WHEN Cyprus entered the assistance programme in 2013 and the government was discussing a range of reforms that would reduce state spending, predictably, one of the issues it raised was local government. There were far too many indebted municipalities, employing too many people whose wages and pensions were a big drain on the municipal budgets. Apart from very few exceptions, local government, which had become another big public employer, quite clearly, was not financially viable and drastic reform was needed.
Although this had been blatantly obvious, long before the troika arrived in Cyprus, the state kept establishing new municipalities (as recently as 2011) because this suited all the political parties – more municipalities meant more mayors, more councillors and more public jobs for their supporters. Villages like Sotira, Yeri, Peyia, Livadia, Dromolaxia that should have been classed as communities were made municipalities with the result we now have a total of 29. Greater Nicosia is served by a staggering eight municipalities when it should have been one or, at most, two; Limassol has five.
Foreign consultants were brought in to help with the government’s plans for the restructuring and, predictably, all proposed reducing the number of municipalities. Equally predictably, the political parties were against such a move so the interior minister went to work, and came up with a compromise, enshrined in three bills, he hoped would be approved by the legislature. District complexes would be established dealing with the issuing of building and town planning permits as well as managing water supply and sewage systems; other services such as public health services, road maintenance would still be the responsibility of municipalities which would be able to merge these services.
Meanwhile, the auditor-general has written to the House interior committee that has been discussing and amending the bills, with a long list of objections to many of the provisions, even warning of dangers of corruption at district complexes given that these would be political organs, dealing with matters of a technocratic nature. He also suggested that these complexes should be under the supervision of the district officers and could be made responsible for a range of other services that would be provided by municipalities.
As usual, in an attempt to keep everyone happy, in particular the political parties that have to approve the reform bills, the government has come up with proposals that could create countless new problems and increase bureaucratic red tape. But this is inevitable when it ignores the simple and obvious solution of the local government problem which is to cut the number of municipalities from 29 to five, having one for each town and one serving Paralimni/Ayia Napa. The rest could become community councils, assisted by the government’s district offices. Parties would oppose such radical reform, but the government should at least attempt to have the debate.