Twin towns: European Local Partnerships in Kent

Direction signs – Plovdiv’s sister cities, Bulgaria; Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

In the immediate post-1945 period, many European cities, towns and smaller communities in the UK established formal inter-municipal and other partnerships at local level, initiated by communities or the local authority. These links generally played an important role in fostering post-war understanding and cooperation, especially among schoolchildren and the younger generation, but often involved local community and faith groups as well as cultural institutions, business and local government itself.

Fostering post-war understanding and cooperation

Most are still in place today, although the extent to which they are active varies; some, like the previous Sittingbourne-Ypres link, have become dormant or disbanded. They are usually announced underneath the signs entering a particular city, such as Canterbury twinned with Rheims, a link which draws on the fact that Rheims was on the historical pilgrims’ route from Canterbury to Rome. 

Canterbury Cathedral, by Campobello Island is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Rheims Cathedral, by JeanM1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New links forged with Eastern Europe and some Commonwealth countries

In addition to the early partnerships, mainly with French and German counterparts, recent decades saw new UK links being forged with Eastern Europe, for example Dover with Split in Croatia; and with Commonwealth developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia; and also in Latin America. The latter frequently revolved around a specific exchange or project collaboration, rather than a formal ‘twinning’, and included Kent County Council collaborating with a counterpart in South Africa. 

Post-2009 economic austerity policies hit the UK local government badly with major budget cuts; this financial crisis has been accentuated by the recent pandemic. As a result, councils have been forced to focus on core local services and lack the ability to engage in broader community-related work such as twinning. 

The 2016 Brexit referendum and its aftermath, leading to the UK’s final departure from the EU in 2021, has further ruptured individual and institutional, as well as business, links between the UK and the EU. One example is the conclusion of the UK’s participation in the Erasmus scheme, which is no longer available to encourage student exchanges.

Many local government links, especially in the case of the larger cities, like Leeds and Dortmund or Liverpool and Dublin, are still very alive and continue to be an important channel for exchanges of municipal good practices in a wide variety of areas such as urban planning, policing, recycling policies and much more. In Kent, Tunbridge Wells has an active link with Wiesbaden and so has Ashford with Fougeres and Bad Muenstereifel; some towns like Whitstable have multiple links.

Maintaining community links and two-way commercial opportunities

Given that so many local governments still have formal partnership links with EU counterparts, albeit in different stages of engagement, building on these is an obvious way to maintain, revive and further strengthen local and community relations between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. There is also a business case for local governments assisting their local enterprises to have interaction with their EU counterparts, for example between local Chambers of Commerce or Business Improvement Districts.

Such contact would potentially result in two-way commercial opportunities, with the aim of promoting local exports, and attracting investment and even tourism. At very least, it might make local UK businesses more familiar with operating practically within the EU Single Market now that the UK is outside. Having the support of a trusted relationship, such as an international partnership, enhances the opportunities and scope for a meaningful economic link. 

Focus on the climate emergency and sustainable development

These partnerships should focus on current issues such as the climate emergency, given the priority attached to it by many UK cities and by the young. They could initially be Zoom or other exchanges of good practice policy among mayors/senior councillors/council officers of the two partners to learn from each other’s experiences and develop innovative solutions. This should then quickly involve bilateral exchanges between a host of local or community institutions. These include schools, youth clubs and universities, churches/faith groups, community organisations and others.

In addition to declaring a climate emergency, many EU cities have a commitment to sustainable development domestically and local implementation (‘localisation’) of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and are incorporating these into their corporate plans. The Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) estimates that over 100 of the 169 SDG targets in areas such as health, education, economic development, or promoting inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities require local implementation.

This could be another focus of ELPs and UK-EU cooperation at local government level. In some cities like Bristol or Canterbury there are already local partnerships in place between the council and community groups in relation to climate change and sustainable development, and these could provide the local platform for exchanges with EU sister cities.

Time to revitalise European Local Partnerships

Common to the ELP approach would be drawing-up of formal, multi-annual partnership programmes with proper costing and clear aims and outcomes to demonstrate the worth of such exchanges to the public and value for money. They do not necessarily require many resources. Local institutions and groups, especially businesses, will be able to organise and support their own initiatives, exchanges and partnerships. Nor do they necessarily require a new formal ‘twinning’ agreement to be signed – although having an existing partnership in place will greatly facilitate making the necessary first contacts and assist coordination. 

Covid has taught us that much can be achieved – and learnt from each other – by exchanges and direct contacts on zoom and other online platforms. As we emerge from the pandemic and look to what should be a green-led recovery with focus on climate action, we can draw on this experience to revitalise our European Local Partnerships. Our aim should be to share experiences, learn from each other and forge lasting links, whether it be among business, community or youth groups or our local governments: to achieve practical benefits for our citizens from international cooperation with partners across the English Channel.