Design for devolution

The devolution genie is out of the bottle, said LGA chairman David Sparks last September. But will it grant any wishes?

The UK is one of the world’s most centralised countries, but over the last few decades the home nations have started to take very different paths. Policies created in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh can differ significantly from those affecting architects in England.

Now changes are on the cards for England too. Announcing a ‘big package of new powers’ as well as extra responsibilities for local councils, Chancellor George Osborne said he wanted his recent Spending Review to ‘hand back power to local communities’ and ‘spread economic power and wealth’.

Manchester is probably the most high profile ‘devolution deal’, but others have since been revealed with cities and areas including Sheffield, Liverpool, the Tees Valley, North East and West Midlands. In these locations elected mayors will be able to raise business rates as long as they secure support from their local enterprise partnership.

This shift in local government funding from grant to business rates will have significant impact on the shape and future of the construction sector in which we all work. Creation of the Northern Powerhouse, for example, will have an impact over areas such as transport, housing and strategic planning. Since construction will be at the heart of economic growth, architects could play a vital role to help city regions develop and grow.

So what could this mean for us, our practices and the communities that we work in – and how can the profession help to shape what happens next?

The shift in local government funding from grant to business rates will have significant impact on the shape and future of the construction sector in which we all work

My view is that this debate is long overdue. We must grasp the chance to take hold of our own local futures and learn from our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is a real opportunity to bring about long-term change and put great architecture at the centre of national and local government plans. Architects are increasingly speaking out on behalf of projects that can make a positive difference to our towns, cities and villages – George Ferguson as mayor of Bristol (see Profile, p68) is the ultimate local architect champion. It’s time to consider what more we can do, if we’re given the right tools.

Let’s be realistic though: devolution is unlikely to magically transform how politics works, and we may never see a return to an era where the public sector had the resources to plan and deliver large scale developments. At the very least, tight public finances are likely to be a constant theme across the UK for many years to come.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim high though, and I’m pleased to announce that this will be a major area of focus for the RIBA this year. With the opening of RIBA North in Liverpool we have a unique opportunity to help promote the great work local architects are already doing, and to provide a platform for that debate.

It is very important that we are at the forefront, leading through sharing our creative ideas about working with our partners across the professions, the public and private sectors to tackle the housing crisis, improve the planning system and take a long-term approach to planning the infrastructure we need to grow our local economies.

I challenge you to engage in the devolution debate in your area and reap the benefits for your local economy and for architecture.

Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture rebuilds Communities opens at RIBA’s Architecture Gallery on 26 January. The exhibition explores the different ways that cities and communities have been re-imagined in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 up to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. It includes work by Yasmeen Lari, Elemental, OMA, Shigeru Ban, NLÉ, Toyo Ito, Metabolism (Kenzo Tange and Kurokawa Kisho) and Christopher Wren.