The devolution competition in Britain

Elections in the United Kingdom are only a month away, and for the second cycle in a row, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives have been able to take a commanding lead over the rest of the field. Smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party will likely play a fundamental role in choosing the next prime minister. 

But this election has been remarkable in another way, one that may be even more consequential than the formation of one ruling coalition over another. Calls for devolution—decentralizing power from the national government to local governments—have reached a fever pitch in Britain, and the major parties have unveiled one devolution plan after another, each more ambitious than the last.

The Tories first broke into the devolution debate with proposals by Lord Michael Heseltine and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. These were followed up by the landmark Greater Manchester Devolution Agreement, which devolved substantial powers to Greater Manchester, including the right to elect a city-wide mayor. 

The Labour Party, not to be left behind, recently released its own blueprint for devolution. Its plan draws heavily from a report from Lord Andrew Adonis, published in July of last year. As Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities describes the Labour program:

The proposals…will be available to “all city and county regions that have a coterminous Combined Authority and reformed Local Economic Partnership.” The document states that power and funding worth at least £30 billion over five years will be devolved.

Carter notes that Labour’s plan differs from the Conservatives’ proposals in that it promises legislation enshrining devolution into law, makes funding available to all metros with Combined Authorities (rather than requiring a grant-submitting and approval process), does not require a directly elected mayor, and requires Combined Authorities to create a combined pool of economic development funding.

All of this is pertinent to observers in the United States, for three reasons. Most fundamentally, the rich debate about devolution that is happening in Britain simply isn’t happening here. The various parties in Britain all agree that devolution is a must and are competing over which vision is best. Second, all of the devolution proposals focus on entire metropolitan areas—not just cities. The emphasis on Combined Authorities as the recipients of devolved power reflects the importance of regional collaboration in economic development. Third, the proposals articulate the need for flexibility in how local government spends the resources it receives. It seems that everyone in Parliament now agrees that Whitehall does not know best.

Policy in the United States has, at times, reflected these principles. Many metropolitan areas have regionwide planning organizations that coordinate development, particularly in the realm of infrastructure. And some of President Obama’s recent proposals have reflected the need for flexible spending at the local level. The Upward Mobility Project, a proposal in the president’s most recent budget, would allow metropolitan areas to repurpose the funding streams of several block grants to create flexible strategies aimed at lessening income inequality and increasing economic opportunity.  

These are promising foundations. But the United States still lacks coherence in its devolution efforts, and the federal government continues to hamstring cities and metros. Not since the days of Richard Nixon’s New Federalism have we had leadership with a fully realized conception of how federal, state, and local governments interact. With cities and metros now the vanguard of policy innovation in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans in Washington need to articulate how federal investments can empower local leaders to advance local visions and priorities. As Britain is showing us, a little competition never hurts.