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On 1 January 2009, much of the western parts of the municipality of Sibbo (Sipoo) was forcibly incorporated in the city of Helsinki. This was against the wishes of the vast majority of Sibbo’s inhabitants, of both language groups. In a referendum, 93,3% voted against being incorporated in Helsinki, with only 5% in favour. Still, the central government voted in favour of Helsinki’s forced annexation of the western areas of the centuries old municipality, with only both ministers from the Swedish People’s Party and one lone Centre minister voting against – in accordance with the people’s will – in cabinet.
Today, 8 February 2012, the government finally released its long awaited proposal for the redrawing of Finland’s municipal boundaries. The government proposes cutting the number of municipalities in mainland Finland from today’s 320 to around 70. The municipal level of government in Finland is responsible for the delivery of many services, including healthcare and schools. It must be said that a reform is necessary: the economic situation in many rural, depopulating, ageing districts is very bad, affecting their ability to offer high quality services. Many small districts are compelled to form municipal joint organs with their neighbouring municipalities in order to provide services such as healthcare, with these being managed by less democratically accountable joint committees rather than the individual municipal councils that are directly and transparently elected by municipal residents. But, the government’s proposal appears rushed and ill thought out and plays little attention to linguistic rights and historical identities.
The government today proposes that Sibbo as a municipality is abolished, either subsumed into a super metropolis of a greater Helsinki or ripped into two and split between two neighbouring unilingually Finnish municipalities. Let’s not forget, that Sibbo was until 2003 a majority Swedish-speaking municipality. It was unilingually Swedish until 1953 and its demographics have only rapidly changed in recent decades due to mass internal migration from the Finnish-speaking interior to locations nearer the capital. Still today it has a strong Swedish minority. In an instance, the bureaucratic municipality reform risks sweeping away centuries of history and diminishing the rights of those Swedish-speakers that live in Sibbo.
But it is not just in Sibbo that linguistic rights are threatened with this reform. One proposal suggests that the northern portion of the bilingual municipality of Sjundeå is hived off and “unilingualised” as it is incorporated with its unilingual northern Finnish neighbours; at an instant, the rights of Swedish-speakers to services in their own language would be removed. In Österbotten, at least five majority Swedish-speaking municipalities would suddenly find themselves in new structures were Swedish was the language of only a third of the population.
Finland has two national languages. For Swedish to live in all domains, there must be administrative structures at all levels that operate using Swedish, including municipalities were the language of administration is Swedish. This would reduce these to barely more than a handful. And even outside of language considerations, this reform places local decision-making further away from the individual citizen.
A better idea would be for the government to consider the model in other countries, such as Sweden, where there are both elected counties and municipalities. The larger county level of government could be responsible for such things as the delivery of healthcare and public transportation, services that are more economically efficiently delivered by a larger body with a larger population base. In such a system, municipalities could remain as smaller units than the huge, faceless, unhistorical entities proposed by the government today. Local identities could remain intact meaning that people would remain engaged with local democracy due to living in districts they identified with.
Pictured: An old sign on the western border of Sibbo. Is the municipality about to go the same way as the region of Östra Nyland that was abolished already on 1st January 2011?
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.