic decisions in an unhelpful way. That the city region/state can in certain instances be landowner, the recipient of Enterprise Zone rates, developer, strategic- planning authority and development-control body isn’t very democratic in my view. 

‘Can devolution help to speed up the planning process? Probably unlikely. Most planning applications are determined at the local level in any case, without any national referral: Without streamlining the number of (often unnecessary) people who actually have a statutory say in planning approval and freeing up the local plans to act outside the national guidance then it’s not really going to change.’

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