AFTER seeking the advice of foreign experts, the interior ministry has drafted the legislation for the reform of local authority and submitted it to the legislature which will discuss it after the summer recess. According to press reports, mayors and councillors are unhappy with the three bills for a number of reasons, the main being that it takes powers away from local authorities and gives these to the central government, thus diminishing the revenue of cash-strapped and indebted municipalities.
Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos disagreed, saying that the bills decentralised power by taking authority from the state and from municipalities and giving them to a second tier of government – the five district complexes that would be set up. Each complex would cover much of the work done by the municipalities in the district, such as issuing building permits, and administering water and sewerage boards.
The main objective is to reduce the operational costs of municipalities of which there are far too many offering the same services. Instead of having each of the nine municipalities in the Nicosia district having a department issuing building permits, under the new plan, the single Nicosia district complex would be providing this service. Each complex would be run by a board made up of mayors and community leaders of the district, but the interior minister would have the authority to exercise control and intervene, according to the bills.
While the proposed arrangement makes sense economically, as it would reduce local authority costs, it would also diminish their powers in violation of the EU directive on ceding more powers to local government. District complexes would be another tier of local authority more powerful than municipalities. In addition to this, the reform would further impoverish the cash-strapped municipalities which would see revenue fall and be unable to offer new services to residents or pay for any projects.
In other words, the AKEL argument that the three bills would diminish the powers of local government is not without substance, but Hasikos is not entirely to blame as he has tried, in time-honoured Cyprus tradition, to provide a consensus solution to the problem. The only real solution would have been to drastically cut the number of municipalities from 30 to six or seven. These could have economically performed all the responsibilities that would be given to the district complexes. This would have ensured financially robust, local government with resources and authorities to provide a range of services to citizens. It would have constituted de-centralisation of power and more local democracy.
But there is not a single party that would agree to such a rational and effective model of local government, because this would greatly diminish the number of mayoral posts and council seats for all those party members wanting a public position, not to mention cuts in municipal jobs that are shared among the parties. This is why parties do not have the right to complain about Hasikos’ proposal, which might not promote local democracy but will preserve the absurdity of having 30 municipalities in a country with fewer than a million people.