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Devolution: three experts' views

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With a new report launched today calling for more local powers to unlock development, we asked three experts for their views on devolution and what it might mean for the profession

Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo Regeneration

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The government has started the English devolution ball rolling with Greater Manchester, but who do you think will be next?
Devolution to city regions requires matured city region governance and politics. West Yorkshire and Greater Birmingham are probably the next in line on that basis with Liverpool close behind. Hopefully the size of the potential prize will encourage the other big city regions to bury any differences and go down the same path.

What benefits do you see for the profession in devolving more power from Westminster to city regions?
As we have experienced in Scotland, devolution of powers and budgets means key public sector decision makers are more accessible so innovations and projects can get quicker decisions which accelerates new investment in the built environment.

Do you think that devolution could see city regions taking on the role of developer in some circumstances?
We don’t need city regions to do this and previous experience suggests that they won’t be particularly good at it unless they choose to set up specialist development teams, which will take time. Local authorities are better placed and are already doing this in places like Ealing and Lambeth - with Igloo providing a development team to deliver the Somerleyton Road residential project in Brixton which the council are funding and taking development risk - and we expect more to follow. And councils will retain these investments for the revenue rather than selling them on.

Can devolution help to speed up the planning process?
Devolution won’t speed up planning. There is a risk planning decisions could be delayed if a London style structure is adopted with an additional tier of government.

As part of its devolution deal, Greater Manchester is required to have an elected mayor. Is there a conflict with democracy in this, on the grounds that the voters of the City of Manchester rejected the chance to have an elected mayor in 2012?
 A city region mayor, for specific city region functions, makes huge sense in a place like Greater Manchester where there have been city region governance structures in place for some time and there is the capacity to deliver immediately without adding bureaucracy. This is a completely different proposition to 2012. But the public’s reluctance to see increased numbers of paid officials and politicians needs to be at the top of the priorities for implementation.

Tony Travers, director of LSE London at the London School of Economics

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The government has started the English devolution ball rolling with Greater Manchester, but who do you think will be next?


Leeds, certainly. Sheffield, Liverpool/Merseyside and Newcastle are also pretty nearly ready.  But we must not forget London, which needs more devolved power and indeed Glasgow. Birmingham and the Black Country are finally getting their act together, which will make it easier for them to move forward.  These big cities and their ‘city regional’ hinterlands should be seen as first in line.  There needs to be a first wave, and then a second one.

What benefits do you see for the architecture and construction industries in devolving more power from Westminster to city regions?
It its simplest, we will get better decision-making.  Central government is not known for its risk-taking and innovation.  Decisions made beyond the centre will encourage faster decision-taking and a greater chance that new things will be tried.   

Do you think that devolution could see city regions taking on the role of developer in some circumstances?
It is essential that cities and city regions take on the role of developer when required.  Challenges such as land assembly, pushing through difficult developments and managing competition for separate developments all require government to be involved.  But such involvement must be ‘light touch’ and sensitive to commercial requirements for a financial return.  Cities and city regions are generally not best places to be commercial developers, but this does not preclude partnership working to deliver developments  

Can devolution help to speed up the planning process?
There are good reasons for minimising ‘call in’ powers upwards to Whitehall inspectors and ministers: the more decisions that can be taken at the city/city regional level the better.  There are perfectly good reasons for local people and interest groups to have a role in planning, but such involvement must not simply be a cause for delay.  Devolution should help square-off interests locally rather than allowing endless review and delay.  Politicians can choose how fast or slowly they want the planning process to work.

As part of its devolution deal, Greater Manchester is required to have an elected mayor. Is there a conflict with democracy in this, on the grounds that the voters of the City of Manchester rejected the chance to have an elected mayor in 2012?
To state the obvious, Greater Manchester - with ten districts - is different from the City of Manchester.  If there were to be another referendum, it might be interesting to hold a vote about the success of the mayor of Greater Manchester five or ten years after it had been in operation.  Then people could vote about something real, rather than a hypothetical.  Moreover, the early mayors of GM would have a powerful incentive to show their office was delivering for the locality.   

Nick Johnson, former deputy chief executive of Urban Splash

Nick Johnson - former director at Urban Splash

The government has started the English devolution ball rolling with Greater Manchester, but who do you think will be next?


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 region are. The principle issues with Manchester is its long term political stability and almost apolitical stance which is absent from many of the other city regions.

What benefits do you see for the architecture and construction industries in devolving more power from Westminster to 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.

Do you think that devolution could see city regions taking on the role of developer in some circumstances?
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 isn’t very democratic in my view. 

Can devolution help to speed up the planning process?
Unlikely. Most planing 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 rally going to change.

As part of its devolution deal, Greater Manchester is required to have an elected mayor. Is there a conflict with democracy in this, on the grounds that the voters of the City of Manchester rejected the chance to have an elected mayor in 2012?
Manchester has done a pragmatic deal in return for greater powers. That’s what they’ve always done. George Osborne is seen to get obedience and Manchester towing the party line of elected mayors (and if they can win Manchester over no-one else is going to object) and Manchester gets greater control of it’s own governance. We all know where the real power lies in the city, and with the need for the mayor to get six out of the 10 Greater Manchester leaders’ approval, there’s a good change that it will be totemic.

 

 

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