Spain's municipal austerity diet

28 Aug 13
Marta Riera Lopez

Radical reforms to Spain's municipal laws are aimed at making major cost savings. But what price will citizens pay in terms of the threat to local democracy, and shouldn't politicians be setting a better example of belt-tightening?

In order to comply with commitments the Spanish government has made to Brussels - under which it guaranteed that a full reform of local government will come into force from 1 January 2014 - the Spanish council of ministers has given the green light to reform of the country's local government legislation: the so-called 'Law of the Local System'.

This reform has as its key objectives:

- county councils to take over the powers of many small municipalities
- a limitation on the salaries of mayors.
- a reduction in the number of temporary staff a municipality can have
- fewer local bodies, and stricter controls
- submission to the budgetary stability law and to financial sustainability.

All these reforms involve a number of savings, which we estimate at 7.129 million euros. When added to the 73 million savings from the abolition of local associations, 145 million from eventual downsizing and other cuts to the local public sector, it all adds up to an approximate figure of 8.744 million euros in savings.

However, praise is not unanimous for this reform and vociferous criticism is starting to emerge, both from politicians and ordinary citizens alike. And it is important to note that the citizens who will vote in the next elections (and what they will do is an unknown factor) do not necessarily understand or buy into the reforms proposed by the government.

There are several modifications that could be made. For example:

- elimination of many councils, with consequent cost savings of about 22,000 million euros.
- a severe reduction in the size of the Senate; in Spain we have 265 senators, whilst in the US, where the population is higher by 572%, there are only 100
- a massive reduction in the number of advisers
- wage transparency and exclusive dedication to one single job; one position = one salary

But Rome was not built in a day. And in this instance, even if these initial amendments do not get to the root of the problem, what matters is that a start should be made. The people who make up the 47 million-strong Spanish population have been been 'tightening their belts' for years, and now there are no more notches to tighten. It is about time that politicians set a real example, and practiced what they preach.

Will this be the last word on amendments to the Law of the Local System? Or, 28 years after its adoption, is it just the beginning of the process?

To answer this question, we must first wait and see whether - as members of the different political parties have announced - the proposed reforms are going to be brought before Spain's constitutional court.

If they are, it will be for violating the constitution and the principles of local autonomy - and undermining the capacity of the municipalities to respond to their citizens' needs.

Marta Riera López is auditor of the auditing authority of the principality of Asturias in Spain

  • Marta Riera López
    Marta Riera López

    auditor at the Auditing Authority of the Principality of Asturias in Spain

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