Local councils need a new lease of life

The relationship between councils and government should be premised on increased autonomy for local governments

Local councils have been around for 31 continuous years and yet they still fall short of being local ‘governments’ as they were once intended.

One may argue that splitting up Malta and Gozo into 68 councils makes little sense from a pragmatic point of view. The fragmentation can contribute to inefficiency when contracting certain services such as waste collection and road repairs. It may also lead to decision making that is so localised that it ignores the overall needs of a small country where strategic services and public infrastructure are by necessity spread across most of the country.

And yet, councils could be best placed to understand, manage and address citizen concerns, complaints and aspirations.

This seemingly conflicting reality – local needs vs nationwide needs – will always exist, especially in the context of a small country where land use is a major issue of concern.

The Labour government tried to solve the issue on two key aspects of public infrastructure by transferring responsibility to central authorities. It did this on road building by giving Infrastructure Malta ownership of the road infrastructure and on waste collection by introducing regionalised contracting within a uniform nationwide system.

The decision has produced a mixed bag of results. On road works, residents were served relatively well since IM could deploy its technical and financial resources to get the job done in a more efficient manner than the councils could ever do.

On waste collection, the uniform roll out of kerbside collections across the country may have simplified the matter for citizens but it failed to take into consideration the different economic and social characteristics of the different localities. A large locality like Sliema with a mix of elderly people, a large transient population of renters and a focal point for tourists was treated in the same way as Qrendi, a small village with a largely stable resident population.

These two instances highlight the difficulty of having an effective local government system that is truly autonomous. Nonetheless, after three decades of local councils it is time to have a closer look at the system.

Undoubtedly, local councils have contributed immensely to the creation of community spirit through cultural events and acting as a rallying point in instances when private or public projects threatened the serenity of the locality. They have also improved living environments – some more effectively than others.

This leader believes that three issues will need to be tackled to inject a new lease of life in local councils.

First of all, Chapter XA of the Constitution, which is a single article that makes general provisions for the setting up of local councils, should be beefed up.

The Constitution should define and delineate the powers and responsibilities the councils have thus elevating them to the level of local governments. Today, this is done by means of the Local Councils Act, an ordinary law.

To be truly considered as governments, councils should be enshrined as such in the Constitution thus giving them significant clout.

Due consideration should be given to the actual listing of the individual councils in the Constitution as well thus even recognising the different territories that make up Malta and Gozo.

The law then must define the relationship between the councils and central government and its agencies.

There may be issues where national considerations override the narrow interests of localities such as waste management but even in these circumstances where residents are impacted directly, central government must be legally obliged to consult and take on board suggestions put forward by local governments.

It is also time to have an in depth national conversation as to whether certain planning decisions should be decentralised to local governments without the need to replicate the Planning Authority structure 68 times over. The planning process may still be centralised but the decision making could be devolved to committees that include council representatives alongside the PA’s technical people. As things stand today, councils only get a vote on the PA board that deals with large projects.

Another consideration in this relationship should be the devolution of local enforcement for minor offences, traffic infringements and other offences that are dealt with at tribunal level.

The relationship between councils and government should be premised on increased autonomy for local governments.

The second issue that needs to be resolved is one of financing. In the absence of national consensus that local governments should be able to raise their own funds through local taxes, they should however be able to derive income from the issuing of commercial and other permits in their locality. Additionally, a portion of VAT revenue derived from the individual localities should be ring fenced and transferred back to the respective councils thus boosting their funding.

The central government’s budget for councils will have to remain and should statutorily increase every year by 5%.

The third issue that has to be resolved is remuneration of local councillors. As things stand today, only mayors are paid a paltry honorarium.

All councillors should be able to receive an honorarium that is commensurate with their responsibilities.

This, however, must be coupled with a transparency register where councillors declare their assets, incomes and interests just like MPs.