Ottawa-Gatineau, the national capital which language differences nearly split into two countries

The Canadian parliament, Ottawa.

There are many single urban areas with multiple, competing local identities: from the rivalry of Newcastle and Sunderland in Tyne & Wear, to the Wolverhampton residents who resolutely deny that they are part of Birmingham, despite being in the same urban conurbation and sharing a mayor.

However, no division is quite as stark as that of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area in Canada. Often referred to as the National Capital Region, Ottawa and Gatineau lie directly opposite each other on either side of the Ottawa River, a hundred miles from Montreal, the nearest other significant population centre. Because the conurbation straddles a provincial boundary, the two cities literally speak a different language, with Ottawa in predominantly Anglophone Ontario and Gatineau in Francophone Quebec.

This is reflected in their populations. According to the 2011 census, French was the mother tongue of 77 per cent of those in Gatineau, a percentage maintained by policies intended to keep French as Quebec’s dominant language. Similarly, although Ottawa provides some bilingual services, 68 per cent of its residents are predominantly Anglophone; Franco-Ontarians frequently complain that the city is not officially bilingual.

Although there are similar divided cities, such as the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Ottawa-Gatineau is unique in that the city was not divided by a war or major political event: its two halves have been part of the same political territory since the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, before either of the cities were even established. Indeed, the oldest part of Gatineau is actually an Anglophone settlement with the name of Hull (it was merged into the Gatineau municipality in 2002).

Today, the two cities facing each other across the Ottawa river have separate services, and elect difference mayors to run them: OC Transpo serves Ottawa, the Société de Transport de l’Outaouais (STO) serves  Gatineau, and few tickets are transferrable between the two systems.

OC Transpo is currently constructing a light rail system to many parts of Ottawa; but proposals to expand the route into Gatineau, or to merge the two transport systems have been fraught with obstacles. The City of Ottawa owns a disused railway bridge, connecting the two cities, but arguments about funding and political differences have so far prevented it from being used as part of the light rail extension project.

The divisions between Ottawa and Gatineau are made all the more unusual by the fact that Ottawa is the federal capital of Canada – a country where bilingualism is entrenched in the Charter of Rights & Freedom as a bedrock principle of the Canadian constitution. As a result, while all proceedings within the Canadian legislature are bilingual, this principle of bilingualism is not reflected on the streets surrounding the building.

The inevitable map. Image: Google.

These linguistic, as well as political, differences have been a long-running theme in Canadian politics. Quebec held independence referendums in both 1980 and 1995; in the latter, the separatists were defeated by a margin of less than 0.6 per cent. Quebecois independence would be made all the more humiliating for Canada by the fact it would be losing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, while its parliament was forced to look out across the river at its new neighbours.

While Quebec as a whole only narrowly rejected independence in 1995, 72 per cent of Gatineau residents voted against the separatist proposal. The presence of many federal employees living in the city, who commute to Ottawa, meant that the city was rather unenthusiastic about the prospect of independence.

So, with Quebec nationalism currently at a low ebb, Gatineau seems set to remain a part of Canada – albeit while retaining its independent from the other half of its conurbation, across the river. While recent challenges such as flooding may have been better tackled by a unitary authority, the National Capital Region seems set to remain a tale of two cities.

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The British government wants more mayors and fewer councils in England

York Minster, York: could this city soon be the capital of a single local district 100 miles across? Image: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

As the UK's Covid-19 situation gradually recedes from “all-consuming crisis” levels, the government is beginning to think about other things again – among them, how to reform local governance in England.

It's a subject that has popped up periodically since the late 1960s, with national leaders occasionally seeking to reduce the layers of local government and standardise their duties. For most of recent history, local government in most of England has had a two-tier structure: county councils control services including education, transport and social care; while smaller district councils handle issues including planning, waste, leisure and libraries. 

Now, this autumn, national government is set to release a long-awaited report documenting ministers' plans for "unitarisation", the process by which areas with two tiers of government become areas with one tier. This promises to be quite a big deal – the biggest reform to English local government in 35 years, according to the Financial Times.

