City Region Government across the Globe

June 4, 2012

In some of the more unusual commentary in the media of recent months has been the suggestion that local government in Manchester might be an appropriate model for Ireland. Well Greater Manchester does have a population of 2.6 million people living in an area of 2,276 sq km – less than a third of the size of Kerry. There are 15 Town/Parish Councils (these are similar to the average Irish Town Council), 10 Metropolitan Councils with elected members ranging from 51 to 92 (Manchester City Council) and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, an administrative agency representing the nominating Metropolitan Councils in a manner not dissimilar to the Dublin Regional Authority. On the basis of a direct comparison Greater Manchester has considerably more councillors, taxes and organizations in its local government framework than the combined Dublin and Mid East Regions (the only appropriate comparison in the Irish case).

More usefully, of course, is to recognise that direct comparisons between urbanized regions such as Manchester with what remains a largely rural country outside of Greater Dublin are not relevant. Equally, it would take some convincing argument that using Manchester as a comparator, even for Dublin, is appropriate given the relative competitiveness of both city regions when benchmarked against other similar city regions globally.

The challenge is to examine, on the basis of real evidence, the capacity of a city region to compete internationally whilst sustaining vibrant communities and identities. In such conditions it might be more relevant for Dublin to look to city regions like as suggested in last month’s newsletter, Brisbane, Auckland or Helsinki. But what about other possible comparators? One of the interesting lessons from reforming local administration is that clear space needs to be in place between the reform of governance in city regions and reforms generally of rural communities. This simple lesson is something which has been learned the hard way in most other OECD countries and it is something which Irish policy-makers could well learn from if they are to avoid the pitfalls into which they so often fall when it comes to public service reform.

So what of other city regions?
The city of Vancouver has a population of almost 600,000 people. It has a single city council for this population covering an area of 115 square KM. The directly elected Mayor and Council of ten oversee broadly similar services to Dublin City but with the added role through arms length companies in the public utilities serving the City. The population of the City is approx 27% of the Vancouver Region, itself a regional authority not dissimilar to the combined Dublin and Mid-East Regional Authorities. One notable difference is in the extent to which this inter-municipal authority sets and drives strategic development throughout Vancouver, something that might be an interesting model for Greater Dublin in the event of re-configuration of the regional structures in and around Dublin. The 22 municipalities and the one First Nation Council nominate 37 members to the regional level.

Also worth looking at is the City of Portland in Oregon, a city region with similar objectives to Dublin in terms of its economic base and hub role. A city of almost 600,000 people it has a directly elected mayor and 5 commissioners who are responsible for all local authority services. The Mayor earns roughly €100,000 while his colleagues survive on €80,000. Some 5,500 people work for the City Council supplying services broadly similar to Dublin. They do play a key business leadership role in one of the most dynamic parts of the United States. Unusually in the USA, Portland is set within a regional government framework and the City Council plans have to comply with the Metropolitan Region Plans. The region has a population of 1.5 million and employs over 700 people who deal with three county authorities, and 27 cities and districts. The primary focus is on setting the strategic direction for the Region so that it is one of the most competitive city regions in the world whilst sustaining a very high quality of life for the citizens and businesses of Portland.

There are many more examples worth looking at but a key lesson, from even the limited sample above, and in earlier newsletters, is that simplistic analysis of local government structures in Ireland does not work. Yet there is a persistence, based on simplistic thinking and a poor understanding of the dynamic nature of local policy-making, with thinking that bigger is best and that moving away from local decision-making is somehow going to improve matters. It might, given the particular circumstances in Ireland, but then again it might not.

Examples from around the Globe provide us with many case studies but the one consistent message in each is that moving towards a particular model has to be informed on the basis of real evidence and knowledge of the local dynamics in a particular city or rural area. In addition, we have to acknowledge the clear differentiation between policy for large scale urban centres such as the Dublin Region and policy which should be applied in their surrounding rural authorities. Local government policy for a city region like Dublin must be differentiated from the rest of the country and it is time we learnt to stop applying a one size fix all approach to what are completely differing policy environments.

There also has to be the recognition, from international experience, that the greater the distance between the delivery of public services from the decisions associated with these services the greater likelihood that waste will arise. Ireland, in this case, cannot be so different so perhaps it might be a good idea to look at other reform processes across the Globe. Otherwise it is entirely probable that emerging reforms will simply cause further disruption to an already severely challenged policy arena.