Are the rayon councils necessary?

Over the last two decades, there has been a tendency in the world to weaken the intermediate, rayon level of local self-government, which is especially characteristic of countries where consolidation of basic level administrative-territorial units took place. In the course of the reform of decentralization of power in Ukraine, there are also calls for the elimination of rayon councils. But what are the pro and contra of this step?


Author: Maksym Bryzitskyi, expert on legal issues

 

The way local public authority is organised is largely unique in every state and is determined by political, historical, geo- and demographic, administrative, economic and other factors. Therefore, the arguments about the feasibility of local self-government at the rayon level will further be considered through the prism of each of them in turn.

 

Self-government as a primarily political phenomenon began in the XII century with the emergence of feudal-independent cities, which status is now known as the Magdeburg Right. Subsequently, during the French Revolution, the concept of “self-government” started being used to distinguish communes (communities) from the state, and in the XIX century, John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville argued the role of local elective power as a guarantor of democracy and liberal values in the state, which balances the risks and protects against abuse of strong central authority.

Hence it appears that the elimination of any level of self-government, irrespective of the further distribution of its powers, inevitably leads to the strengthening of state power, as the number of local political actors decreases. At the same time, the elimination of the rayon level itself while maintaining oblast councils may bring the risks of instability and separatism, given their greater self-sufficiency, political nature and remoteness from local issues.

However, these are not the only political functions of self-government, which can be adversely affected. In fact, the appointment by election and autonomy of local authorities contributes to greater activity, responsibility, law abidance of the residents, better social and cultural development, political education and formation of local leaders, a higher level of social stability.

 

From a historical point of view, it is obvious that any changes in the current state of affairs are perceived negatively, especially when assessing the interruption of the institutional heredity of the whole level of authorities. Although in domestic conditions the potential damage from this step would not be too great in view of a) relatively short activity period of the rayon self-government (even if we take into account the whole time the concept of “rayon councils” exists, i.e. since 1930), b) consolidation of rayons and c) already implemented or expected transfer of the most of the staff of these bodies to the basic or oblast level. It is impossible to measure the degree of citizens' interest in their representation in the rayon council through the election turnout due to the fact that all local elections are simultaneous and no relevant sociological surveys have been conducted.

However, the impact of possible reform on territorial identity should be assessed in this respect. Because besides belonging to a territorial unit, this identity is formed by common representation and unity of policy in the territory. Its high level contributes to the solidarity of the residents, their interconnection and mobilisation to protect common interests. The aforementioned De Tocqueville wrote: “How can you teach a lot of people to enjoy freedom in great things if they are not used to it in small ones? How can you resist tyranny in a country, where everyone is weak and people are not united by any common interests?”.

Changing the borders of hromadas and rayons in Ukraine will be a serious blow to territorial identity, and in many foreign countries, this single factor can deter governments from pursuing reforms. However, the elimination of rayon self-government basically eliminates self-identification with this unit of territorial structure, which will have negative consequences for historical memory, cultural space, and will potentially enhance regional (oblast) self-identification. The latest sociological surveys on this issue dated 2017 unfortunately combined the identification with the village, city and rayon into one category, which was ranked second (30%) between citizenship (52%) and the region (7%). In any case, the implementation of this reform without thorough research can have unpredictable consequences.

 

Geo- and demography. According to these characteristics, Ukraine can be compared to the European Union states, where we have the largest area, ahead of France by 50 thousand sq. km (without colonies) and the sixth by population - after Spain and before Poland. Out of the 28 EU member states, 12 countries have intermediate (rayon) level of administrative-territorial structure, including seven largest by population and eight (except Sweden) – by area (see Table below). However, taking into account the standard of territorial division of EU countries for statistical purposes or NUTS, territorial units of the third level (NUTS 3), which have self-government exist in 14 countries. This is the format (population of 150-800 thousand people), that the future rayons in Ukraine should correspond to according to the plan, with an average population of 400 thousand people. From this we can conclude that in all European countries with similar geographic and demographic parameters, there is rayon self-government (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania) or a larger number of small self-governing regions is established (Sweden, Finland).

