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One of the jobs of the new(ish) government is to preside over the reform of Finland’s municipal map. This is important: municipalities deliver around two thirds of the official services used by citizens, with the central authorities of the Finnish state responsible for the other third. Basic services such as social and health care, schooling, libraries, adult education, transport infrastructure and waste removal are amongst those provided at the municipal level. At the start of this year there were 336 municipalities in Finland. Of these, 30 were bilingual (12 with a Swedish-speaking majority, 18 with a Finnish-speaking majority), 3 municipalities in mainland Finland are unilingually Swedish (there are an additional 16 unilingually Swedish municipalities on the autonomous Åland islands). 287 municipalities are unilingually Finnish-speaking. Mainland Finland’s smallest municipality is Suomenniemi in South Karelia with a mere 804 residents, Helsinki is the largest with almost 590 000 inhabitants.
The reform’s aim is to make the provision of service more efficient. Many municipalities are struggling financially, especially under the burden of providing healthcare in society in which people live all the longer. The government has determined new larger municipalities should be formed based on natural “commuting” areas. It is likely that this will be required to be sufficiently larger in population than many existing municipalities and debate is raging across the land in various districts on which municipalities would make the best partners for merger. It is vital that the will of the inhabitants and language is also considered when this takes place. We have already seen ill-prepared reforms of the police and court districts in which ‘unnatural’ districts were created in disregard to existing regional ties, for instance the Swedish-majority province of Österbotten was divided artificially in the police district reform, with the effect of enforcing Finnish-majority districts on it. We have also seen the way the will of inhabitants (both Finnish and Swedish-speaking) of Sibbo/Sipoo were ignored when Helsinki decided it wished to annex the western part of the municipality. Sibbo is now suffering as with the loss of income and inhabitants Helsinki’s forced annexation caused, it is now unlikely that Sibbo will survive the new municipal reforms as an independent entity: indeed, it may even be split up, with bits of it being merged with three different municipalities – truly historical butchery.
It is time now for Swedish and bilingual municipalities to organise themselves so that where mergers are necessary, they consider the best solution for minting Swedish as a living language of administration in Finland, so that Swedish-speaking Finns can also access good quality services in their mother tongue in the future. There is a serious danger that traditional local rivalry between municipalities or head in the sand attitudes based on the misguided dream that this will all blow over will inhibit sensible solutions to be found, and municipalities will be forced into merging with less suitable partners by the central government.
Still, I can not help but think the whole basis of this reform is misguided and rushed. We should be thinking of a more sensible way of managing the services that are currently delivered by municipalities. In an age of expensive medical treatment, is it really sensible for the smallest level of government to have responsibility for the delivery of healthcare? Could we not look to other countries for a better model. For instance, Sweden still has two levels of local government: counties and municipalities. It is the larger counties that are responsible for the delivery of the larger scale services that can not efficiently be delivered at municipal level: for instance, healthcare and public transport. This would work well in Finland. Imagine a newly beefed up county council for the whole of Uusimaa/Nyland, it would easily be able to offer healthcare – and a more integrated public transport system. Municipalities could retain their local identities and still be responsible for a wide range of services such as schooling. There would be no need for most municipalities to have to consider abandoning years of history and local identity by entering into hastily arranged forced marriages.