Britain bucks the trend of strong city government

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The Independent Online
AS BRITAIN fumbled its way towards yet another reorganisation of local government, a Greek trireme rowed up the Thames. The Olympias had come to remind us of the origins of democracy 2,500 years ago, in the constitution of the Athenian city-state. The trireme paddled its way between the Houses of Parliament and the empty shell of County Hall, seat of London's government until Margaret Thatcher murdered it in 1986. City democracy, in the capital of the United Kingdom, is as dead as the Athens of Pericles.

The other day, I attended a gathering of European mayors in Istanbul. Mayors suffer from chronic irritation with national governments, tending to regard them as juntas of greedy peasants who want the traffic halted for them. But in Istanbul the irritation had developed into fantasies of escape. Why not a Europe des grandes villes, a Europe of independent cities? Why not throw off the yoke of countryside nationalism and return to something like the ancient Greek model of the free polis?

We have survived the Europe of royal and Fascist empires, and we are slowly emerging from de Gaulle's Europe des patries towards the prospect of a decentralised Europe des regions. How about an even wilder leap into a Europe dominated by free and cosmopolitan cities, reducing the countryside to harmlessly dependent peripheries? It is a day-dream, but since 1989 we have been living in a molten Europe - in which dreams can suddenly become programmes. And Europe des grandes villes has some genuine attractions.

One is history. City-states - micro- nations formed by a city and the territory around it - have a brilliant past in Europe, whether in Greece or in northern Italy in the late Middle Ages. 'Free cities' are different. Medieval rulers would often invite outsiders to found new cities or settle in old ones, in order to acquire centres of industry, trade and wealth. These cities, generally ports, were not like Greek or Italian city-states because they did not control the countryside around them. But they were also quite unlike the kingdoms that formed their hinterlands. They were exempted from feudal rules ('town air sets you free' ran a medieval proverb). They were full of money-making, often literate foreigners of all kinds of origin and religion. They had, on and off, charters allowing them to govern themselves and make their own laws.

This habit of 'planting' cities like exotic fruit-bushes suited everyone for a time. When the Lord Mayor of Warsaw was a Scotsman, his aldermen were all Jews or Germans - not a Pole among them. But then came the modern nation-state, in which unified kingdoms swallowed up their cities or turned them - a dubious honour - into 'national capitals'. The periphery had swamped the centre.

In the 1990s, elements of that past have plainly crept back. The big cities are once again multi-ethnic: the places where the immigrant communities settle and seek work. The villages and small towns and countryside, in contrast, still represent the 'nation' - the mythical single ethnos that is supposed to be the real national community. Waves of xenophobia and racialism are 'national' rebellions against the reality of what the European cities have become. But it is in those cities that a new idea of community is being painfully worked out and defended. At the Istanbul meeting, Jean-Claude Richez from Strasbourg said that 'the city can be a privileged place of new identities, which transcend frontiers'. That is true of Bradford or Lyon, of Munich or Amsterdam. And it is true, in the most tragic way, of Sarajevo.

The grandes villes are slowly re-emerging from the nation-states. In Germany, three cities have been full-blown states of the federation since 1949: Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin. Now we have the Lega Nord movement in northern Italy, which is not just about regionalism but also carries the ambitions of cities such as Milan or Trieste to escape from the control of central government. A lot is written about the way that European regions are setting up networks of co-operation below the nation-state level. Less is said about the development of networks between European cities, links far beyond mere 'twinning'. Town councillors who visit a foreign city used to be signing up for a boozy freebee. These days, they spend their trip taking notes on rapid transit systems or planning exchanges of social workers.

The case for a 'Europe of the cities' is the case for investing in success: for liberating the energies of the most dynamic points in society. But there are heavy arguments the other way. First of all, whom would the cities be leaving in the lurch? The fashionable French sociologist Paul Virilio thinks that to take the cities out of the nation would be a 'democratic regression . . . from the City-State to the State-City', and a new sort of urban feudalism. Rich cities would gang up to share wealth among themselves, or to use their huge powers of communication to attract all new investment. If national governments lost their authority to redistribute wealth between town and country, the country and democracy itself would both wither.

Second, the cities may have most of the wealth and jobs, but they also have most of the problems and job-seekers: the poorest part of the population. As Mr Richez of Strasbourg put it, 'city policy is merging with social policy, urban problems with social problems'. What city wants to carry the whole burden of housing the new poor without government assistance? The price of independence could be bankruptcy, especially if the taxable middle classes migrate to leafy places outside the city's frontier.

This is the key question. Some cities suffer from 'urban decay': a way of saying that the poor have settled into the decaying centre while the better-off have retreated to the periphery. That is an American pattern, but Manchester - for example - was like that 20 years ago. More frequently in Europe, renovated city centres are again attracting rich residents, while the poor are driven to vast tower-block housing schemes on the periphery. That is the picture of Glasgow or Paris today.

Here is the essential difference between 'city-state' and 'free city'. A free city will try to keep its wealthy citizens, but draw a boundary that dumps responsibility for the peripheral poor - commuting workers or the unemployed - on semi-rural authorities outside. A city-state, in contrast, is a small territory containing a large city. It is centre and periphery combined, and there is no way in which it can escape its duties to all those who work in the city or are dependent upon it.

It is the city-state that we need - really a European 'region' under another name. A new age of world migration has begun and millions of human beings are heading for the European cities, a hopeful tide that no frontier controls can effectively keep out. Coping with them falls, in the first place, on the cities themselves rather than on national governments. And coping means that cities have to become the hearts of much larger areas around them.

So Europe of the Cities turns out to mean Europe of the Regions after all. But Mrs Thatcher abolished England's 'Metropolitan Counties', including the GLC, and John Major is about to abolish Strathclyde Region, which covers the whole West of Scotland conurbation and its hinterland. Incorrigibly, this government continues to march our society away from the European future.