A few years ago I was at an event in which the late great political theorist Benjamin Barber was addressing a group of UK city leaders. Barber, who died in 2017, was at that time best known in urbanism circles for his masterwork If Mayors Ruled The World. In it, he argued (I’m simplifying wildly) that the growing urban population meant that a growing share of the world’s problems – inequality, carbon emissions, and so forth – stemmed from cities, and could thus be solved by them too. Nations, Barber argued, were inherently slow and ideological and obsessed with their own sovereignty. Cities, by contrast, were pragmatic, co-operative and actually had to govern: his proposal for a parliament of mayors was nothing less than the basis of a new form of global government.
It’s a glorious, utopian vision, which, as someone raised on sci fi shows with world governments in them I find very attractive. There was just one problem, from a UK perspective: on these islands, after the better part of a century of centralising policies from national governments of every stripe, cities had the power to do diddly squat. Local governments in the UK have few fiscal levels at their disposal. Council tax raises just half their income, and increases are capped; they’re still dependent on Whitehall largesse for a significant chunk of their income; and they’re not allowed to borrow to fund investment. Worse, in living memory, through policies like Right To Buy, national governments have forced them to sell their assets and placed tight limits on what they can do with the takings (at least, that part of the takings that councils ever saw).
There are advantages as well as drawbacks to this system. Sure, it’s absurd that decisions about whether to invest in transport links in cities at the other end of the country are made by civil servants in London who may never have been within 100 miles of them, a situation which has Leeds as the largest conurbation in Europe without its own transport network. The flipside, though, is that no city in Britain will ever find itself in the situation that Flint, Michigan, did, so broke it’s unable even to provide its residents with drinking water. The control from national government may bind; but it can also protect.
In recent years, though, the binding has been far, far more prominent. As chancellor, George Osborne famously devolved the axe, cutting council budgets so that they’d get the blame for austerity. However one envisions the future of our cities, it’s difficult for them to pursue it when they’re living hand to mouth.
That same austerity, though, might just provide a glimmer of hope. Despite – or because of – a dozen years of Conservative government, the budget still isn’t balanced. Cuts weren’t enough: sooner or later, we’re going to have to try something else. That might, if we’re lucky, mean investing in local economies again. It’ll almost certainly mean raising taxes.
National government, though, is as likely to want the blame for that as it was for austerity. So what if responsibility for that could be passed down to cities and other local governments, too? Perhaps more cities could follow Nottingham’s lead, and use a parking levy to fund local transport improvements. Perhaps, with a fair wind from national government, they could follow the French path, and introduce an extra payroll tax to fund local investment. Even if it were simply a matter of higher council taxes, though, cities would take some heat, sure – but they’d also be reversing the decades-long trend towards fiscal centralisation and ever tightening national government control.
Barber’s response to cynicism from city leaders all those years ago was (I paraphrase) “Don’t wait for permission! Just do it!” As appealing as that sounded, it didn’t make much sense in a country where the national government held all the power. If our cities really want to face the future they need to break the Treasury’s stranglehold, and reclaim their status as proud, fiscally independent places once again. Maybe, just maybe, the looming higher tax era could make that possible at last.