One of the government’s proposals is to start referring to this level of governance as local government, thus incorporating local and regional councils. The latter have been allocated €3 million in next year’s budget and their president will be elected by local councillors.
The White Paper proposes a change from five to six regional councils. The government’s declared reasoning is to have a better sense of geographical governance, which can facilitate the awarding of contracts, the management of services and the application of EU funds.
For example, it is being proposed that waste management contracts should be awarded at regional level, thus theoretically enabling economies of scale and better coordination. Also, the White Paper does not tell us whether the regions are being organised in a way to favour labour regional majorities and therefore easier election of Labour presidents.
The government is also proposing to have better assistance to local councils on matters such as EU funding, scholarly research on regional matters and research and follow-ups on residents’ complaints. If applied well, this can help facilitate evidence-based policymaking.
Local councils will also be able to employ persons without authorisation from the respective minister and to improve workers’ skills through training and retraining. At the same time, the White Paper is not proposing anything to improve their working conditions.
Other proposals mentioned in the White Paper include stronger social, educational, integration, management and communitarian responsibilities for local councils. While these proposals are worthy, many are already in place and would improve if the government reverses the trend of centralising power in ministers’ hands.
Other absences in the White Paper are issues such as security and community policing
I would have also expected the government to support the devolution of land such as for example public car parks, many of which are currently subject to illegal private ‘tipping’. Imagine if such revenue can be used for local needs instead.
The White Paper fails to say that local council authority over roads has practically been taken over by the government. Indeed, traffic management and accessible pavements are conspicuous by their absence in the document.
On a positive note, elderly people get a number of mentions. One example is assistance to local councils for projects related to this demographic category. Loneliness, cost of living, social exclusion, accessibility and illness are indeed key issues related to the elderly today.
In the meantime, wardens will now be known as community officers and will have a stronger educational role and less of a disciplinary role in terms of contraventions. What the White Paper does not say is that wardens have been centralised into a government department, meaning that councils have less say on the deployment of such personnel.
I am also disappointed that the 16 administrative committees that were established in 2010 will be abolished. The government is criticising their functioning and is instead proposing the facility to establish subcommittees. If one extends this argument, even some local councils are not functioning well, but it is up to the electorate to judge. Shouldn’t the same happen for administrative committees?
Unresolved matters include whether mayors should have full-time roles, whether they should have a maximum term of three legislatures and whether 16-year-olds who contest local council elections could become mayors themselves. In this regard, I propose a partisan truce between political parties so that the issue is decided upon through cross-party consensus.
Some other absences in the White Paper are issues such as security and community policing. I would also have expected the White Paper to give prominence to council financing. In this regard, the Opposition had proposed solutions without increasing tax, such as shifting some income from government services and tourism to councils.
Finally, the White Paper does not scrutinise the administration of the national urban development fund. A few days ago, One News reported that a substantial €28 million are available within it for council usage. However, I am informed that funds for certain councils seem to have decreased substantially. A fully audited and transparent revenue and expenditure statement by the Planning Authority would be most welcome.