By the time the July 1 deadline had passed for local municipalities to merge voluntarily, only 29 deals had been struck as part of the Norwegian state government’s much-hyped kommunereform (municipal reform) program. The deals involved 70 kommuner (municipalities) and will reduce Norway’s total number of local governments by 41, from the current 428 to 387.
That’s way below the goals set by Norway’s conservative government and its minister in charge of municipalities, Jan Tore Sanner. He wants to cut the number of local governments running the municipalities from the current 428 to just 77, to reduce overhead and administration, increase economies of scale and, he claims, make local governments better able to provide welfare services.
Not giving up
Opposition politicians had retorted that Sanner’s plans amounted to wishful thinking that were completely “out of touch with reality.” Referendum results from elections held in recent months suggested as much, with Sanner’s calls for mergers rejected again and again.
Voter turnout was low, however, and some deals were struck regardless of referendum results, giving Sanner reason for hope. He’s not giving up his campaign to prod more mergers, forcibly if necessary.
“I went into this after being a politician for many years,” Sanner told news bureau NTB, “and I know that this (government mergers) is one of the most difficult things you can seek.” There are many vested interests at stake, with local politicians and leaders faced with losing their own jobs, local residents faced with losing their community identity and a reduction, instead of a gain, in public services.
Sanner still believes his municipal reform will allow local governments to better provide services in the future. He understands that local politicians face a tough job in possibly merging themselves and others out of work and changing local public sector structures that have been in place for years. Many questions also remain unanswered, for example regarding what will happen when some communities that have imposed property tax merge with those that haven’t.
He also claims there are large regional differences, with communities in Vestfold County more willing to join forces (Sandefjord, Andebu and Stokke have, for example, agreed to merge, along with Tjøme and Nøtterøy) than in Nordland, where not a single local government was willing to team up with their neighbours. Municipalities in Aust-Agder, Hedmark, Oppland and Troms also seem to want to hang on to their existing structures.
Some local leaders will continue negotiating this fall. Until then, the project is suspended during the summer holidays, with some communities proposing more cooperation among themselves without actually merging.