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U.K. devolution offers lessons for U.S. cities

For those of us who believe that nations should be looking for smart ways to decentralize power to their cities and metropolitan areas, the United Kingdom is the current center of action. There the devolution movement has gained momentum and only seems to be accelerating. Earlier this week, a devolution summit was held in Glasgow by Core Cities, an advocacy group for urban areas in the U.K., and ResPublica, an independent think tank based in London. City representatives from England, Scotland and Wales gathered to mark the release of two seminal documents—“A Modern Charter for Local Freedom” and “Restoring Britain’s City States: Devolution, Public Service Reform and Local Economic Growth.”

The two documents frame the devolution imperative in perhaps the strongest language to date. The charter begins with a stirring call to action.

“Today, we question the right of central government to dictate so much of what local government does, and what local people can decide. … 800 years [after the signing of the Magna Carta] there is a need to think once again about how we build a modern, mature state for the U.K., capable of succeeding equally at every level from the global to the local. Achieving this means handing some powers and functions further down the line, empowering citizens with more local choice to address the urgent challenges of: driving prosperity, increasing equality and strengthening democracy.”

The charter goes on to detail a three point plan to address these challenges.

  1. “Freedom to decide: independence but not one size fits all … Based on the RSA City Growth Commission recommendations, Government should immediately establish an independent body to receive proposals and oversee the transfer of freedoms from the centre to local people and places, based on publicly available criteria. …
  2. Freedom to invest: prosperous places, not stagnant states … Places that want it and meet the criteria should be able to retain the proceeds from selected taxes … to redesign places and how they are developed, investing to create growth and jobs as well as improving delivery of previously centralised services. …
  3. Freedom to deliver: better services, improved lives … A fundamentally different approach to public spending is required, changing the way Whitehall departments and government actions work, making them more accountable at the local level, devolving “Whole Place Budgets” for as much of public spending across different services and agencies as places want, where they can show they can deliver and improve results.”

This is powerful and relevant stuff, driven by a steady drumbeat of smart, evidence driven reports by Lord Heseltine, Lord Adonis, RSA City Growth Commission, Centre for London, Centre for Cities and IPPR.

While the United States is much more devolved than Britain, we have much to learn from our counterparts across the Atlantic, not only about specific policy and reform ideas, but also basic political acumen and organizing. As the 2016 election cycle begins, U.S. cities and metropolitan areas should carefully study the effort by U.K. cities and adapt the playbook: Prepare the evidence, aggregate political power, engage political parties and act on the national stage with purpose, intention and a bit of moxie.  As Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has intoned, the United States is ripe for a city driven federalism. But cities will need to lead the charge, just as they have done in the United Kingdom. 

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