By Poly Pantelides
THE white elephant in the room at the Cyprus communities’ union’s annual meeting in Limassol yesterday was the call for slashing their numbers to a manageable size, but both the President and the interior minister who addressed the meeting diligently avoided any such reference.
Interior minister Socrates Hasikos told the representatives of over 300 communities, all run by separate local councils, that structural changes were “absolutely necessary” to render local authorities “viable and competitive”.
The scores of communities and the 39 municipalities – 30 in the government-controlled areas – make up the island’s local authorities, all of which are looking at restructuring as part of the terms of an international bailout deal for Cyprus and also because of necessity. The cash-strapped state has been reducing their funding. But though the deputy auditor-general has recently told lawmakers that five municipalities for the whole of Cyprus was enough, the government’s idea of reform is not quite that radical.
Hasikos said the state was looking for a way to centralise local government, managing its staff matters from an independent body, implementing internal audits and “securing accountability”. And services should be merged to take advantage of economies of scale and to offer better services to the public, Hasikos said. The details were sketchy but Hasikos said he gave an idea that would be food for thought. “First and foremost we need broad political and social consensus,” Hasikos said. But he added there was no alternative to cutting expenses.
President Nicos Anastasiades also spoke of the need for reform but referred to their efforts to increase the European Union’s contribution in co-funded projects to up to 95 per cent of works’ total cost. Funds could be available for local authorities, he said.
But the need to find a new model for how local authorities work and what their responsibilities are is now more imperative than ever. “There will definitely need to be an adjustment, without this meaning self-government will be abolished,” Anastasiades said.
“At least we can save money through merging services,” he said. But he said that the electoral promises of some community councillors could not necessarily be seen through because communities depended on government funding. “At some point we will have to see how, over and above administrative independence, we can achieve financial independence through modernisation,” he added.
“Circumstances demand taking radical measures,” Anastasiades said. He said local authorities needed to be decentralised in terms of power and responsibility, financial means, and staff. Local authorities’ size, responsibilities, financial arrangements, they way they work and the degree of autonomy they have are all interrelated, Anastasiades said. Change one and you will change the other, he added.