The future of Britain’s cities and lessons from Germany’s federal system

By: Matthew Heathcote

The Constitution Society is delighted to announce that Matthew Heathcote has been awarded a Society Research Fellowship for 2023. Among a number of strong applications, Matthew’s project on federalism in the UK and Germany stood out as having the potential to positively impact policy discussions on the subject now and into the future. In this blog for the Society, Matthew outlines his research. 

In an era of perceived political failures and strained systems, arguments about the United Kingdom’s constitutional future often turn to promote a federal future. Throughout the modern history of the United Kingdom, the possibility of a federated system has been raised in political debates but never as concrete policy, unlike the devolution projects of the Blair years. Were this to change, one aspect of the British political and constitutional framework that would be directly affected would be the relationship between the many urban and metropolitan centres of the UK and central government. To gain a better understanding of this relationship, we must look to our neighbours to understand how British cities might fare under a federated system. No better example exists than the cities of the German Federal Republic, the largest economic and demographic country in Western and Central Europe and the beating industrial heart of the EU.

My interest in this topic arose from an article in an issue of the Economist focused on urban autonomy in the United Kingdom. Here, the main question was how Westminster might aid the reinvigoration of Britain’s ‘middling cities’, mainly those in the Midlands and the North. The author uses Manchester as a prime example of British ultra-centralisation. The Greater Manchester metropolitan area contains upwards of 3.4 million people (putting it on the same demographic level as Amsterdam, San Diego and Hamburg). However, Greater Manchester possesses only three quarters of these city’s purchasing power and its GDP is 10% smaller than the UK average. Other articles from the Economist looked at how Swedish cities like Gothenburg provide a roadmap for similarly sized British cities like Bristol to become more autonomous and weaned off of Whitehall loans.

The author suggests to any sympathetic governmental advisors reading that three actions can be taken to oppose the slow decay of British urban power. These are the decentralization of public investment, fiscal controls and the empowerment of large urban areas — contrary to the ‘levelling up’ scheme then conducted by the Johnson regime. The article rightly diagnosed many issues with British centralized power in its middle cities, from Mancunian inability to process essential grants, to the total absence of regional and local tax collection. Unmentioned was a solution that may open up British cities to greater investments and political legitimacy: federalism.

Having been granted a research fellowship by the Constitution Society to explore this idea, my finished report will focus on how improving urban autonomy in the United Kingdom can have positive financial and political consequences, while acknowledging the challenges such a path will meet along the way. My research model is comparative, analysing the UK alongside Germany, and here Germany provides the ideal federal comparator: while German demographics and history differ from the United Kingdom, its political, cultural and geographic proximity make it a perfect candidate. 

The report has three themes which in turn cover macro-politics, micro-politics and the role of regional bodies in collecting and budgeting taxation. Within the report my first two chapters will look first at how a ‘federalized’ city structure could fit into the existing political and cultural arrangements of the United Kingdom. Herein a case study is made of the devolution project of the Blair government as an example of how Westminster might learn from past failures. Turning to micro-politics, the report will consider how British cities might engender legitimate federal institutions or empower current institutions by drawing regional bodies and communities into the decision-making process. Finally, the issue of taxation needs to be discussed since it often decides how local issues and investments become priorities or — more often than not — become forgotten by central planners in Westminster. Not only will the effects of autonomy in urban spending be analysed through quantitative data, but the fiscal relationship between dense urban centres and regional communities, whose autonomy might be undermined by growing urban autonomy, will also be analysed.

Such a project requires extensive data, focused on specific examples that provide evidence of how British urban policy can learn from German equivalents. The report draws on four examples to be used as case studies for federalized cities as independent entities and regional engines. These are London, Manchester, Berlin and Munich. Here, each will offer examples of how federalized cities interact with local and national partners and of how they might legitimize themselves as centres of planning and power. Archival data from each city, including budget and meeting minutes, provides insight into how urban policy (both local and national, fiscal and social) differs between federal and unitary systems. 

The final report will be one of the first dedicated policy studies into urban federalism within the United Kingdom. While much debate has occurred over the last decade about devolution, extended powers and a federal UK, often this has been centred on idealised notions of what a nation should look like. I hope that the report will add much needed real-world evidence to the debate, and I look forward to updating you on my progress. 

Matthew Heathcote.

Matthew Heathcote is a final year PhD candidate, conducting research in German Studies at the
University of Manchester and Humboldt University, Berlin. He received his BA in History and Politics
and MA in Global Comparative History from the University of Warwick, and has twice received
funding from the Erasmus organisation to train and study in Germany. His published and presented
works involve the Krupp coorporation’s role in shaping the German identity in British media during
World War One and the colonial imagination at the 1896 Berlin Gewerbeausstellung.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.