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Michael Heseltine: 'Devolution has to concentrate on driving growth'

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Tory peer and regional regeneration champion Michael Heseltine talks to the AJ about devolution and what it could mean for the built environment

The government has started the English devolution ball rolling with Greater Manchester, but where do you think will be next?
There are a number of cities – I’d certainly like to see Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, and Greater Birmingham. I also see [devolution] as setting the stage for the move towards unitary authorities all over the country.

What benefits do you see for the architecture and construction industries in devolving more power to city regions?
It’s a total reflection of the state of the economy. If you haven’t got a strong economy, there’s no way you’re going to have a vibrant construction industry.

Where this is an important opportunity for planners, designers and architects is that what central government is strengthening is local creativity, local industry, and local investment – and the more that happens, the bigger the opportunity for the companies that develop products and create success.

Success in the construction industry grows as the economy grows. Devolution has to concentrate on driving that growth.

Do you think that devolution could see city regions taking on the role of developer, for example bringing forward high-specification residential schemes that would ultimately be funded by institutional investors?  
That’s exactly what people should encourage – there are big opportunities, there are huge sums of money waiting.  The more ambitious practitioners are, the more they can tap into that. Funds are looking for schemes.

There are two qualifications: one, the funders must be genuinely private sector; and two, there has to be stress-testing against any sort of insider dealing.

Can devolution help to speed up the planning process?
If local planning authorities want to get decisions taken quickly, then they can do it. If a large overseas property tycoon comes up and says: ‘I’m thinking about doing a huge development worth half a billion pounds’, the speed with which planning approvals can be delivered is impressive. So how come it isn’t like that for the ordinary punter?

The pressure is not applied as effectively as it could be, and that’s something that local planning authorities – and in particular the councillors who head them – should pay a bit of attention to.

There’s a perfectly justifiable public interest in these matters that has to be observed, but how long does it take to get a decision? There is not enough pressure in the system.

What do you make of the achievements of Bristol’s architect mayor George Ferguson?
I would always encourage people with broad experience to come into politics.

The fact that there is a Bristol mayor is something that I strongly welcome, and I hope Bristol will look very carefully at becoming a city region. It’s already one of the most dynamic economies in the country, but it could be even more successful if it took more control of its own destiny.

As part of its devolution deal, Greater Manchester is required to have an elected mayor. Is there a conflict with democracy on the grounds that the voters of the City of Manchester rejected having an elected mayor in 2012?
What the people did [in 2012] was not to bother to vote.  There’s an important difference between now and then in that they did not know what was on offer. Now they can see there’s a quite considerable package, so I hope we’ll increase local interest.

Heseltine_report

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