Decentralization needs powerful regional cities

Published Dhaka Tribune 06/05/22

Since this paper’s inception, its editorials have had the foresight to call for decentralization. 

Dhaka contains 15% of Bangladesh’s people but its gravitational pull accounts for over 40% of the nation’s GDP. Chittagong’s GDP is only a quarter of the capital, despite the port city’s large population and long and storied commercial history. The negative national and local consequences of Dhaka’s dominance are clear and the opportunity cost of failing to pursue past decentralization proposals is incalculable and still growing. 

Keep in mind though both France and the UK can tell similar stories of top civil servants and professionals resisting calls to relocate from their capitals. This happens despite their countries having many top educational institutions spread across the land and high-quality national health and other services. Despite most of their nation’s populations being within easy reach of good nationwide road and rail links, none of this has stopped an inexorable herd instinct for a disproportionate amount of investment, infrastructure, and high-paying jobs to gather in and around their capital cities. 

So, it is the region around Paris makes up a fifth of France’s population (the actual city less) but a third of its GDP. London’s nine million people make up 13% of the UK’s population but account for nearly a quarter of the national economy. If you add in Southeast England, which houses many commuters to London, up to 40% of the UK’s GDP is centred on London. This commonality is revealing because the UK sees itself as less centralized than France.   

As by far Britain’s largest city London’s dominance is not totally surprising especially as unlike Washington DC it is also the commercial, financial, and media capital.   A simple indicator of the latter is how, despite being very well known internationally, the Manchester Guardian dropped the title of its home city in 1959 not long before moving base to London altogether. 

Just one example of how regional cities used to have much more relative power. 

In the British Empire’s Victorian heyday, the big cities grown by the Industrial Revolution built strong and influential municipal traditions. Their growing populations and economic muscle allowed them to build their own stock exchanges and regional banks. Civic pride and commercial power led to cities like Birmingham (“workshop to the world”), Glasgow (“shipbuilder to the world”) Liverpool (“the New York of Europe”), and Manchester (“Cottonopolis”) all laying claim (alongside Bombay, Calcutta, and Dublin) to being the “Second city of the Empire.” 

De-industrialization and the decline of UK manufacturing in the 20th century means that much of this, like the local banks, lives on only as historical footnotes and heritage buildings.  

Manchester is a case in point. The city which promotes itself, among much else, as being the birthplace of nuclear physics, the Rolls Royce motor company, railway stations, and movements for women’s suffrage and co-operatives, was prominent in early 19th century campaigns for working class rights and calls to abolish tariffs on food imports. Its famous Free Trade Hall was built by public subscription in 1856 to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws (tariffs). It was situated at St Peter’s Field, the site of the 1819 Peterloo massacre in which 15 people calling for parliamentary representation were killed by soldiers attacking the crowd of 60,000 demonstrators. 

The hall was home to the city’s renowned Hallé orchestra for many years. In 1966, Bob Dylan was famously filmed there being heckled as “Judas” by irate folk music purists. A protected historical building, it now operates as a luxury hotel, as does the nearby Northern Stock Exchange building. The latter is part owned by two old Manchester United players.  

For all Manchester’s recent regeneration and growth, not to mention the international attention and business it attracts through its football teams and airport, its local government has less real power over its budgets now than its metropolitan council had in the 1970s. Even the Scottish Parliament created by the 1997 Labour government’s promise of devolution for Scotland and Wales, only has limited revenue raising powers of its own. 

Trains tell the same story. When the UK scrapped a third of its railway network in the 1960s, London and the Southeast commuter belt were relatively spared. So, it is today that there are 340 trains every day between London and Cambridge, but just 78 between Manchester and Sheffield in the north, even though they are only half as far apart with each having several times the population of Cambridge. The trend continues with Boris Johnson abandoning his pre-election pledge of a high-speed East-West railway across the north of England.  

For every step towards decentralization, it seems, for England at least, that government and market forces alike keep finding ways to drag back more people and jobs into London. 

Bangladesh is vastly more centralized than the UK. For example, local government legislation includes provisions connecting MPs to Upazila Parishad by naming them as advisers, muddying their formal status as wholly separate entities, opening the door for more interference and less independence from central government. 

A very weak starting point, but there is scope for hope. Over half of Bangladesh’s population is still rural but the country is urbanizing fast. If road and rail links (and crucially education and skills training) improve over the next two decades, push-pull economic factors should facilitate the growth of more big and powerful cities and towns beyond the two giants. Digital Bangladesh has the potential to overcome the many defects that harm the quality of public administration and services, and which further concentrate power in Dhaka.

The central government could also do much more to take a lead by devolving power itself. What if each of the eight divisions of Barishal, Chattogram, Dhaka, Khulna, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Mymensingh, and Sylhet, had their own regional assemblies elected by proportional representation? Preferably with a ninth assembly for CHT and perhaps some peripheries of the large Dhaka division apportioned to neighbouring divisions (for example, Barishal and Khulna can both make good proximity cases for incorporating Gopalganj district).

Assembly members could improve scrutiny and advocacy for district areas closer to where services are provided. MPs in Jatiya Sangsad would, I’m sure, still find plenty to argue about. Without such a scale of political reform and more powerful regional cities, the risk will be that improving communications may merely make Dhaka a stronger magnet for resources.