The new Local Government Reform of Local and Regional Councils, which was published as a White Paper in October 2018, is set to be officially implemented as soon as the island’s newly elected councillors take office on the 1st July, following Local Council elections which took place at the end of May.
As a result of the reform, legislative, administrative and operational changes in the way local authorities (Local and Regional Councils) are run are set to take effect. A public consultation process lasting six weeks was launched by means of a White Paper. Waste management, the Regional Councils, sports activities and amenities, as well as the responsibilities of local councillors are among the areas which have been updated. “During the public consultation, meetings were held with all the entities that engage with the Local Councils, in some way or other, as well as with the Opposition, and citizens who live in various parts of Malta and Gozo, so that, as much as possible, this reform will be truly one for the people,” Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government and Communities Silvio Parnis said.
“Meetings were also held with Alternattiva Demokratika, environmental activists, Bishop Charles J Scicluna, other ministries as well as with specific organisations, such as those dealing with youths,” he continued.
The reform will bring about the dissolution of the traditional Regional Committees and the setting up, instead, of Regional Councils, which will have more authority and take on several responsibilities from central government. “This reform wasn’t done for the sake of it but because there was a real need for it. The last reform was carried out way back in 2009, when the then-Regional Committees were still about to be set up. The new Regional Councils have been given concrete responsibility and financial aid, which they had never had before,” Mr Parnis continued.
To this end, the number of Regional Councils will also, eventually, be affected. “Currently, there are five regions taking care of 68 councils, each containing about 14 councils each, with Gozo being the fifth region. During the reform discussions, a suggestion was put forward to extend to six councils but, for logistical reasons, it was decided that, for now, they will remain as five. However, by 2022 there will be six regions,” Mr Parnis explained. This will allow Regional Councils to focus all their attention and efforts on aiding the Local Councils which fall under their remit. In the future, adding a sixth region will ensure a more efficient distribution among the councils, and a more evenly distributed workload, Mr Parnis asserted.
The reform was instituted to address the lacunae in the previous system whereby, effectively, the regions had no real authority, having no budget or financing, the Parliamentary Secretary explained. “Now, €3.1 million is being given to Regional Councils to enable them to function more efficiently.” Moreover, as a result of the reform, councils have an increased chance of gaining access to approved EU funding since the “Regional Council can be a stronger and a more coordinated ‘face’ for the project; as a result, it will stand a better chance of getting that funding approved, as opposed to a single Local Council,” Mr Parnis stated.
This additional funding will go towards helping the Regional Councils implement their portfolio of increased responsibilities which shall include establishing closer contact with the Police and the Local Enforcement System Agency (LESA) to increase security within the localities; coordinating tenders for waste management in order to ensure better communication among the different Local Councils within that region; and coordinating schools’ after hours, establishing which can remain open and used for extra-curricular activities. Regarding the latter, Mr Parnis stated further that “the Regional Councils will now be able to coordinate increased access to facilities within schools.
For example, if a student needs a quiet place to study, they can make use of the classrooms after school hours, or the school can be used for sporting activities, and make its pitches available to third parties,” Mr Parnis said. Housing is another sector which shall fall under the Regional Councils’ jurisdiction. “Coordination with the housing authorities will allow the Regional Councils to gain insight into which apartments within housing estates are empty. This initiative will help to address the housing problem,” the Parliamentary Secretary explained, before going on to underline the positive ramifications of this change which is aimed at catering for the needs of the residents of each locality.
The new Local Government Reform also permits 16-year-olds to contest Local Elections, as has been widely reported. “As a Government, we wholeheartedly believe in youth participation and in their opinions, and we believe they can contribute a lot to society. We believe that society will benefit from youths’ ideas and what they have to offer. There’s a place for everyone in the councils: the ideas of both the more mature and the younger members are essential. Together, they can help the locality become one of excellence that benefits everyone,” the Parliamentary Secretary asserted. The advantages of having Regional Councils in place are countless, according to Mr Parnis, and will “bring about improvements in the quality of life for everyone.” This will also come as a result of a process of accountability, across the board. “Every councillor will be responsible for their own sector and will need to account for all action taken within that sector and report on the improvement registered.
Studies will also be conducted in each region to determine the action needed. The aim is for each citizen to benefit,” he stressed. Continued progress is reliant on constructive feedback, the Parliamentary Secretary continued. In fact, residents will also be able to put forward any ideas and suggestions for the council to tackle during their five-year period. Moreover, during these preliminary months, a meeting will be held so that residents can give their feedback on the improvements they would like to see in their locality, the Parliamentary Secretary underlined. Furthermore, the Local Government Reform will also work towards offering an improved customer care service which will allow citizens to call a different number if the Local Council lines are busy. Despite these changes, Local Councils will retain their importance and autonomy.
This was an essential consideration, according to Mr Parnis. In fact, the reform does not, for instance, dictate a set number of employees to be recruited by the individual councils since the number of staff depends on the particular requirements of each council. Local councils will be given additional support through increased funding and the introduction of contract managers, whose responsibility “will be to ensure that the projects and contracts are being honoured to the full and that they are being run smoothly once in place,” Mr Parnis explained.
“Funding is also being given to Local Councils, following the completion of major governmental projects, for them to be able to maintain the finished product. For example, the renovation of the main square in Paola was a governmental project.
“Now, the Local Council of Paola has been given the responsibility and funding to maintain the square to the best of its abilities,” he continued. Ultimately, townscapes and citizens’ lives will change for the better, the Parliamentary Secretary stressed.
“The aim of this reform, which includes strengthening both Local and Regional Councils, is that the localities shall be cleaner, more environmentally pleasant, and safer. All this work will lead to stronger localities, a better quality of life and improved collaboration between citizens and councillors,” concluded Mr Parnis.
This interview appeared in the May edition of The Malta Business Observer.