By Angelos Anastasiou
The head of the Union of Cyprus Municipalities (UCM) and Famagusta mayor Alexis Galanos said on Monday he disagreed with proposals to reduce the number of municipalities from 39 to five.
He outlined weaknesses in the proposal, presented last week by the British National School of Government International (NSGI), and accused the government of capitulating to the demands of Cyprus’ international lenders.
Galanos said that while the UCM appreciated the detailed way in which the study was prepared, it was only preliminary and he claimed to have identified a mistake in one of the study’s main arguments.
“The study is based on the UK’s model of local administration, which provides for the highest concentration per municipality in Europe, at around 150,000 residents,” he told a news conference.
“Cyprus, on the other hand, according to the study ranks fifth from last in the EU, averaging 2,200 residents per municipality, which is incorrect as our municipalities average roughly 22,500 residents. Perhaps the number includes local communities, but that isn’t clear in the study.”
The proposal was submitted last week and looked into streamlining local administration with a view to cutting costs, improving the quality of offered services and devolving power from central government to local authorities.
The report identified four restructuring scenarios but favoured the dissolution of all existing structures of local government and the creation of five new directly elected administrative bodies with boundaries matching those of existing district offices.
An NSGI delegation will visit Cyprus in March to hold further meetings with Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos and local administration officials and will depart with a shortlist of two options favoured by the government before submitting a final recommendation on March 31.
A second study by an Italian house, commissioned by the UCM with the blessing of Hasikos, is expected in early March, the Famagusta mayor announced.
Galanos said that despite some misgivings, the UCM did agree with many of the report’s findings, like the need to eliminate the impact of ‘rusfeti’ and the need to modernise the civil service, but he argued in favour of gradual adjustment instead of radical measures.
“We agree with the basic aim of improving services provided to the public, but the world can’t change in one day,” he said.
The UCM head raised questions as to the viability of the proposal, citing potential difficulties in terms of implementation and practical issues.
“The experts’ proposal may seem ‘clean’ and ‘radical’ on paper, but it is not easy to implement. The government has to consider the labour and social costs involved,” he said.
Galanos said more local authority officials and academics should have been consulted as NSGI delegations met mostly with ministry employees in preparing the report.
Galanos also raised the issue of the study’s cost, saying that although the study itself is a “gift from the UK government”, the government had paid for experts’ travel expenses, as well as accommodation and transport while on the island.
In light of the proposed scenario’s weaknesses, Galanos said he believed the government would eventually opt for other options presented in the report which include clustering or merging municipalities.
The Famagusta mayor accused the government of blindly following the troika’s orders and warned against victimising local administration.
“The proposal to reduce the number of municipalities is not a troika requirement. The troika wants us to save money but can’t tell us how to do it – that would equal total surrender on our part,” he said.