As mayor of one of just a handful of truly global cities, I’ve seen first-hand that big cities are assuming an even greater role in our globalised world. From London to New York, Paris to Beijing, cities link together to form the nervous system of our global economy, dominating business, trade and enterprise. They account for the vast majority of investment and innovation and are at the forefront of everything from science to culture. If the 19th century was defined by empires, and the 20th by nation-states, the 21st century will be remembered for the rise of cities—and the social, economic and environmental progress they help to unlock.
The dynamism of cities stands in stark contrast to the increasingly dysfunctional character of many national governments, which too often seem gripped by paralysis. In many cases, nation-states have proved ill-equipped to deal with the economic challenges of our time. They appear powerless in the face of globalisation, unable to respond to the needs of citizens or big businesses, which can relocate overseas at the drop of a hat.
Many nation-states have become too centralised to govern effectively. Whether it’s the economy, housing, transport or energy, few policy areas require a one-size-fits-all national solution. In countries where government is over-centralised, it takes too long to make decisions that are of paramount national importance. Cities are more nimble, more attuned to the concerns of their citizens and able to respond quicker to their needs.
In a world of fast-paced, relentless change, cities can cope better with digital disruption, turning technological upheavals to their advantage. Cities are also more resilient to economic shocks, as they bounce back faster. And in great cities like London, we’ve been able to show that we’ll always remain open for business and new talent, irrespective of the national backdrop.
Our major cities are increasingly driving modern economics, and we have much to gain from cities working together to address a host of common challenges. In every area, from stimulating economic growth and financing new infrastructure to tackling air quality, mobilising investment in clean energy sources and protecting the natural environment, cities are leading the way and leaving central governments lagging behind. And in a world in which people of different ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds and nationalities are living side-by-side more and more, cities are pioneering new ways to make the most of our diversity, promoting community cohesion and encouraging social integration.
By collaborating ever more closely and sharing best practices, our cities can make significant progress on tackling all the pressing issues we face. That’s why, since taking office, I have made building relationships with other cities, such as Paris, New York, Montreal and Chicago, a priority. I want to learn about what does and doesn’t work in these great cities so I can apply the best ideas for the benefit of all Londoners.
But if British cities, and others around the world, are going to fulfil their potential, drive growth and reform over the decades ahead, then they need more control over their own destiny. Currently, London’s government controls only 7% of all the funds raised in the capital, compared with 50% in New York and 70% in Hong Kong.
Giving London and other big cities more autonomy will not only help unleash our creativity, but will deliver greater innovation and growth too. This should be a major global trend in 2017 and beyond. Cities should get more control over the money that is spent on things like skills, housing, transport, health and education.
America’s federal system has empowered cities and states for decades. This has proved highly successful in nurturing growth and spurring progress. London’s population is the same size as that of Wales and Scotland combined, but we have far less control over how the capital is run and fewer levers at our disposal to effect meaningful change.
Taking back control
The need for cities to have more control has been made all the more urgent by Brexit. London is the engine of our national economy, and while it is right that the British government seeks to spread prosperity across the country, it needs to realise this is not a zero-sum game. Britain succeeds when London succeeds. The wealth generated in our capital spreads far and wide. It is in Britain’s interest to have greater devolution to London.
In addition to maximising the benefits globalisation brings, if national governments around the world are serious about helping those left behind as a result, they need to acknowledge the pivotal role that cities will play in creating fairer and more prosperous societies in the 21st century. We need the tools required to maximise that growth, and ensure it is inclusive and available to all.