Local government reform - Paul Radmilli
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Local government reform - Paul Radmilli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

This year is the 25th year from the inception of local councils in Malta. In October of this year the government issued a White Paper. While the consultation document was published late in the day, Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government Silvio Parnis has conducted a consultation exercise through a number of public sessions.

The Nationalist Party has done its part too and has shown to be better organised than the government in this respect. So much so that their spokesman for local government, Robert Cutajar, one year ago organised a number of workshops and in April 2018 issued a document listing 80 proposals.

The Association of Local Councils is also playing a key role in the exercise of reforming the current system and it is extremely positive that so have a number of academics got together, through the coordination of sociologist Maria Brown, to react to the White Paper.

A crucial area of reform is that related to EU funding opportunities. At present I am managing an educational project for the Sliema local council, which has benefitted from a €30,000 grant from the EU’s AMIF Fund. I am therefore quite aware of the challenges councils face in tapping into EU funds and the capacity building required.

The government has suggested that a fund officer is allocated to each regional council. Blunt as this may sound, this would be a completely useless exercise.

Firstly, there are many EU programmes which councils can tap into and one person cannot possibly have an expertise on all the programmes. Secondly, there exists Meusac, which is an agency with over 10 years of experience with many employees whose job is to advise councils on EU funding applications.

Where there is a lacuna is in the field of the expertise required to tap into the funds which very often are geared towards specialised areas such as Green Transport or Social Inclusion.

What are needed is not fund officers, but sociologists, planners, economists, architects, data analysts, etc., who can help councils with action plans that are mandatory to form transnational networks and benefit from EU funding.

In this respect, the government should study the experience of development agencies that are present in all EU member states, except Malta. Such agencies are directly linked to local municipalities, but have a wide membership such as chambers of commerce and NGOs, and most importantly have professionally qualified personnel in all areas of town planning and society’s needs.

One might argue that in Malta we have well qualified professionals in the private sector. The issue though is that to apply for EU funding in such programmes, you need to be a public equivalent body which is not for profit. This is why other member states utilise development agencies.

The opportunity to truly give local government a stronger role in our democracy is there

This ties in with the “long-term professional development strategy” advocated by the academics’ response. There is a direct link between the leap in value-added policymaking to take place at local government level and the thirst at such local level for professional expertise.

Another important pillar of the reform is the governance aspect and the place within the democratic system which we want to have for local government in the next decades. The response from academics puts forward the fundamental question: “What is the relationship between such local government and national government?” And succinctly states that “the approach is by and large top-down”.

 While it is imperative to keep asking what councils should do for residents in their locality, we need to shift gear and also analyse what government entities should do for the work of local government to run more smoothly.

Here I am of the opinion that we need to look at legislative amendments both at the level of the Act and at the constitutional level.

Taking a case in point, an initiative by a council to increase parking bays in its locality depends on the authorisation of Transport Malta, which is a shot in the dark. It may come after three months, it may come after a year or, as in the case of Sliema, a response from Transport Malta may never see the light of day.

Should there be a provision in the Act that a government entity is obliged to give a reply to a local council within a reasonable time on any matter related to the functions of local councils?

Furthermore, isn’t it high time that the respect to be shown towards local councils by central government is to find a mention in the constitutional provisions, for example by adding to Section 115A that the functions of local councils are to be upheld by public entities?

There is a strong rhetoric by Parliamentary Secretary Parnis that this reform should have a national consensus and not be spearheaded solely by the party in government.

I believe that there is a strong basis for there to be cross-party consensus. There are a number of areas where there already is convergence. Both the government proposals and the Nationalist Party proposals give a lot of importance to the social role of local government. Both agree on the need to strengthen regional government and both see a renewed role for regional government on matters related to EU funding. Finally, both agree on the introduction of an assistant executive secretary.

The opportunity to truly give local government a stronger role in our democracy is there and the government is well placed with proposals from the Opposition, academia, council representatives and others. The test now depends on how the government is going to manage this feedback and transform it into concrete holistic reform.

Paul Radmilli is a Nationalist Party councillor on the Sliema local council.

paul.radmilli@gov.mt.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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