Manchester England England: Devolution U.K. Style

For decades, the United Kingdom has been notorious for having one of the most centralized systems of government among developed nations. Lately, it’s become increasingly clear that they are serious about shedding that distinction.

This week, Britain’s central government signed an unprecedented “Devolution Agreement” with Manchester’s governing body, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which formed in 2011 after all 10 of Manchester’s separate governing bodies realized that they could more effectively govern their metropolis by working together.  

The agreement will change the way Greater Manchester is governed and grant it city-shaping budgetary powers. The entire metro region, home to about 2.5 million people, will now directly elect a mayor, who will wield a number of powers as the leader of the Combined Authority. Though revenue will still come overwhelmingly from the central government, the metro area’s leaders will exercise much more influence in how transportation, planning, housing, policing and other policies are implemented. The city will also retain a greater portion of tax revenue generated by investments in infrastructure, known in the U.K. as “Earnback,” which is projected to generate £900 million for the city over 30 years.

Lord Peter Smith, chair of the GMCA, said the devolution settlement “gives us greater control over our own destiny in several key areas and the ability to base decisions on local priorities and needs rather than on one-size-fits-al’ dictates from Westminster.”

Manchester’s Devolution Agreement represents both the final product of an introspective debate about the distribution of power in Britain and the beginning of a bold new era of innovative policymaking. Last month, for example, the Royal Society of the Arts’ City Growth Commission unveiled its final report, Unleashing Metro Growth, on the need for devolution throughout the United Kingdom. All three major political parties have concluded that Britain’s overly centralized governing arrangement is ill-suited for the 21st century, where cities and metro areas are the drivers of economic growth.

Even though the United States is much more devolved than Britain, we should take note of the U.K.’s purposeful strides toward metro empowerment. First, our metropolitan areas need to take a page out of Manchester’s book and look at ways to coordinate their efforts across political jurisdictions. Manchester’s deal with central government would not have happened if all of the region’s disparate authorities hadn’t created the Combined Authority in 2011. If American cities, municipalities and counties came together in a similar way—retaining local autonomy for local issues while collaborating on challenges that naturally cross borders—they would have a stronger case for greater flexibility in spending federal or state resources. Second, American metro areas often struggle to deliver on large-scale initiatives because of compartmentalized funding, burdensome regulations and constrictive legal frameworks. If they were able to strike deals with federal and state government that consolidated revenue streams, granted greater budgetary flexibility, loosened certain regulations and changed particularly restraining state laws, they could better serve their residents and add to their economic muscle.

Look around—the federal government is scaling back, so the demand for municipal and county governments to deliver on housing, transportation, skills training and other services is increasing. At the same time, federal and state governments still impose a mind-boggling array of restrictions on localities in these realms. This doesn’t make any sense. We are overdue for a serious look into how power might be better distributed in our country. The British are showing us that it can be done.