What makes a country really remarkable?
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What makes a country really remarkable?

Great cities. That's a lesson the United Kingdom once knew well. Britain reached its imperial heights in the late 19th century in part because its municipalities were the world's most productive cities.

None better symbolised British greatness than Birmingham, a manufacturing powerhouse in the West Midlands. In 1890, Harper's Magazine called it the "best-governed city in the world". Birmingham provided novel services: free libraries and museums, free education for all children, modern sanitation, affordable housing, street lighting, a municipal bank, and support for the poor.

The spirit of Birmingham was often expressed by the popular nonconformist preacher George Dawson, and two parishioners who became mayor -- Joseph Chamberlain and his son Neville. The preacher evangelised for a philosophy called "The Civic Gospel", the idea that great municipalities offer the best chance for human flourishing.

"A town," Dawson once said, "is a solemn organism through which shall flow, and in which shall be shaped, all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of man's moral nature."

Today, the Civic Gospel is preached by city leaders worldwide, especially in the globally ambitious metros of Vienna, Mexico City, Seoul, and Tokyo, where governments pursue humanity-advancing improvements in democratic participation, environmentalism, and the arts.

But these days, you won't hear the Civic Gospel in its home country. When you ask municipal experts what the world's best-governed cities are today, you'll get an earful about Barcelona and Bogota but nothing about Britain. UK cities are too busy struggling to survive.

Birmingham, still the second most populous UK city, now draws notice as a cautionary tale. In September 2023, it became yet another British city to declare fiscal insolvency -- one of eight in the past six years. Birmingham's bankruptcy is blamed on cuts in national budgets, and two massive governance mistakes: a bogged IT project (£80 million) and equal pay claims by female city workers (more than £700m). Unable to pay its bills, Birmingham has suspended spending on arts, youth services, and assistance to families in crisis.

The sorry state of local self-governance is not often mentioned in reports about tomorrow's elections in the UK, which are expected to see the current Tory government replaced by Labour. But local stagnation helps explain Britain's current crisis.

In the face of national failures -- declining life expectancy, dropping real wages, and fiscal austerity -- Britons are unable to turn to their too-weak local governments for solutions.

After World War II, the UK's national government stripped local governments of responsibilities from utilities to hospitals, and nationalised services. Whitehall also repeatedly reorganised local governments and their jurisdiction, thus fragmenting local power and reducing local control in fiscal matters. The resulting centralisation made London a global goliath but diminished the wealth, influence, and services of the country's small and mid-size cities.

The imbalance has not gone unnoticed. Over the past 15 years, British governments have sought to boost regions and localities via various strategies -- like "rebalancing the economy" and "Northern Powerhouse". In 2019, the Tories running Britain announced a plan for "Levelling Up" weaker cities and regions with greater aid and established a department to pursue it.

But these efforts have failed, because the approaches are top-down, directed by the national government. Indeed, the national "Levelling Up" department has dispensed cash for projects through a slow bidding process, orchestrated by costly consultants. The Economist noted that 60 of the first 71 "Levelling Up" projects were behind schedule.

Since "Levelling Up" became policy five years ago, economic disparities between rich and poor regions have widened. British local governments are seeking bailouts for homeless programmes, child care, and adult care.

Labour has made vague promises to "Level Up" better than the Tories.

The most promising path forward is for the government to restore the local autonomy that once made other UK cities global leaders. There have been small moves in this direction, with "trailblazer" deals allowing some metro regions to elect chief executives.

But such devolution deals are full of limits on local control, such as a "scrutiny protocol" listing all the ways the national government will watch over supposedly empowered cities.

What's really needed is a restoration of the local freedom that allowed Birmingham to build a city so great it had its own gospel. © Zócalo Public Square

Joe Mathews is a Zócalo Public Square columnist and founder-publisher of Democracy Local, a planetary publication.

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