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‘Metro mayors must collaborate to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality’: Architects react to local elections

Local Election 2017 graphics
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Architects have been giving their reactions to the results of elections for six new metro mayors, who will have powers over housing and planning

Voters went to the polls yesterday (4 May) to elect mayors for the combined authority areas of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Liverpool City Region, West of England, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and the West Midlands.

The six regions have all agreed devolution deals with national government.

Labour’s Steve Rotheram, previously MP for Liverpool Walton, was elected as mayor of the Liverpool City Region, and former Labour Leigh MP Andy Burnham became mayor of Greater Manchester.

Conservative Tim Bowles is the new West of England mayor, covering Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset council areas, while Tory and former managing director of John Lewis Andy Street has become West Midlands mayor.

In a shock result in the North East, Tory candidate Ben Houchen was elected mayor for the Tees Valley following a run-off with Labour’s Sue Jeffrey. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough also elected a Conservative, James Palmer, who used to run a dairy business in the region.

Maggie Mullan, principal at Liverpool-based Maggie Mullan Architects, said there needed to be speedy clarification of the roles and mandates of Rotheram and Joe Anderson, who is the directly elected mayor of Liverpool, to make sure there is no ‘political infighting’. Anderson unsuccessfully stood against Rotheram to be Labour’s candidate for metro mayor. 

Mullan said: ‘The balance of power is going to be an interesting challenge because the current [Liverpool] mayor, Joe Anderson, has obviously set out his stall. He’s seen as having his preferred developers and his preferred providers.

I hope Rotheram is able to take a longer view about development in the city

‘What I hope is that Steve Rotheram is able to take a longer view about development in the city, particularly around student accommodation development, which seems to be the quick fix for any vacant site.’

She also said she hoped Rotheram would look at how to co-ordinate transport policy across the metro region.

Similarly, Roger Stephenson, managing partner at Stephenson Studio in Manchester, hopes Burnham, who he believes is the ‘right man for the job’, will rationalise transportation in Greater Manchester. He said: ’It was deregulated by Margaret Thatcher in a way that meant we have got all these competing bus companies running old buses, empty buses. The city centre is full up of buses and [yet] it’s got a great tram system.’

Stephenson would advocate ‘semi-regulation in the London style’ to bring about an integrated transport system that would be better for both the environment and the built environment.

He added that the ability to control health spending in Greater Manchester would be ‘interesting’. He would like Burnham to look at the procurement methods for publicly financed infrastructure with a view to improving quality of design.

In October, an RIBA-backed report put together by think-tank IPPR North, Closer to Home, called for a ‘new devolution deal on housing’ in which the combined authorities set up under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, under mayoral leadership, have powers to deliver full spatial plans and ensure ‘quicker, better’ planning consents, along with resources to unlock development. Recommendations included granting powers to set design code standards.

RIBA South West regional director Jon Watkins said the office looked forward to working with Bowles on how his devolved budget was spent on housing in terms of design, space and environmental standards. ‘We would like to see that good quality design is the backbone to make better places for people [and] houses that have longevity,’ he added’

Rob Stiles, associate at Bath-based CaSA Architects, agreed that design quality was key. ‘All the candidates talked about new housing in their manifestos,’ he said. ‘We’d be keen to see quality of design taken into account when these houses are built.

’There’s good innovative, progressive housing and there’s standard developer fare. I think any architect wants to promote the kind of design and sustainability agenda that every [good] architect has.’

Earlier this week, MPs called for an end to the dominance of big housebuilding firms.

Stiles hopes the new West of England mayor will implement this approach. ‘Smaller developers such as HAB have a very progressive and innovative approach to housing,’ he said, ‘and we are keen to see the South West region adopt design-focused strategies such as this – working with smaller more agile developers contractors and architects.’

Johnny Caddick, managing director at private rental developer Moda Living, said London had shown how mayors could be ‘real ambassadors, helping carve out a unique vision that help draws in investment.

‘But for regional cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, it is important these new metro mayors are not just cheerleading for their own side, but also working collaboratively with each other to achieve the scale needed to make the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine not just political slogans, but economic realities as well.’

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