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Meet the residents

Although local councils have been around for almost 20 years they have not fulfilled the promised change in the way of doing politics in Malta.

Jurgen Balzan
16 March 2012, 12:00am
The previous Sliema local council epitomized the decadent nature of local governance in Malta.
Last Saturday, residents in 35 localities elected their representatives on their respective local councils. Next year, local councils in Malta will be celebrating their 20th birthday and although the creation of local government in 1993 was a huge step forward in the country's young democratic life there has been little progress on all fronts since then.

Local councils filled in the space on a local level which was previously occupied by the political parties' local clubs found in every village and town and the district offices of ministers and MPs.

If you needed a pavement or a street bulb fixed before 1993, you had to either visit the PN or PL club or your district MP. The creation of local councils offered citizens a new point of reference with no direct link to any party and to a certain extent councils diminished the importance of parties and MPs on a local level.   

Although local councils changed the political landscape as it created a new level of governance and dented the complete occupation of the public (and private) sphere by the PN/PL tandem, it seems that residents are becoming increasingly indifferent to local councils. The lowest ever voter turnout on Saturday is not only down to a segment of the electorate sending a message to the parties. An ever-growing part of the electorate seems to have simply lost interest in local councils.

Local councils should have revolutionised the way of doing politics and the way people participate in the country's democratic life. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, councils failed to reform the country's governance system. The councillors are not at fault for this, although in recent years councils were embroiled in a number of controversies and some councillor's transformed them into personal fiefdoms. Instead, the legislation and the country's political culture are at blame.

The 1993 Local Councils Act was modelled on the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which the Maltese government had signed and ratified. However, local council powers are limited to   the general upkeep and embellishment of localities, refuse collection, general administrative duties for the central government such as collection of government rents and funds and engaging local wardens.

Apart from the limited powers, in many aspects local councils have become an extension of the power structure dominated by the two big parties and big businesses. Instead of creating a new level of governance which is distinct from the national level, the two big parties turned the councils into a nursery for aspiring MPs and an extension of their vote-catching tentacles.

Instead of strengthening the three pillars of democracy; delegation, direct democracy and participative democracy, local councils may indeed have weakened the whole structure.   It is useless trying to strengthen decocracy through cosmetic changes.

Local councils must be granted more autonomy especially in regards to town planning. They should be granted more powers when it comes to development and land use. Other areas where local councils should be granted more autonomy are transport, education, elderly and child care, sport and the local commercial community. This would only be possible if councils themselves are reformed.

The structure of the councils must change from the current voluntary nature to a more professional one. This would mean changing the way councils are funded and their ability to create revenue.

At present, councils are involved in consultation processes held by MEPA, Transport Malta and other governmental authorities. This allows councils to influence decisions on a national and local level.  However, the councils themselves should open up and become a work shop of ideas through structured local consultations with residents.

The growing disinterest can also be addressed by encouraging the residents to participate, not only in consultation processes over one off projects but also in minor desicions and the day to day running of the councils.

Encouraging residents to participate is not enough. Residents have to be reassured that their opinion counts and that their ideas are as good as the ideas of their representatives. Residents will not participate if they are faced with a fait accompli every time they are asked to come forward. Residents must be reassured that they have a say in changing things and that their efforts are not only required on voting day. Residents should be able to live and experience democracy every day.

Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...
Ben Agius
Is-soluzzjoni ghall-kunsilli lokali forsi hi: Waqqaf kunsilli regjunali (ie akbar); tiehom aktar responsabiltajiet bil-ligi; l-amministratturi jkunu fulltime; tiehom il-poter li jigbru taxxi tal-propjeta; il-gvern inaqqas taxxi minn bnadi ohra biex jikkumpensa l-fatt li heles minn certi spizi u responsabiltajiet;il-Gvern iwaqqaf Ministeru msahhah bil-ligi li jhares fuq il-kunsilli u jizgura li dak li suppost jaghmlu qed jaghmluh u jekk le jew ixolji l-kunsill jew , bil-ligi, irregularitajiet jigu mibghut lil kummissjoni ta'korruzzjoni jew lil pulizija.
Melody Morgan-Busher
Thank you Mr Balzan for summarising the past and present status of the Local Councils so well. And for highlighting the dual core issues: - that Councillors should be elected as persons (not as performing "party animals") - that the remit of the Local Council is local works I had recently arrived in Malta when the Local Councils were first established; at that time, I was working on the first GoM Payroll/Personnel database. I know that the drive to set up the Local Councils was the reduction of directly employed GoM staff to below the limit set for EU membership. This target was thereby achieved. An improvement in local management, and pride in the towns, through direct government was initially also achieved - but has declined later as the delegated powers became assumed rights of Councillors. When standing in the Counting Hall last weekend, I asked some of the other candidates for Sliema's new Local Council why we were competing over who would sort out the public toilets (where are they now?!), who will clean the streets and who collects the rubbish. They did not have an answer for me! I regret not getting elected as the representative of the entirely voluntarily, entirely unpaid SRA since we DO represent the local residents and have many positive, inexpensive suggestions to offer. Still there is only a year before the next review... Thank you again for this useful commentary. Good luck to all those new Councillors. Maybe this time?
Saviour Cachia
Waqt li hadt gost naqra il-blog ta' Jurgen Balzan, nghid b'wicci minn quddiem li jien iktar favur 13-il kunsill regjonali milli dawn il-65 kunsill lokali,b'poter iktar vasti fosthom dawk li semma Jurgen. Ghaliex l-Kunsilli Lokali,avolja targa ghal persuni aspiranti lejn karriera fil-politika, bil-fors li jonqos ir-rispett lejhom, ghaliex il-poteri taghhom huwa b'mod redikolu tassew limitat. Ha nsemmi kaz izolat, imma prattiku. Jien noqghod Wied il-Ghajn u naf qraba li ilmentaw mal-Kunsill Lokali dwar il-fatt li wara li nfethet il-by-pass il-gdida, fin-naha fejn illum hemm il-bank tal-HSBC, inqalghu xi tappieri, li minnhom jghaddu xi cables. Gara li t-tappieri ma regghux saru bil-lastiku kif kienu u ghandu jkun. Allura r-residenti ta' dik in-naha fi triq tant traffikuza bhal dik, iridu jissapportu lejl u nhar it-tahbit tat-tappiera. Dan m'ilux gimgha, imma xhur kbar. il-Kunsill Lokali jaf biha, imma miskin jinsab fil-hniena tal-Awtorita' tat-Trasport. Imbaghad jistennew li r-residenti ma jurux indifferenza lejn il-Kunsilli Lokali. Il-Partit Laburista wieghed iktar efficjenza fil-kunsilli lokali, u allura ghandu jishaq li dawn jinghataw verament iktar poteri fejn jidhlu l-htigijiet tal-lokal. Dan bhal sieheb Triq il-Qaliet in-naha ta' San Tumas, dizastru. Jidher li ma tantx hemm votanti, billi hemm hemm vilel kbar fuq naha wahda u allura t-tamiet li l-Kunsill flimkien mal-Gvern isibu l-fondi biex tinghata kisja tarmak jihdru ferm remoti. (not edited biex ma nitlifx il-kumment).