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Marvin Rees: National government must unshackle cities

Marvin Rees
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The failures to tackle the challenges of climate change, migration, radicalisation and inequality are not merely down to the failure of individuals, parties and policies.

These failures are also due to an overdependence on the national political leadership.

City leaders needs real empowerment. They need the sovereignty to shape what happens inside city boundaries, as that’s where most of the world lives. But they also need the power to shape the national and international context with which we must contend. Bringing city leadership perspectives to the challenge of world leadership will refresh the political debate.

I recently spoke at both the New York Gathering of Mayors and Global Parliament of Mayors in Stavenger, Norway and I made the case for enhanced city sovereignty.

This argument is getting more and more traction and is supported by mayors all over the world and bodies such as the Brookings Institute, Open Society Foundation and Amnesty international. In fact, it was the head of Amnesty International who argued: “What we are witnessing now is a failure of national government and governance.”

Getting national politicians to catch up with this is the challenge.

Despite the UK taking some tentative steps in the right direction through devolution, we remain one of the most centralised countries in the world and this is to the detriment of our citizens and economies. Local authorities in the UK spend only 7% of the tax raised in their areas. The Mayor of New York spends 50% of the taxes paid by New Yorkers.

It goes without saying that local leaders are much closer to frontline issues than national governments. With the right powers we could respond more quickly and in a more targeted way. The value of that is not always recognised by national governments.

An empowered city leadership will have the flexibility to work with city partners to respond in a timely manner to our increasingly dynamic world. Compare this to the drawn-out process of legislative debate. Cities leaders get things done and given the power, they’ll get more things done.

The Global Parliament of Mayors was set up in 2015 to rally the collective voice of mayors across the world. There are more than 60 mayors in the network from countries as varied as Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Africa, the USA and Germany. Bristol and Leicester are the UK members. We are supported by an advisory committee of experts from prominent universities and networks like Georgetown University, Eurocities, which is a network of European cities, and the C40, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change.

Through the network we share solutions to tackling common challenges, from housing and education to community cohesion. The parliament also gives Bristol a voice on global issues that affect local people.

The parliament does not easily fit into traditional models of national or global governance, which helps us rise above dogmatic political debates and focus on pragmatic solutions. We believe decision-making processes at national and international levels need to start formally recognising city voices. We advocate for the right of cities to increase self-governance and to act on critical issues. We also challenge national and international institutions to consider the role they have to play in creating solutions. Cities can take effective accountability in areas traditionally controlled centrally such as finances, visas and employment.

City leadership is not just a transfer of powers within government and local government structures; it is about the ability of local leaders to convene all of the players in all of the sectors. In Bristol we’re making major strides on this and are working with a wide range of partners on our first 50-year city plan, a holistic place-based process that recognises that life in the city doesn’t begin and end with the local council.

Cities should not always need to ask for permission from their national governments to engage in meaningful action in the interests of citizens and businesses. We want to collaborate with government where it improves the real life outcomes, but as the drivers of our economy, cities should also be able to take action collectively and on their own. Alongside Core Cities and the parliament, we have a great opportunity to think innovatively and develop joint solutions across traditional boundaries, be they geographical, political or economic. Together with our partners and communities we can draw inspiration from other people’s successes, develop new ideas, mobilise resources and work together to create better places. But to achieve that, the UK must do more to unshackle its cities and the government must work with us realising the mutual benefits of doing so.

Marvin Rees (Lab), mayor of Bristol

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