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UK devolved power is tame compared with US local freedoms

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I’ve been professional in local government management for 25 years.

As the city manager in Pearland, Texas, and previously in Novi, Michigan, I constantly learn from private and public sector examples. Learning has included broad observations around the world, from Wellington to Cardiff to Sendai to Yangzhou.

From colleagues and my own reading, I learned the UK is more highly centralized than anywhere I have seen. Local officials have so little say in the delivery of services and the mix of revenue and expenditures. The national government is busy looking at the cells on the leaves, let alone the trees in the forest. 

In each UK city, local authorities have ten times the number of elected officials than in the US. UK councillors are elected with party labels. We prefer in the USA to think that water mains and roads do not care whether their recipients are republicans or democrats; local elected officials here are seldom elected with party affiliations.  

The more I learn about the latest UK devolution agenda, the more tame it all sounds. There are fears over a ‘postal lottery’ developing around healthcare under devolution. However, in the UK this phrase is used to deny local officials the freedom to match housing, transit and public safety considerations to local people.

In Michigan we relied on local property tax for half of our revenue and on state transfers for a quarter. Our seven non-partisan elected officials set the local property tax rate. They did not go mad with a rate too high or low, as they knew the community and faced their neighbours at the grocery store. There were variances between cities, but each was tuned to local needs. Throughout most of the US, local jurisdictions set their own budgets and can issue their own debt. That power to enter into long-term debt is largely successful in providing for long-term capital projects.

Texas is dynamic and ‘can-do’. Local governments here are almost entirely reliant on local resources. We see the fruits of our labours and must make up for local errors. The errors, however, are far fewer than they would be if there were strictures on us from Austin or Washington.

We have a good mix of responsibilities. Child welfare is directed uniformly and professionally at the state level. Our local officials know the community and provide the policy oversight, allowing professional administrators to work with their teams of police, fire, public works, libraries, and parks.

We love the UK’s people and places. The variety is something to embrace and embolden.

Clay Pearson, city manager, City of Pearland



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