Monday, January 13, 2014

Not Boldly Going: Local administration reform

A law of some significance came into effect on 30 December. It is the national law "of rationalisation and sustainability of local administration", the one by which the number of paid councillors at town halls will be slashed following the next local elections in 2015 and by which mayors of towns (sic) with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants will cease to be full-time.

There are six municipalities in Mallorca which have under 1,000 people. They are Ariany, Banyalbufar, Deià, Escorca, Estellencs and Fornalutx. It isn't completely bad news for prospective mayors of these municipalities as the law, somewhat vaguely, allows for mayors to "exceptionally" be able to be part-time and to receive a remuneration within maximum limits set out in the national budget. Quite what exceptionally means is unclear, but the principle of taking away a full-time salaried post could well mean that no one will wish to bother standing for the post of mayor.

In practice, but it depends on the municipality, there are already mayors in the many towns of Spain with fewer than 1,000 residents who don't take a salary, so the fear that the Mallorca Six will end up minus a mayor from next year is probably exaggerated. Nevertheless, without a full-time job and the possibility of a full-time salary, one does have to wonder why anyone would bother taking on the aggravation that goes with the role. Other than political ambition, the job would hold little appeal.

Though Mallorca has its six tiny municipalities and several others with fewer than 5,000 people, the fragmentation of local administration is nothing like it is in other parts of Spain. 91% of all Spanish municipalities have fewer than 10,000 people. In Mallorca, the percentage is 70%. And when it comes to towns with a population less than 1,000, Mallorca's percentage is just over 10%, compared with a staggering 60% nationally.

The reform that will see mayors of these small places deprived of the automatic right to full-time salaries is being seen as a means of the government seeking rationalisation without actually legislating. In other words, mergers of municipalities will occur because it is no longer tenable to administer the smallest of towns as separate entities. There is also, it might be noted, the legal provision to enforce merger or to just do away with municipalities if they fail to operate in a financially efficient manner.

If merger is what the government wishes, then would it not have been better for it to have been that much bolder and enforced this anyway, rather than leaving it to stealth or inefficiency? It may have wanted to be bolder, but it would have been a very difficult step to have taken. Tampering with local identity in such a way would be more than just a political risk, it would have been political suicide. Or some would believe that it would have been.

As it is, opponents of the local administration reform couch it in terms of a return to the old days of centralised government and a loss of democracy. This is a criticism which isn't justified. Spain is one of very few countries in Western Europe which hasn't undergone some major reform of its local government structure over the past 30 or so years. Along with France and Italy, there has been a stubborn resistance to introducing a system which might be considered more efficient. But if Greece and Portugal can cut the number of municipalities, then why can't Spain?

It has been shown that the very small municipalities incur, in relative terms, higher costs than larger ones, while various studies, including one by the Council of Europe, suggest that the minimum number of inhabitants per municipality which makes sense is anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000. If the upper limit were to be applied to Mallorca's municipalities, then 35 (out of the 53) would disappear; 25 at the lower limit.

There is always the argument that reducing local administration to the smallest possible unit and size is the ideal state for the practice of democracy and for preventing corruption. Whether this ideal can be supported is open to question. The larger the municipality, so the alternative argument goes, the more efficient and the more professional the administration is. Again, there may well be evidence to the contrary. But if financial efficiency is the sole arbiter of municipal size, then there is little argument. There should be a massive cut in the number of municipalities. Persevering with the very small ones may make sense in terms of preserving local identities, but if professionalism is to be a factor, then how can these municipalities truly be professional, especially if its councillors and mayors aren't being paid? The government really should have been bolder.

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