As a key player in Whitehall policy-making, Richard Rogers is an unlikely champion of devolved government. But, as Marcus Fairs finds out, he now thinks urban regeneration will only happen if decision are taken by the people on the ground
Richard Rogers' tie seems to be trying to escape. It has fought its way free of his shirt collar and the knot hangs halfway down his chest, wildly off centre. "It's my House of Lords tie," laughs Rogers, ripping off the aristocratic accessory. "I was at the House of Lords this morning."

Right now it is Wednesday evening, and Rogers is back at the offices of his architectural practice beside the Thames at Hammersmith in west London. Yesterday he was working at the Greater London Authority, where he is architectural adviser to mayor Ken Livingstone.

Tomorrow, he will put in some hours at the reconvened urban taskforce, which he chairs, before donning the truculent tie once more for the evening vote at the Lords. On Saturday he is flying out to Florence to present his proposals for an urban expansion and tram system. He will be spending a day in Barcelona the following week, advising the mayor on urban design.

"It's quite a lot but I enjoy it," he says, smiling so broadly that his eyes practically disappear behind tanned creases. "It's not really work, I do it automatically. I start at about 7am, in my dressing gown or pyjamas, even when I'm on holiday. But I go on holiday quite a lot so don't feel too sorry for me."

Not bad for a man who turns 70 next July – although Rogers admits he's starting to feel his age. "One is conscious of slowing down; I suppose there is a limit. Some people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso seemed to go on till their last days; others, like [Romanian sculptor] Brancusi, stopped in their 50s."

The comparison is intriguing; perhaps Rogers is pondering how his achievements will measure up. He needn't worry: he is widely considered one of the world's most influential living architects. His 1971 Pompidou Centre in Paris and 1978 Lloyd's of London headquarters are two of the most important buildings of the last century, and he has remained in the vanguard of his profession ever since.

But it is his tireless work on regeneration that could prove his greatest legacy to this country. Since coming to power five years ago, Labour has wholeheartedly embraced his vision of sustainable, inclusive urbanism, appointing him to lead the urban taskforce in 1998 and distilling his ideas into the 2000 urban white paper. Without Rogers, concepts such as high-density living, brownfield development and integrated transport would probably not be such common currency.

Yet, despite the vast sums of government cash being poured into public projects, there is still little sign of the urban renaissance that was supposed to bring qualitative improvements to squalid towns and cities.

In two weeks, deputy prime minister John Prescott – once again in charge of regeneration – hosts the much-trumpeted urban summit, billed as a chance to gauge progress in the three years since the publication of the urban taskforce's landmark report, Towards an Urban Renaissance.

Rogers, a Labour life peer, has never been shy of attacking the government's sluggishness in putting the taskforce's 105 recommendations into action, and he is reserving judgment on whether the summit will be a cause for celebration. "The return of my old mate Prescott is a very good omen for the built environment – as long as he can deliver."

But Rogers is still irritated at ministers' failure to grasp the link between urban and social degradation. He bemoans the lack of planning and brief-writing skills in local authorities and he despairs of the Treasury's refusal to boost brownfield development with fiscal incentives.

However, Rogers now believes that government policy is the wrong tool for regenerating cities. This is partly through frustration at Whitehall inaction and partly through a realisation that, throughout history, from renaissance city states to contemporary Barcelona, great cities have depended on powerful, visionary civic leaders rather than national governments.

"I've come to the conclusion that all successful cities are driven by brilliant people in those cities," he says. "I don't think that ministers can possibly address the state of our streets, the crap paving, the dog shit, the appalling urban furniture, the ghastly road fatalities. They can only look at national policy, and cities don't respond to national policy."

Ministers can only look at national policy, and cities don’t respond to national policy. They need visionary civic leaders

He supports Labour's policy of devolution but feels it does not go nearly far enough. Ken Livingstone's GLA, for example, has the vision but is hamstrung by its lack of power. "I think it's completely ridiculous. Let's be positive – we actually have a real city hall in London now, and we're giving other cities elected mayors. But we are still finding it very difficult to give away central government's powers to those people. Cities have got to be given greater freedom, even to make mistakes."

