Arriving at Düsseldorf station for a meeting with the North Rhine Westphalia equivalent of the Local Government Association, we were intrigued to find a stationary escalator. It wasn?t that it was broken. No, it waited for someone to step on before it started working. It was as if it knew its place in the system and acted efficiently to get the job done.
After several days of meetings in this bundesland of 18 million people ? courtesy of the Friedrich-Ebert foundation ? this was the impression we got of how localism works in this part of Germany.
One of our standard responses was: ?Well, it can?t be that difficult because they seem to have more localism in Germany but also a more equal society with higher turnouts and better services.? So it seemed worth discovering how they answered these questions.
Our main problem was our German colleagues really could not understand the problems we were trying to solve.
One body, the Sozialdemokratische Gemeinschäft für Kommunalpolitik ? a trans-European version of the LGA Labour group, of which Lewisham LBC mayor Steve Bullock is the current secretary-general ? told us of disputes over the money it receives from the Länder, the German equivalent of regional government. It also expressed some displeasure at federal government changes to the rules on business taxation from which it derives much income. But it viewed all of this as natural and manageable.
What of the Länder? Is federal government not constantly interfering? One leading member said it sometimes mandated without the money to go with it, but overall the relationship works.
?Of course we are blamed for how our city works,? said the mayor?s office in Bonn. ?Although feelings on national politics do occasionally influence votes.?
We asked the trade unions ? including public-sector union Verdi ? whether more diverse arrangements for service delivery cause two-tierism and make it harder for them to represent members. Taken aback, they asked: ?Why should
And what of the evils of borrowing? Do the Länder or the federal level feel they are underwriting the municipalities? risks? Well, there are rules about balanced budgets and regulators become involved if these are disobeyed. But that is rare.
Overall, we discovered a devolved system of strong regional bodies and municipalities can work harmoniously without the effects described by sceptics.
In fact, once you get used to such decentralisation, you see any problems have not caused policy makers to search for alternative systems. Problems become features of the system and tensions simply things that need dealing with.
On arrival back at Heathrow we saw an escalator standing idly. In a moment of madness one of us started walking towards it expecting it to start as he broke some invisible beam. But, a little like the UK system of government, it just didn?t work.
Dan Corry, Warren Hatter, Pat Hayes
Executive director, NLGN; head of research, NLGN, director for regeneration, Lewisham LBC