The upcoming white paper will “set out our ambitious plans for more mayors, greater powers and financial incentives to be given to local councils who embrace reform, and set out the important role we want local councils to play in economic growth in the future", communities secretary Robert Jenrick, the Cabinet minister in charge of the report, said in mid-July. (It's worth noting, however, that these plans don't apply to London or other big metropolitan areas, which are moving toward two-tier systems, with councils sitting below combined authorities that have elected mayors.)

The idea is to better control the costs of local administration, but there are few signs that reform will bring the sort of tax-raising powers and fiscal independence enjoyed by city governments in much of the rest of the democratic world.

England's local councils only have the money and powers that are granted to them by national government, and having an elected mayor doesn't automatically change this. A mayor can point to a popular mandate, but the main reason this reform might lead to more powerful local government is simply because national government has promised to give councils more powers if they adopt mayors. Exactly what powers will be on offer, and whether they will live up to this billing, remains to be seen.

For councils themselves, it's a bit of a mixed bag. They probably will get more money and powers. Still, many don’t want to adopt a mayoral system, partly because it represents a radical upheaval to the system councillors are used to – and partly, if cynically, because it means more power for voters and less for local parties.

Radical reform efforts of this kind have repeatedly been abandoned but, since 1992, a growing area of the country has transitioned to governance under unitary authorities.

The areas covered by unitary councils are in red. Image: Gwdihŵ/Wikimedia Commons.

The government has repeatedly reassured councils that it won’t mandate unitarisation: instead, it plans to offer extra money and powers for those areas that adopt it, in the hope that reform will then come from the bottom up.  But two weeks ago, Britain's regional growth minister, and one of Jenrick’s deputies, Simon Clarke told a conference that any area that wanted a mayor, with the “resulting funding and freedoms”, would need to move ahead with it. Details about the exact money and powers on the table have so far stayed surprisingly hazy (the devolution deals passed so far have all been individually negoiated, and consequently all differed). Nonetheless, the message is clear: if an area wants to stay two-tier, then don’t come crying to us when you don’t get the powers your neighbours do.

The arguments in favour of unitarisation are simple. Firstly, it’s more comprehensible: If your rubbish bin wasn't emptied, you no longer need to remember whether that was a failure of your district or your county. With only one council, it must be that council's job – and by the same token, there's less room for buck-passing from the councils themselves.

Secondly, and more pressingly, it’s more sustainable, simply because it’s cheaper to run one council than half a dozen. Even before the pandemic there was a growing gap between the amount of money local governments have and the amount they need, as the cost of providing social care for the elderly ballooned even as council budgets were repeatedly slashed by austerity. Now that gap looks set to run into the billions. Not surprising, then, that the national government wants its reforms to cut costs.

Against that, though, there are two problems. One is that unitarisation risks increasing the distance between councils and the public. The combined authorities would cover larger populations and swathes of land, with most expected to represent between 300,000 and 700,000 residents.

The earliest unitary councils generally covered district-sized urban or suburban areas. More recently, though, they’ve started covering entire counties, including Cornwall (which is relatively small) and Northumberland (which isn’t). The areas now in talks about becoming unitaries reportedly include Cumbria, the East Riding of Yorkshire, and North Yorkshire. The last of these is around a hundred miles across. Some proposed mergers are already receiving pushback from the public: a petition has already attracted nearly 9,000 signatures opposing Blackburn With Darwen council swallowing its neighbours.

The other problem is that abolishing certain councils will mean putting a bunch of councillors out of a job. Those same councillors are also the activist bases of the nation's political parties. This is one reason reform has often proved difficult in the past: whichever party is in government, local government reform risks hobbling it at the next election. It remains to be seen whether an 80-seat majority in Parliament will make that any easier. 

The government's white paper, of course, is merely one stage in the policy-making process. If the plans move forward, the government will still need to turn them into legislation, and get it passed by Parliament. The bottom-up process it favours points to a lengthy period of talks among councils, too, as they agree on the boundaries of new local authorities, as well as more prosaic matters like which offices to retain. And then, the government will need to pass statutory instruments to create the new councils. 

The recent reorganisation of nine councils in Dorset into just two is, in many ways, a model for the new proposal. That process took over three years. Even if the plans aren't derailed, it will likely be some time before these proposals result in large-scale reform.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.