Last October, after much gnashing of teeth, Britain’s government announced that it was finally handing a measure of long-awaited freedom to the northern English city of Manchester. A few weeks later, after even more protracted debate, it did the same for Sheffield. Everyone agreed that cities need more power, but making this a reality is, as far as the British government is concerned, obviously quite dreadfully hard.
So anyway, France just created 10 new city regions in one fell swoop without bothering with any of this nonsense.
These métropoles, which you can see in the map above, are “intercommunal” structures, in which a bunch of existing local councils, or communes, work together to provide services for an entire city region. They’re not unlike the Combined Authorities which are starting to spring up across the channel.
Even before this week’s big bang, the country already had two authorities that did much the same job. The Métropole Nice Côte d'Azur covered most of the Mediterranean city, but excludes some of its western suburbs (suburban sniffiness, it seems, is a universal problem). Meanwhile “Grand Lyon” covers, well, you can probably guess.
On 1 January, though, two things happened. Firstly, the number of such bodies multiplied six fold, to encompass just about every city in France with a population of half a million or more; two more will come on stream next year. Of the country's 14 biggest cities, just one isn’t getting a new authority, and that’s Toulon, which ranks 13th. Over the next couple of years, these new metropolitan authorities will be given enhanced power over a wide range of competencies, including economic development, housing, water and skills.
France's three biggest cities will actually have an even wider range of powers, over areas including tourism, culture, agriculture (!) and international relations. And that’s the other thing that happened last week. When Grand Lyon transformed into La Métropole de Lyon, it magically acquired a whole bunch of new powers, previously exercised by the regional government. It now has pretty much complete control of its own destiny: this, the French government said, will allow Lyon to "consolidate its position as a major European power alongside Manchester, Milan and Barcelona" (only it said it in French).
The other two super-métropoles will arrive on 1 January 2016. One is Aix-Marseille-Provence. The big prize, though, is Grand Paris, which will cover the existing city, plus the three inner suburban departments surrounding it, and possibly areas outside it, too. That should help to break down some of the barriers between the glamorous capital and its suburbs, which have all too often been deprived of investment, infrastructure and attention.
Click for a larger image.
All this is the latest move in a major reorganisation of French regional government that the country's law-makers finally signed off on in mid-December. The new administrative map has reduced the number of administrative regions from 22 to 13, in the first major reorganisation since Napoleon was still smashing up bits of Europe. It also, incidentally, has created a region called Alsace-Lorraine, so that should end well.