Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A New Deal For The Town Halls

Ever since there was a change of government in the Balearics, we have been fed a constant diet of complaint by the new administration as to the unjust nature of the islands' financing by Madrid. At times it has appeared as if the regional government doth protest too much, but in spinning this line of financial lack of fair play its protests have unquestionably got home. Keep saying something often enough, and the message will eventually stick, even if one tires at its constant regurgitation.

If the government didn't have solid grounds for its complaint, the message would by now have been chewed over and spat out for being unpalatable in its bitterness of anti-Madrid propaganda. But the government does have solid grounds. There is unfairness, and Madrid in its now acting Partido Popular guise has accepted the message, even if it has been forced to by a regime of the left.

While this has principally been an argument related to Balearic government budgeting, there are the other levels of public administration which are likewise caught up in the vice of financial unfair play. There are plenty who would argue that the next level down in the institutional food chain, the Council of Mallorca, deserves not a cent more and that, on account of past profligacy and duplicated effort, it should in any event be consigned to the bin of local government for all time. With the current regime, there is no questioning its role. It is to be the target of greater not less largesse, powers being devolved to it, such as with tourism promotion.

This devolution of power coincides with one of the mantras of the regional government - that of being closer to the citizen. The system of public administration, decentralised in any event, has long been close, but this closeness has not always been exactly efficient. With the Council of Mallorca, its financial inefficiency stemmed from creating responsibilities to further justify its existence and from establishing entities with the appearance of mirroring or duplicating the government. Its president, Miquel Ensenyat, appears to be conscious of the need to not fall into the same trap. One takes him at his word, but the activities of the Council will be scrutinised for any evidence of past bad habits creeping back.  

It is at the next level - the town halls - where the financial unfair play message is now being given full airing. The town halls, the closest of the close to the citizens, had managed to acquire massive debts (with one or two notable exceptions) through, as an example, an enormous increase in personnel levels from the start of the century. Madrid, as in Mariano Rajoy's PP, took them to task (and not only here in Mallorca). Legislation imposed caps and required financial stability. The rules, for now, remain in place.

The Rajoy reforms have had an impact. Previously heavily in debt, most town halls in Mallorca now run comparatively small debt levels, but the restrictiveness of the legislation, added to the general system of Balearic financing, is leading mayors - many of them far from radical - to now demand a change. If they are to be genuinely close to the citizens, they require the financial wherewithal to meet such a commitment.

The El Pi party, whose function it must now realise, following an election in which it failed to scoop the prize of a seat in Congress, is to focus on its defence of regional interests from within the region, has been garnering support from the island's town halls to make a common front demanding an improved financial deal. One of the town halls supporting this is Alcudia, led by an El Pi mayor, Toni Mir. Innately conservative, as befits a former member of the PP, Mir has nonetheless railed against the current system of financing, both regional and municipal.

Alcudia is far from alone in now carrying a vast budget surplus. In complying with the financial stability demands, it cannot just spend it. Yet there are understandably calls for this to be permitted. It is needed to invest in infrastructure, but is also needed for one very important element of citizen proximity: the poor.

Perhaps more than anything, economic crisis exposed the high levels of social vulnerability that exist in Mallorca and Spain. The benefits system is far from adequate. Yes, it's abused but it is inadequate. Poverty, unemployment, evictions: these were all highlighted by the misery of crisis. And so was the inadequacy of social services, themselves decimated by cuts.

The point is that because of the inadequacy of benefits, institutions - town halls and the Council - have an important role to play, as do the charities such as Caritas. The demands from town halls for improved financing are now as much, if not more, about social assistance as they are for tarmacking side streets. The purse strings should be loosened.

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