France is often seen as having a political culture in which relations between the centre and localities flourish – in contrast to our centralised state in which politicians are “promoted” out of local government into the Westminster parliament.
In the 1990s, for example, English policymakers studied the French system of ‘Contrat de ville’. At its core was a contract between central and local government, with a clear link between neighbourhood regeneration schemes, city-wide strategies and national priorities.
In the run up to the creation of the Local Government Association in 1997, I took a group of senior councillors, civil servants, chief executives, the then local government minister and the shadow minister on a tour of Lille to see how the approach worked in practice. The language of contracts is strikingly like business secretary Greg Clark’s use of deals: city deals, growth deals and devolution deals.
Against this background I was struck by recent reports in the Financial Times of a breakdown in central local relations in France. The paper reported a rising tension between president Emmanuel Macron’s “hyper-centralised government in Paris and the rest of provincial France”.
The paper quoted one senior local politician complaining about declining decentralisation and “more controls and constraints from the state.” In a statement that could easily have been given by an English council leader he said: “Very clearly there is a misunderstanding by the state of the functioning of local government.” It is reported that 386 mayors resigned during Mr Macron’s first 15 months in office.
Significantly the president has no experience of local politics, having never been elected in municipal or regional elections. This is in stark contrast to most leading French politicians who often maintain a base in local government. For example, Pierre Mauroy, former mayor of Lille, retained his mayoralty while he was the French prime minister.
I am convinced a key factor in our dysfunctional central-local relations is what I call the escalator theory of politics, in which councillors become MPs and then ministers. Until now politics in France has been more like a revolving door where national politicians care about the health of local democracy because they retain a stake in it.
I see Andy Burnham’s decision to leave Westminster to become mayor of Greater Manchester as a reason to be cheerful, as is the fact that Dan Jarvis remains an MP while being mayor of the Sheffield City Region.
In political terms I’d back the revolving door any day. The current tension in France shows what can happen when it stops turning.
Phil Swann, executive chair, Shared Intelligence