The most powerful thing a powerful person can do is to give up that power. Andy Haldane (Opinion, January 12) puts his finger on the problem by identifying the biggest challenge of decentralization: the transfer of real decision-making powers.
The election of mayors of England’s largest cities and regions is an important achievement, but their actual powers are still very limited. The ability of metropolitan mayors (including London) to develop and implement economic development policies is still too dependent on central government decisions and funding. Most European cities and regions have much greater powers to raise taxes and decide where to spend the money. The mayor of New York, a city the size of London and one of its global competitors, can even pass local laws. England must go much further.
But ceding power is not easy for several reasons. First, strong-minded political leaders want to ensure that their policies will be implemented and not overturned by another government. Would a future Labor government, after being in opposition for over a decade, really be willing to share power with local leaders?
Second, in a highly centralized country, the civil service still concentrates a fair share of the capacities and skills necessary to develop and implement effective public policies and programs. Governments are often reluctant to transfer decision-making powers to authorities with fewer resources (although experience tells us that after “growing pains”, more decentralized systems tend to produce better results). Finally, there is the personal ambition of those in power and their desire for influence and recognition.
True decentralization, accompanied by an effective transfer of decision-making powers, is as important as it is difficult to implement. It needs strong, forward-looking national leadership, prepared to do things differently, but also to compromise when necessary. This requires humility and a meaningful commitment to the most democratic solutions, which may not be ours. This requires trust in local people and institutions. Above all, it takes courage to move forward and test new models (and to accept the potential for failure). But without it, we will never achieve the economic prosperity this country urgently needs.
Jose Pedro Reis
Head of Strategy and Opportunity Development, Opportunity London, London N1, United Kingdom