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Our View: The rocky road to local govt reform

Paphos town hall

OPPOSITION to the government’s plans for the reform of local authorities was inevitable. Every radical change causes interest groups and individuals that have a stake in the existing regime feel threatened. Enemies of change often succeed in preventing it by securing the support of political parties, which are constantly looking at ways to win votes, causing embarrassment to government and, when all else fails, by issuing threats.

There will be plenty of people opposing the merging of municipalities that the interior ministry is working on. One government attempt at local authority reform was defeated by the opposition parties two years ago, even though they knew the rationalisation was a financial imperative. This time, however, the government seems set to secure the votes needed to pass the reform through the legislature, which is why some municipalities are already preparing for battle.

On Tuesday Yeroskipou municipality set up a committee to fight its proposed merging with Paphos and has rallied the support of its residents who decided that the municipality’s autonomy should be safeguarded. The main argument was that their municipality was viable and had scope for development. In a letter sent to President Anastasiades, the council said that “instead of focusing on the enhancement of the administrative and economic autonomy of municipalities… reform is mistakenly focused from the onset on the reduction of municipalities, in an arbitrary and undemocratic way.”

Of course the decision has to be arbitrary and undemocratic. If the government engaged in a dialogue with all municipalities on how local government should be reformed it would have as much chance of reaching an agreement as the Cyprus problem talks. There would not be a single municipality willing to merge with another and cease existing. On many issues, consensus does not work even though politicians love to pay lip service to it.

Even the argument about safeguarding autonomy is without substance. Most of the 30-plus municipalities have very limited powers, have no resources because of their miniscule size and end up using up all their funds to pay wages or repay debts. They are in no position to benefit their residents, so the idea of autonomy serves nobody apart from the mayor, the councillors and municipal employees. Merging would mean fewer mayors, councillors and employees, but because of the savings that would be made, the single municipality would be in a better position to improve and expand services.

Even the 16 municipalities that the interior ministry plans to have might be too many given the size of the country. However, the ministry needs to take into account that a more than 50 per cent reduction might not get through parliament. It will be tough enough securing support for halving the number of municipalities.

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