Are local councils equipped to meet the needs of their respective localities? Do they have enough funds and authority to govern? I believe these are key questions which need thorough debate, especially when local councils are so close to citizens’ everyday needs.
Government funding of local councils has increased in the past years. Indeed, in 2017, Malta’s 68 local councils received a total of €35.5 million from government, an increase of €3.5 million from 2015. High earners include St Paul’s Bay (€1,684,906), Birkirkara (€1,283,056), Mosta (€1,185,524) and Sliema (€1,110,593).
The government will also engage in a road-building programme in the next seven years. It recently announced that it would take over this responsibility from local councils, which are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with hefty demands in this sector.
One expects that in the near future government elaborates on its intentions and consults accordingly. For example, will the road building programme covered by the government include pavements? Will the government’s plans affect local council funding? Will local councils be responsible just for patching of roads, or would councils still be expected to budget for full-road asphalting? And who will decide on which roads will be prioritised?
Going back to the original question of this article, let us keep in mind that local councils have very limited options for the generation of other revenue. Sure, local councils may apply for EU funds and for discretionary government schemes. They may also generate some revenue through permit fees, adverts and the like.
But it is more than evident that something has to be done to ensure that local councils may adequately cover their growing demands and needs. These include not only infrastructure and waste management, but also educational, cultural and social initiatives which are very important for social cohesion, integration and community building.
Ideally, Malta’s local agenda should emphasise decentralisation to ensure that no government, entity or sector has excessive power. This should be accompanied by subsidiarity, where decisions are taken at the lowest level possible, meaning that decisions which can easily be taken by local councils needn’t be taken by ministers or authorities.
In addition, more state-owned land should be devolved to local councils. This may include public car parks, public buildings and heritage sites. Local councils can then manage such areas in the best interest of the locality, possibly generating funds in the process. Such funds can then be used to help finance local programmes and initiatives.
Unfortunately, Malta’s government is progressively moving towards the other direction. Apart from discretionary schemes referred to earlier in this article, we are witnessing increased centralisation of power.
One key example of this is enforcement. Local councils are frequently at the receiving end of complaints related to illegal street vendors, abusive parking, careless construction practices, noise pollution, illegal littering and so forth. Given that wardens are now under central government control, there is not much that local councils can do to ensure that enforcement takes place. The same applies with regard to other enforcing agencies such as the police, the Building Regulations Office and the Planning Authority.
Centralisation of power gives excessive strength to ministers, who in turn are omnipresent at macro and micro levels in Maltese society. Thus, a local council may require enforcement against abusive practices which affect residents’ quality of life, but this may be prohibited from taking place due to partisan political reasons and patronage.
The centralisation of powers makes citizens and local councils increasingly dependent on ministers, and this can erode the dynamics of local governance. It can also result in increased apathy and lack of initiative.
On the other hand, decentralisation, subsidiarity and devolution can incentivise both local councils and citizens to be more creative and innovative in the governance of localities. It would also help diversify power. In a politically-charged society like Malta, this could enrich democracy, giving more value and legitimacy to local council elections and other similar appointments.