Outlook dims for municipal mergers

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The Norwegian cities of Molde and Kristiansund are keen on joining forces with their smaller neighbouring municipalities, but government efforts to promote such consolidation nationwide suffered a setback on Monday. That’s when local voters in more than half of Norway’s local jurisdictions had a chance to make their views on municipal mergers known, and they mostly showed little interest in the whole project.

Jan Tore Sanner, the government minister in charge of municipalities, has been traveling all over the country to promote mergers of local governments. It's voluntary for now, but he's ready to force through regional reform as a means of streamling and improving their delivery of social welfare services. PHOTO: Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet

Jan Tore Sanner, Norway’s government minister in charge of municipalities, has been traveling all over the country to promote mergers of local governments. It’s voluntary for now, but he’s ready to force through regional reform as a means of streamling and improving their delivery of social welfare services. PHOTO: Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet

Jan Tore Sanner, the government minister in charge of funding local governments, has been urging municipal mergers since he took office in 2013. Sanner and his Conservative Party contend that Norway has far too many local government jurisdictions (428 at present), and that mergers would enhance economies of scale and the level of social welfare services they are charged with providing. Even though most all their public funding is distributed by the state, it’s the local municipalities called kommuner that are charged with providing social services, from day care for children to nursing homes and other forms of elder care.

The smallest communities have been among the most skeptical, with local leaders claiming they fear a loss of cultural identity and local democracy if they get swallowed up by bigger neighbours. Critics suggest the local leaders and workers in the kommune may also simply fear losing their own jobs and power, while others cite resistance to anything resembling urbanization and centralization. Norway’s longstanding tradition of what’s called “district politics” is aimed at keeping outlying areas populated and ensuring local control.

Referenda rejections
On Monday, some rare referenda were held nationwide so that local residents could vote on whether they wanted to merge with neighbouring local governments. Proposals were specific, with Molde, for example offering to merge with Aukra, Eide, Fræna, Gjemnes, Midsund, Nesset and Rauma. Together they would form a new large local government in their county of Møre og Romsdal, but referendum results showed that the smaller communities weren’t interested in teaming up with Molde. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that nearly 60 percent of Aukra’s voters want to remain on their own, while only 15.6 percent wanted to merge.

“This is a quite clear signal to the politicians,” Aukra Mayor Bernhard Riksfjord of the Labour Party told NRK. “Aukra has become stronger.” He indicated his small town may consider a merger just with Midsund, but that would make them big enough.

Molde’s mayor, Torgeir Dahl of the Conservatives, said he wouldn’t give up merger efforts, though. Molde didn’t hold a referendum itself but did conduct a public opinion poll that showed 71 percent of local residents in favour of being the center for a new large kommune that would include the neighbouring municipalities. Dahl claimed that voter turnout was low among the small communities holding the referenda and that it thus was “difficult to interpret” their results. He clearly didn’t share his Labour Party counterpart’s assessment in Aukra.

Kristiansund appears keen to merge with some of its much smaller neighbouring municipalities, but the feeling isn't mutual. PHOTO: Kristiansund kommune

Kristiansund appears keen to merge with some of its much smaller neighbouring municipalities, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. PHOTO: Kristiansund kommune

A similar situation arose in Kristiansund, where the proposal was to merge with neighbouring kommuner like Aure and Averøy. Fully 76 percent of those voting in Aure voted in favour of remaining on their own, and the result was similar in Averøy. Kristiansund Mayor Kjell Neergaard said he wasn’t surprised. “This is what we’re seeing all over the country,” he said. “There’s little support for merging with the bigger local city.” He sees few prospects for the creation of a much larger municipality based in Kristiansund.

Voter turnout was reported to be low around the country but local government mergers were also rejected in the Oslo area, where voters in Rælingen northeast of the capital rejected proposals to merge with either Skedsmo or Fet and Sørum, opting instead for the third alternative of staying on their own. Voter turnout was only around 25 percent, but Rælingen Mayor Øivind Sand embraced the result showing that 83 percent of those who did cast ballots rejected the merger proposals. That may preserve his own political position.

Results may also be rejected
Sanner, the government minister prodding the merger process, has, however, stressed that referenda results are only “advisory” and may be overridden, especially in cases of low voter turnout. When the small southern community of Lindesnes held a referendum last month that proposed merging Lindesnes with neighbouring Mandal and Marnardal, only 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots and 57 percent of them voted against the merger that Lindesnes had been planning for two years. Only 43 percent approved. Newspaper Aftenposten reported earlier this month how Sanner gave Lindesnes’ political leadership (who also hail from the Conservatives) the green light for rejecting the referendum results if they still believed a merger was in the community’s best interests.

At this point, local municipal mergers are voluntary and the local government have been offered financial incentives for teaming up by July 1. The state government will then present its own proposal for sweeping reform of local government, including a proposal to consolidate 19 counties in Norway into 10 new regions. The government has political support in Parliament for the county consolidation, but the kommune reform faces more resistance. The municipalities, however, face the prosect of forced mergers by 2020 if they don’t team up themselves.

Many deals already struck
As of a few weeks ago, 162 kommuner already have agreed on mergers, including Stavanger, Sola and Sandnes in Western Norway. They’re even ready to call themselves Nord-Jæren, reported newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad recently, with a new local government base in Sandnes.

Farther north, small island communities like Røst, Værøy and Rødøy are teaming with Saltdal, Steigen and Gildeskål, with the idea of becoming part of Bodø and forming a new kommune with some 57,000 residents. In the Oslo area, Nesodden and Follo are considering joining Oslo, while Bærum, Asker, Røyken and Hurum may merge. All told, 11 municipalities have applied to form five new and bigger jurisdictions while 108 other are in negotiations.

Sanner, who has traveled back and forth all over the country to promote regional reform, has been relatively pleased with progress so far despite Monday’s setback in the referendum. He unlikely to let up the pressure on kommuner to merge: “Local governments face demanding challenges in the years ahead, with more retirees and more need to provide social services,” Sanner told Aftenposten recently. “We also see demanding economic times ahead. We have to think in a new way and organize ourselves in a new way, with bigger and stronger welfare communities.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund