💊 Local government in the US: lessons for a decentralising UK

Local elections have just taken place in the UK. Yet despite decades of devolution deals, and various iterations of 'Levelling Up', UK local government remains economically unequal and centralised. The US, by contrast, is highly decentralised. Joanie Willett says we can learn from the US about the importance of capacity building, a vibrant civil society, and encouraging people to feel invested in their towns’ future

The UK is working through how to design and implement a more decentralised relationship between central and local government. Political scientists might not be able to save democracy, as Titus Alexander hopes. However, we can help improve the level of democracy by drawing comparisons from other parts of the world. Learning from the US and its strong local government system is a good place to start.

To do this, I tell the story of the small city of Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border. Bristol was built on a stagecoach route, and then around a railway terminus. In other words, it was founded as a communications hub, and therefore had to adapt to significant changes as communications technologies developed. 

The challenge for Bristol

27,000 of Bristol’s inhabitants live on the Tennessee side of the border. The city council is part of a county council, which houses the county courthouse. Bristol TA currently attracts many manufacturing companies because Tennessee doesn’t levy property tax. On the other side of the state line, 17,000 people live in Bristol, Virginia. Within the 13 square miles of the city boundaries, Bristol VA contains schools, courts, a fire department, a police service, water and sewerage facilities. These are paid for by a combination of state grants, taxes on domestic property and business, sales and lodging tax, and payment for services rendered.

The schools, courts, fire and police service, and utilities in Bristol, Virginia are funded by state grants, taxes on domestic property and business, and payment for services rendered

Until relatively recently, Bristol VA had a major problem. Its population was in freefall, and local income was among the lowest in the US. Yet the city still had to pay for all its mandatory services, despite having maxed out what it could borrow. What could the city do? One option, of course, would have been to hold up its hands, admit defeat, relinquish independent city status, and fold back into the County Council. Did Bristol VA ever consider this? No!

Identity matters

Far too much local identity was wrapped up in being an independent city, with its own schools, sports teams, and courts of law. These things mattered. In fact, they mattered so much to local people that they were galvanised into rallying behind their community.

The independence of Bristol VA was so important to its residents that when this independence was threatened, they rallied behind their community

What did the citizens of Bristol VA do? A number of things. One of these things was a vicious cost-cutting exercise. Local decision-makers felt that citizens supported the exercise because they recognised that only drastic measures would save their city. But a number of other really important things happened, too. Firstly, there was a regional architecture in place which could pull together regional partnerships, and offer capacity-building training and support. The Appalachian Regional Commission is funded at Federal level, and offers a range of funding and practical support.

Second, the non-profit sector, supported by Federal and State money, built important networks within and among the non-profit, business, local population and local government sectors. For example, the Main Street programme redeveloped the city centre by mobilising civil society and tapping into state and national funding, networks, and capacity building.

Third, the relationship between local and State government was nimble enough to be adaptable. For example, one policy plan was to build a casino; however, Virginia state law at that time prohibited gambling. The Bristol area is closer to eight other state capitals than it is to the capital of Virginia. Despite this, a local partnership of government, non-profits and civil society worked with their elected state representatives. Within two years, they managed to overturn Virginia state law, and get the green light for their casino.

In the UK, by contrast – and to take but one example – it has taken decades of effort merely to change the law to levy double council tax on second homes.

Capacity building and civil society

So how does a casino go down in bible-belt America? Well, it was contentious, but also (surprisingly), most local people supported it. Perhaps because of their town's history, Bristolians have a ‘raising tax dollars’ and ‘building our city’ kind of mentality, which has reverberated down through the ages. A casino also means that the tourists who flock to it will contribute significantly to local coffers through sales and lodging tax.

Bristol is a poverty-stricken, depressed area. Yet it still found the money, built the capacity, and executed four and a half out of five major projects that it had set itself nearly 20 years earlier, during the bad times. One of these projects even brought a Smithsonian museum to the town to celebrate Bristol's musical heritage. Visiting the area for the first time in four years, the difference in the community astonished me. Bristol is firmly pulling itself out of its tough past, with a vibrancy and polish inconceivable not so long ago.

Cash-strapped Bristol still found the money, built the capacity, and executed four and a half out of five major projects that it had set itself to complete nearly 20 years earlier

Forget elected Mayors and such structures. What the Bristol case tells us is the importance of a system that enables a collaborative, capacity-building infrastructure. Also crucial is a vibrant, active civil society capable of taking good ideas forward. I also valued how local institutions, about which residents care deeply, along with local taxation, foster a sense of collective experience. This, in turn, drives commitment to the community and helps retain a sense of town-building. 

Lessons for Britain from political scientists

Of course, the crucial element in all these good things is money. Sadly, this is the bit that has been completely lost in post-austerity Britain. The city of Bristol could have achieved none of the abovementioned initiatives with goodwill and enthusiasm alone. Making things happen required central government support, encouragement, and investment. 

UK local government is becoming increasingly hollowed out. Soon, it will have been reduced to administrative functions only. Britons need to have a good hard think about what their local government should look like. Political scientists can help by sharing positive stories about democracy from other parts of the world.

💊 No.10 in a Loop series examining how political scientists, and citizens, can take practical steps to strengthen democracy

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Joanie Willett
Joanie Willett
Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Exeter

Joanie is a Fulbright scholar, and her research explores the entangled relationship between people, how they organise into communities, and the landscape that they are situated in (geography, geology, and ecology).

She uses the New Materialisms to explore the politics and economics of entanglement, and the implications of a more-than-human politics on social and environmental justice.

In practical terms, she often finds herself exploring rural economic development, and local government, and questions of place-making, and place-shaping.

She tweets @JoanieWillett

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