More power to cities, say the world’s mayors

City bosses: Boris Johnson in 2013 with the mayors of Florence, New York and Warsaw © PA

Humans have become an urban species. Half of us now live in cities which are often far better run than countries. Could the future belong to powerful city states and their mayors?

Historians may look back at the Scottish referendum as the event that shattered the UK’s centralised political system. But while there is now much talk of devolving power to the regions, some mayors have a more radical vision: a Britain made up of powerful city states, mini-republics of Manchester, Bristol and Leeds.

At last week’s Labour Party conference, an alliance of nine UK cities called for powers to be devolved to them at the same speed as they are to Scotland.

A growing international alliance wants to go further. This week, the mayor of Amsterdam held final preparations for a ‘Global Parliament of Mayors’, to take place in London next year. He aims to gather at least 600 of the world’s mayors into a new ‘global force’ that will have the strength to take on global issues.

According to Professor Benjamin Barber, cities are our future political power houses, whether we like it or not. In Europe and Latin America, two-thirds of people now live in cities, and in some places, cities have merged together and have more economic clout than many countries.

Consequently, city politics are often a more important influence on people’s lives than national politics. While national politicians may dither over ideology, mayors are more hands-on, solving more practical problems like housing, transport and crime.

Barber says that as we live in an increasingly interdependent world, nation states with national borders are becoming irrelevant. London, New York and Hong Kong have more in common with each other than they do with the rural regions of their own countries.

People are increasingly disenchanted with national politics. In the US, only 12% of people trust their representatives in congress, but over 60% trust their mayors, who are seen as more in tune with their problems. Is it time to give all power to the cities?

City slickers

Some say that ditching nations for city states would make the world a better place. In Italy, cities that have worked together to fight the Mafia have been much more successful than the national government. If cities, which produce 80% of carbon emissions, worked together to fight climate change, they could achieve much more than our nation states.

Yet others say that if cities had to run everything it would simply lead to far more bureaucracy and inefficiency. While cities might be responsive to minor issues like collecting bins, running every policy like immigration would make them sluggish. And in a world of thousands of city-states, trying to get consensus on an international issue would be impossible. National politics may be frustrating and slow, but city states are not any sort of alternative.

You Decide

  1. Should the UK’s cities be given much more power?
  2. Is it always the case that locals understand their area’s problems better than others?


  1. In groups, imagine your local town or city has broken away from the rest of the country. Design its flag and write a short declaration of independence for the new state, outlining its core values.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an expert’, research the feasibility of city states. Write a letter to your local MP making the case for or against them.

Some People Say...

“The last thing the world needs is more borders.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What difference would devolving powers to cities make to me?
Some city leaders say that if they had more freedom from the government, they could drastically improve their economies. The nine UK cities that have called for devolution believe that they could add growth the size of Denmark’s economy, if they were better able to compete for students and business.
Have there been successful city states before?
Singapore is a city state and one of the world’s most prosperous cities. It tops global healthcare rankings and is regarded as an educational hub. But the idea of the city state is older than that of the nation state. Ancient Greece was composed of city states, one of which, Athens, is regarded as the birthplace of democracy.

Word Watch

In China, plans are being discussed to merge three nearby cities, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Guangdong, into one mega city over the next few decades. It is believed that the three already have a combined population of 40m.
One mayor of particular note is Cory Brooker, the mayor of Newark in the US. In recent years he has saved a neighbour from his burning home, rescued a freezing dog, and when Hurricane Sandy hit, he invited those left without power to stay at his house.
Cities already draw inspiration from one another. London’s ‘cycle superhighway’ scheme seeks to emulate the success of cycling cities such as Amsterdam. The city’s bike hire scheme was modelled on one in Berlin.
Barber points out that cities can often implement carbon-efficient policies that are overlooked on the national level. For example, New York upgraded old buildings, improving their insulation. Bogota introduced a new energy-efficient transport system. Singapore has developed many more public parks.

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