Municipalities get carrot, then stick

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The government would offer municipalities extended grants, reform support and payments for one-off transition costs in a bid to get small local council areas to voluntarily merge over the next two years. The plans were presented alongside the government’s revised budget announcement on Wednesday, but they have not won the support of all municipalities.

Government Minister Jan Tore Sanner was handed a new report on merging municipalities by Professor Signy Irene Vabo this week. PHOTO: Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet

Government Minister Jan Tore Sanner, receiving a report on merging municipalities by Professor Signy Irene Vabo earlier this year. On Wednesday he announced a package of incentives encouraging municipalities to merge, and warned of forced amalgamations from 2017. PHOTO: Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet

Norway has 428 municipalities (kommuner) across 18 counties (fylker), plus Oslo, reported newspaper Aftenposten. There has been little change to the number of municipalities since the 1960s, but their tasks and responsibilities have increased. The government wants fewer, larger, more sustainable and robust municipalities that could function more autonomously, and take responsibility for providing more community services.

“The majority of services are best resolved closest to the citizens, in the local communities,” said the Minister for Local Government and Modernization, Jan Tore Sanner. “The municipality reform is a welfare reform. The goal of the municipality reform is to ensure good welfare services for everyone: good schools, nursing and care when we are older, safe kindergartens for our children.”

The merger plans will come before Parliament in June, and if passed local councils can begin negotiations straight away. The government has not specified how large a municipality’s population should be, or how many municipalities Norway should have. The goal is to introduce mergers both among municipalities near larger cities with land issues, and among small municipalities which face other challenges.

Incentives, then forced mergers
An expert panel recommended that a local council area should have between 15 to 20,000 residents to be able to provide important social welfare services. Further work is underway to assess which services municipalities should take responsibility for, and the criteria a municipality would need to meet to be robust enough to take on those extra tasks. The report is expected to be ready next Spring.

To encourage voluntary mergers, Sanner highlighted how joining three municipalities together would streamline services and cut administrative costs. To alleviate small council areas’ fears that merging would cost them state handouts, Sanner promised that municipalities would get to keep all their basic grants for 15 years, to be scaled down over a further five years. Municpalities would receive a standard payment to cover one-off costs related to the processes of merging, between NOK 20 to 65 million (USD 3.4 to 11 million) depending on the number of municipalities in the amalgamation and how many residents they have.

Financial support would also be provided to ease the transition for new municipalities which end up with at least 10,000 residents. That payment would vary from NOK 5 to 30 million, depending on the new council’s size. The government did not make it a requirement that local authorities hold referendums on the merger issue, but said they can do so if they want, or alternately survey residents about their opinions.

If municipalities don’t choose to amalgamate, the government plans to introduce a national proposal for council restructures in 2017, and legislation on the services that would fall under the reformed municipalities’ jurisdictions. County governments will play a central role in driving the process in their regions, in cooperation with municipal workers’ union KS. Individual municipalities would get no veto power to oppose mergers wanted by neighbouring council areas.

Mayor reacts
The Conservative, Progress, Liberal, Christian Democrat and Labour parties all want a voluntary municipal reform based on local initiatives, but are open to the Parliament intervening and forcing through mergers when local efforts are stopped by one or more unwilling municipalities. The Centre, Socialist Left and Greens parties also support amalgamations, but said they must be voluntary.

The Labour-affiliated mayor of Lørenskog, east of Oslo, said Sanner’s “carrots” offered no real incentives. “Today we have 35,000 residents and will soon be up to 50,000,” Mayor Åge Tovan told Aftenposten. “If a municipality like Lørenskog is forced to join together with Skedsmo, I can never think that the Labour leadership can support that. I am not in principle opposed to mergers, but for our part there must be some clear advantages of merging. I cannot see that today. What Jan Tore Sanner talked about today is peanuts for us.”

Meanwhile, Labour, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals have all demanded clarification over what will happen at the regional fylke level before the municipality reforms are implemented. The coalition parties want to remove whole county governments but have no majority to do so, and Sanner did not bring up the topic on Wednesday. The Liberal party proposed replacing county authorities with a new, elected regional body, a move which Labour supports.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate