I like Manchester - have done ever since arriving at university there in the same month, September 1963, as an Irish lad my age nicknamed 'Wee Georgie' made his First Division debut for United against West Brom.

He was probably one of those United kids with whom, as everyone knows, you can't win anything, because Matt Busby immediately dropped him back to the reserves and probably – though I lost track – ended the young Best's football career.

I, however, stayed and loved it. I knew, if the UK had an official second city, it would indisputably be Birmingham. But Mancunians didn't seem bovvered, any more than they do today, shamelessly branding their city centre Metrolink route 2CC – Second City Crossing.

I myself would quote Disraeli: "What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow."

Now, though, as a longstanding Birmingham resident, it concerns me – because it seems all too true. Worse, Birmingham seems content to be an almost slavish follower.

We're talking combined authorities (CAs), the model for what national and local politicians alike claim can be a resurgence of English local democracy.

If you're slightly hazy about CAs, which seem to have mushroomed up since the dramatic climax of the Scottish referendum campaign, you've good reason, especially here in the West Midlands – or Greater Birmingham, Mercia, or wherever you reckon you live. So, here's a quick back story.

England's population is 54 million, and we have 326 unitary or lower-tier district authorities, with an average population of 165,000. The equivalents in France, population 66 million, are 36,500 lower-tier communes, average population 1,800.

Most communes date back to the 1789 Revolution, and the French are very attached to them – voting for their councillors and mayors in twice the numbers we do. Successive presidents tell them their micro-communes are outdated, inefficient and must be reformed, but French citizens care more than us and they resist. No enforced mergers, humongous ‘local' authorities, and meaningless council names for them. So, French governments have developed a compromise: intercommunal co-operation.

By a mix of ‘bâtons et carottes', communes have been persuaded to group themselves into co-operative communities.

Biggest, with most powers and fiscal autonomy, are 16 urban communities (communautés urbaines) for the largest metropolitan areas, like that surrounding Birmingham's partner city of Lyon.

Lyon city/commune has less than half Birmingham's population, but governmentally it can be visualised as the filling in the metaphorical sandwich of triple devolution that council leader Sir Albert Bore likes talking about.

At the bottom of the Lyon sandwich are nine districts/arrondissements, each with an elected, mayor-led council. They mainly manage community facilities, and they're represented on Lyon's 73-member city council that organises most day-to-day local services.

Top of the sandwich, responsible for transportation, planning and economic development, is the urban community of Grand Lyon (Greater Lyon). It comprises the city plus 58 other communes, has a population of 1.3 million, an indirectly elected council, and an accountable, high profile president in the city's socialist mayor, Gérard Collomb.

Lyon, along with Paris and Marseille, is exceptional in having arrondissements, but all urban areas have either urban communities or what are untranslatably known as communautés agglomerations. More rural areas, without an urban core of 15,000 residents, have communautés de communes, which account for the great majority of these co-operative communities.

With its ultra-local communal structure, France's network of inter-municipal co-operation is one of Europe's most extensive. But, as in so much European, we are the real exceptions.

England's enormous and largely self-sufficient local authorities, and their minimal responsibility for what in many countries are still public services, mean that our insularity includes a near absence of formal inter-municipal co-operation.

But the future, we're told, will be different. The seven-syllable concept peppering our conversation won't be contrafibularities, pericombobulation, or any of the others Blackadder found Dr Johnson had somehow omitted from his dictionary.

It will be ‘intercommunality', and we Brummies will be living in, if not a Midlands powerhouse, at least one combined authority and possibly more – just as if we were lucky enough to live in Manchester.

Manchester is English government's José Mourinho, the special one – and, like Chelsea's manager, it has a useful backer, but is also pretty smart itself.

That smartness was seen in the city council being first to utilise Labour's 2009 Local Democracy Act by orchestrating the creation of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

In fact, the GMCA recreated the ten-borough Metropolitan Council, abolished in 1986, by pooling devolved powers on public transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management and planning permission.

Though conceived under Labour, the GMCA's establishment dates from 2011 and, perhaps surprisingly for an invariably Labour-dominated body, its principal backers have been Coalition ministers.

Manchester especially has consistently opposed elected mayors, the Government's proclaimed condition for further devolution. Nevertheless, it was the GMCA's 2012 City Deal that included a path-breaking 30-year ‘Earn Back' arrangement, enabling it to recoup annually from government up to £30 million from increased business rates for transport investment.

None of the other seven 2012 City Deals were nearly as expansive, and the reason seemed inescapable.

Ministers negotiated those deals, including Greater Birmingham's, not with statutorily-based, politically led, service-delivering CAs, but with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – voluntary, business-led, minimally resourced alliances of councils and businesses that helped co-ordinate local economic development. More than talking shops, but not serious intercommunality.

You didn't need a weatherman to know the wind direction. City-based LEPs, particularly where coterminous with a former metropolitan county, began negotiating for CAs, and there are now four more – West Yorkshire, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, and the North East – leaving the West Midlands as the only metropolitan county without a CA.

Both major parties claim to see CAs of varying shapes and sizes, rather than ever larger merged councils, as the best vehicles to implement their currently very vague devolution plans. In the dealer's chair at present, though, is George Osborne, and first bidder once again was Greater Manchester.

This time a price tag came with the Chancellor's ‘Northern Powerhouse' devolution deal – a required directly elected metropolitan mayor.

The £1 billion of devolved funding and services he or she will share with the CA, while unremarkable in many EU countries, is a decidedly big deal here, and everyone else desperately wants one too.

The problem is that not everyone has Greater Manchester's nicely polycentric coherence – seven of its nine surrounding boroughs sharing borders with the core city; or its unambiguous identity, its established record of co-operation, and, above all, its undisputed name.

Demonstrably, we don't, which is why the recent stream of over-excited announcements has seemed half-baked, unconvincing, and even potentially self-defeating. First, a West Midlands CA of Birmingham and the four Black Country boroughs, with Coventry an unsigned probable, but Solihull an unsigned reluctant, which raises questions about an integrated transport policy.

Then, there are all the other authorities in the Birmingham/Solihull and Coventry/Warwickshire LEPs. Apparently, they're maybes or haven't-been-askeds. As for the name: Greater Birmingham? West Midlands? Birmingham City Region? All have their vehement objectors.

There's no withdrawing now from the CA race until there's an agreed, coherent and viable proposal. But, come triple devolution's third phase – of powers and resources from councils to neighbourhoods – can we please be leaders, not Manchester disciples?

Chris Game, Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham