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Strong mayors can help UK take on the world

Voters across Britain, the United States and Europe have been expressing frustration with globalization. Although wage stagnation and the loss of manufacturing jobs have more to do with automation at home than with trade abroad, people are feeling disempowered by global forces beyond their control, and alienated from democratic political systems that have been slow to respond. Yet thus far, the populist leaders exploiting their anxiety have offered only a false promise: that in retreating behind our borders, we can recover a past that is gone forever — if it ever really existed.

We see it differently. We believe that free trade, new technology and open democracy have delivered increases in living standards and opportunities unimaginable to our forebears. But we also recognize that over the past couple of decades governments have done too little to address legitimate concerns that come with these changes and that have now reached a critical mass. But rather than seeking refuge in nationalism and isolationism, we believe that a better response to globalization lies in localization.

Mayors and city councils understand their communities better than national administrations. They are also more accountable to them, which often leads them to be more pragmatic and less ideological, focused on solving problems rather than conducting debates. Yet local governments often lack the authority and control over funding that they need to address their most pressing challenges effectively. Instead, they must beg their national capitals to act on their behalf.

From both of our experiences in government, we have seen how cities — when empowered to act — are able to address many of the sources of anxiety that have arisen on both sides of the Atlantic.

In New York, for instance, local authority was absolutely essential to the city’s success in driving down crime to historic lows, turning around a failing school system, building record amounts of affordable housing, creating well-paying jobs in industries such as tech and bioscience, softening the worst effects of the global recession, making dramatic improvements in public health, reducing carbon emissions by one fifth and driving progress in many other areas.

London, too, has had success with devolution, which has brought some decision-making closer to the people. But in Britain, as in the US, the cities most in need of greater authority are smaller and were once home to thriving industries.

The needs of the UK’s northern cities led one of us (George Osborne) to create the idea of the northern powerhouse, which aims to spread economic opportunity more widely. Linking together the cities and towns of the north of England, and devolving greater powers to their mayors, would allow these cities to enjoy the kind of advantages of scale that bigger cities such as London and New York enjoy, and which they have used to great effect. In other words: by joining forces, the whole of a region can be bigger than its parts — and also more effective at persuading central government to support their interests, such as access to data that they can use to measure their progress. To make this happen most effectively, these cities need directly elected mayors too.

This approach has won widespread bipartisan support, from Conservatives in government and from progressive Labour politicians in local governments such as those leading Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield councils. But success requires involvement from the private sector. That’s why the northern powerhouse partnership, a non-profit organisation, is enlisting the support of business, civic and university leaders. Together, they will develop ideas that will help to push the powerhouse forward.

The two of us have worked together on a variety of issues over the years, and now we are launching a plan to support the northern powerhouse, including its newly elected mayors. This May, many northern cities will for the first time elect mayors with wide-ranging powers over transport, skills, public health and, in some cases, policing. This will help them to attract business and private investment, the crucial ingredient to turn successful public policy into a strong local economy. There will also be new mayors in other parts of England, such as Birmingham and Bristol.

It’s up to local people to decide who should be their mayors. It’s important that whoever they chose gets off to a strong start. To help them do so, the northern powerhouse partnership and Bloomberg Philanthropies will offer them opportunities to access technical assistance, share best practices, strengthen their management skills and explore ways to promote innovation and use data to shape policy. Participation will be entirely voluntary, but from our discussion with local leaders in Britain and America there is an enormous demand for this kind of support.

The ability to shape one’s own destiny lies at the heart of democracy and the crisis of confidence now confronting western nations. Addressing that crisis cannot be done with any single initiative, or without national leadership, but we believe that cities are well positioned to help to lead the way.

By boosting the northern powerhouse in the years ahead, we have the chance to show that free markets, local democracy and open societies can answer the cry for help from citizens who feel the system isn’t working for them.

This op-ed was originally published by The Times.

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