Rogers draws a comparison between London and Madrid, where he is building an international air terminal. Both cities face a shortage of airport capacity. But while successive UK governments have dithered, Madrid's city fathers have got on with solving the problem. "One is impressed how Madrid has spent £700m on the airport, but four times that on infrastructure such as trains, buses and roads. It will be the fourth biggest hub in Europe – now that's a vision."

UK projects, by contrast, are hampered by ministerial prevarication and cheeseparing. Rogers has also designed the giant, and much delayed, Terminal 5 expansion at Heathrow but says this is merely a short-term fix. "Heathrow won't meet the needs of the next 40 years. It needs to be looked at strategically: maybe we should build a major new airport. But then we have to spend billions on the infrastructure. Or we have to decide we're not going to have a major airport – that's an environmental decision, which would have a direct effect on our global position. We can't pretend to do both."

Rogers has long felt that an airport should be built east of London to trigger development in the blighted Thames Gateway – the biggest brownfield site in Europe. But without vital transport infrastructure, the potential of an area which could solve London's housing shortage is being squandered. "Probably the most serious failure, maybe 30 years ago, was when we discussed an airport in the east," Rogers recalls. "Had we done it, most of the problems we're facing now in London would not exist. I'm intuitively pro-east for a new airport. It's going to cost more – which is why they're saying they won't do it, the usual short-term thinking – but what if we don't do it? How much will it cost us if we don't think in a bold, strategic way? That type of thinking is still way beyond our government."

"Poor old Bob Kiley," Rogers adds, referring to the American brought in by Livingstone to sort out the Tube, and who has had to look on as the government calls the shots. In Spain, city transport chiefs have real authority. "I met the head of the Madrid metro to talk about linking it with the new terminal. It went like this: he said, 'We need 10 km of tunnel and we'll dig 1 km a month. We need two stations, which will take a month each. That's 12 months. I'll guarantee that you have it within 14 months.' The meeting was about that quick."

It turned out that the metro chief was an engineer trained at London's Imperial College. Rogers asked him why, in his opinion, the UK now lagged so far behind countries like Spain. "He said to me: 'Your nation used to be the greatest in the world, engineering-wise, but you stopped doing great projects. And not only that, whenever your projects get in trouble – which is continuously – you ask international firms to come and sort it out'.

"Now I'm not against international firms – Richard Rogers Partnership is one – but the more you use them to do specialised work the less you build up your own teams and your own expertise."

Although the UK's lack of strategic vision particularly irks Rogers, he believes that the nation's long held obsession with heritage is finally being replaced by an appreciation of modern architecture. This is largely thanks to projects funded by the National Lottery. "I remember writing a little article 30 years ago and saying there's more written about ballet than architecture. You couldn't say that today. We now recognise that the built environment is one of the driving forces of our society. The lottery has made a lot of difference."

This sea-change also means that, for the first time, Rogers' practice has a significant number of large projects in the UK. Besides Heathrow Terminal 5, there is the £100m Birmingham library, a slew of towers at Paddington Basin and Canary Wharf in the capital, and a proposed 700 ft tower for British Land, which would be the tallest in the City if built.

This last project has provoked accusations that he is using his role as Livingstone's adviser to his own commercial advantage – just as his work on the Millennium Dome led to allegations of New Labour cronyism.

Rogers is phlegmatic about such attacks. "We have to be very transparent and conscious of it, otherwise it can lead to terrible problems. I think the public and the media have to watch like hell what we do. Of course, you're hurt by some of the appallingly negative criticism, often ill-informed, but it gets less painful as you get older."

Getting older is a theme Rogers refers to again and again. When asked to describe his role in the practice, he jokingly replies: "Ancient!" Then he elaborates: "I'm like a conductor. I try to get people to work together to make the poetry come out, to make the normal into something that has a poetic sense, a musical sense."

Personal effects

What gives you greatest pleasure in life?
My wife, Ruthie – and food.
How would you describe yourself?
As a human being, a citizen. I believe in civil society. I’m very gregarious by nature. I like people very much – not as much as my wife, though!
Do you have a car?
Ruthie and I have an old Mini, but I seldom drive. I cycle to work.
What are your hobbies?
I love skiing, walking, cycling, working.
What do you think of City Hall [Norman Foster’s controversial headquarters for the Greater London Authority]?
I love it. I’ve never been so happy working in somebody else’s building – absolutely lovely.