But today's local governments are having to fit into a far more sophisticated international network. This is not just a case of a British local council managing funds from Brussels. An emerging class of world mega-cities is looking to fellow cities, not national government, for ideas and solutions.
As the two-week United Nations Habitat II "City Summit" in Istanbul tries to "cure the urban soul", local government is emerging as the key in a new approach to increasingly similar city lifestyles, environmental standards and ways to deal with poverty.
"It's been very good to find ourselves the darlings of the conference. Without us, there is no way the UN can get down to local level. Without us, it can't deliver its shelter and housing agenda," said John Harman, leader of the council of Kirklees, a town of 400,000 people in Yorkshire.
Mr Harman claims the honour of being the first member of a local authority to officially address a UN forum, speaking on the first day of a conference that would normally be the sole preserve of central governments. Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) have also been allowed to have a say for the first time.
Before the Habitat II conference, 400 local government leaders also met in the largest gathering yet of the World Assembly of Cities. The group acts as a umbrella for the four international federations of local government representatives, and published an ambitious declaration of future inter- city co-operation and demands for greater devolution of national power.
"The town must be recognised as the pivotal human settlement . . . this World Assembly should be considered as the institutional interlocutor and partner of the specialised agencies of the United Nations system," the declaration said.
Local government leaders are quick to stress that they do not see themselves as alternatives to central government. In most developed countries, including Britain, local government representatives felt they were fully part of the process of putting together a national agenda for Habitat II.
"I don't think the 21st century is going to be city states in opposition to governments. It's about partnership," said American delegate Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore.
Developing countries are more likely to see political differences between local and national government, and when the 21st century starts, they will have 18 of the world's 25 mega-cities of over 10 million people.
According to one of the NGOs trying to break down the national barriers, the New York-based Mega-Cities Project, such independent action is part of a growing appreciation that despite cultural and economic differences, big cities have their own agenda.
Mega-Cities' executive director, Janice Perlman, noted the political anomaly that while half of the world's absolute poor will be in urban areas, only 15 per cent of the worldwide flow of $4bn of aid money goes to address basic urban needs.
"All very large cities have a great deal in common," she wrote. "Every First World city today now has within it a Third World city in which unemployment, over-crowding, hunger, disease, malnutrition and high infant mortality are the norm.
"Likewise, every Third World city has within it a First World city of international fashion, high-technology, global communications, transnational corporations and post-modern taste."
Mega-Cities is just one of a new generation of organisations seeking to link up city governments, and not all are private. A UN-sponsored "Best Practices" initiative to be put out on the Internet for all city managers singled out 100 ideas for awards, including a Glaswegian energy-saving housing initiative and Britain's magazine for the homeless, the Big Issue.
Government agencies are also trying to cross-fertilise in order to keep themselves relevant. In Baltimore, Mayor Schmoke was astonished to find himself adopting a USAID project designed for Kenya that brought up school immunisation rates from 62 per cent to 96 per cent.
Above all, Mega-Cities is trying to change negative attitudes towards cities among rich elites. It portrays them not as nightmares but as their poorer residents see them, particularly in developing countries, as the main source of economic hope.
t Most Habitat II documents can be found on the Web site: http://www.undp.org/un/habitat