Are city leaders the new policy pioneers?

This week I am at Labour Party Conference.

Among the events I have been asked to attend or speak at has been the Centre For Cities fringe, “From State to Cities: are city leaders the new policy pioneers?”  I shared the platform with Mayor Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Judith Blake (Leader of Leeds) and Huw Thomas (Leader of Cardiff).

It’s a proposition I sympathise with. And it is a movement that Bristol, by virtue of the fact that we are hosting this year’s Global Parliament of Mayors, finds itself at the forefront of.

My argument is not that city leaders in and of themselves have an automatic connection to innovative thinking. We know that not to be the case. My argument is that the delivery focussed kind of politics that is possible at the city level is able to open the door to (and even demands) innovation in a way that national politics cannot. More than this, it is it is that cross border collaborations of cities can generate ways of thinking that individual cities and national governments cannot.

And whether we are talking about climate change, migration, inequality or political legitimacy, we urgently need some new ideas because politics is not delivering.

It was at the 2017 New York Gathering of Mayors that a number of us came to articulate the challenge, opportunity and need we are currently working on, that the failures we are experiencing today are not merely failures of policy, but a global order overly dependent on the nation state. We need global governance to move on to its next iteration and that will involve the leaders of cities and networks of cities sitting as equal partners in shaping national and international policy.

This means moving beyond the shallow understanding of devolution that confines itself to cities having greater influence over what happens within their boundaries, to a much deeper understanding that cities also need greater influence over the national and international context in which they operate.

This is not our experience at the moment. Cities have been explicitly and implicitly sidelined. The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the world. Throughout the Brexit negotiations the government has not once consulted with the Core Cities to find out what we need from Brexit – making it a Westminster Brexit. Local Government continues to have a bidding/beggar relationship with central government undermining our ability plan for the long term. In July I was at the UN as the first Mayor to speak into the negotiations over the Global Compact for Migration. It is remarkable that Mayors had not been previously been consulted, in the light of the fact that most migrants leave cities, travel to cities and return to cities.

And so, when the 80-100 mayors and city networks arrive in Bristol next month, we will find ourselves at the centre of a global challenge of how we grow our 19th century structure of global governance into one fit for the 21st Century.


Leave a Reply