Table. EU countries, by area (decreasing)

Country

Area, sq. km

Population, mln people

Number of rayons

Number of NUTS 3 units

Note

France

551

67,1

99

101

+ overseas territories

Spain

505

46,3

50

59

+ islands and overseas territories

Sweden

450

10

-

21

Regions correspond to NUTS3

Germany

357

82,3

295

429

Rayons + cities-rayons

Finland

338

5,5

70 (without LSG)

19

As the rayons are too small, regions correspond to NUTS3

Poland

312

38,4

380

-

Rayons are too small for NUTS3

Italy

301

60,5

110

110

 

Great Britain

242

65,6

317 (only England)

partly

 

Romania

238

19,6

41

42

+ the municipality of Bucharest

Greece

131

11,1

-

-

Eliminated in 2010 (51 existed)

Bulgaria

110

7,1

-

28

Regions correspond to NUTS3

Hungary

93

9,7

19

20

+ the municipality of Budapest

Portugal

92

10,3

-

-

 

Austria

83

8,7

79 (without LSG)

-

Rayons are too small for NUTS3

Czech Republic

78

10,6

-

14

Regions correspond to NUTS3

Ireland

70

4,7

-

-

Eliminated in 2014 (8 existed)

Lithuania

65

2,8

-

-

Eliminated in 2010 (10 existed)

Latvia

64

1,9

-

-

 

Croatia

56

4,1

-

21

Regions correspond to NUTS3

Slovakia

49

5,4

79

8

As the rayons are too small, regions correspond to NUTS3

Estonia

45

1,3

-

-

 

Denmark

42

5,7

-

-

 

The Netherlands

41

17,1

-

   

Belgium

30

11,3

43

43

 

Slovenia

20

2,0

-

-

 

Cyprus

9

1,1

-

-

 

Luxembourg

2,5

0,5

-

-

 

Malta

0,3

0,4

-

-

 

 

The administrative component is the weakest when it comes to the viability of rayon councils. For a longer time, the three main pillars of their powers and, accordingly, expenditures were education, healthcare and social protection. This allowed keeping the share of rayon budgets expenditures in the expenditures of all levels of local self-government at 21.6% even in 2018 (out of 30.1% in 2014), which is considered to be a quite good capacity indicator. However, in the course of amalgamation of territorial hromadas and healthcare reform, rayons lose their first two powers, and since 2020 most social protection functions would be transferred to the Ministry of Social Policy. Basically in a few months the rayon authorities would have no functions.

Being a good argument for the elimination of rayon councils, this statement itself raises questions: what do the rayon councils in Europe do then? After all, if we do not have the powers for them, then these powers are a) still unjustifiably left to public authorities, b) contrary to the subsidiarity principle concentrated at the oblast level or c) delegated to hromadas, which cannot cope with them.

Theoretically, the rayon level has two types of functions. The former derives from its hierarchical position in the public authority system - providing cooperation between hromadas, their technical and legal support, as well as financial assistance and taking on the risks of low-capacity hromadas. The latter is essentially an embodiment of the state function of income redistribution, which helps reducing wealth inequality. The second type of functions comes from the wider territorial jurisdiction of the rayon and means providing public services, which by virtue of their nature, complexity or for effectiveness purposes are beyond the authority of hromada (See Assigning competences and functions to local self-government in four EU member states: a comparative review, 2005, SIGMA).

In foreign countries, the specific set of powers of the rayon level is obviously different and is determined by both objective and historical reasons. However, certain powers are common - issues of nature protection, economic development, spatial planning, urban planning, transport, education, employment, road infrastructure, social protection (Recommendation No. 333 of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (2012)). Comparative overview of local powers in the European Union was published by the European Confederation of Local Intermediate Authorities, and the proposals for Ukraine have been recently prepared by the Ukrainian Association of Rayon and Oblast Councils. In addition, rayons in European countries play a significant role within the EU multi-level governance policy, as more than 70% of the Union legislation is implemented at the subnational level. As a result, many countries, which don’t have NUTS 3 level administrative-territorial units have to establish specific bodies to perform these powers. On the other hand, fragmentation of responsibility, especially when the powers of different levels belong to one field, such as the roads, often leads to additional difficulties, confusion and irresponsibility.

The functioning of rayon councils in Ukraine would also be able to eliminate the need to establish agglomerations and their administration bodies, since rayon councils, as mentioned above, are intended to solve common issues of hromadas. Although this will mean losing some powers by the former “cities of oblast significance”, as the jurisdiction of the new rayons will extend to their territory as well. By the way, the status of “city-rayon”, which will disappear in Ukraine after the reform is complete, is actually the reason of the weakness of the “rural” rayons in Poland and Germany, which actively stirs up discussions there about their viability. Of course, the issue of Kyiv agglomeration will remain unresolved, but proposals to include the city to the respective Kyiv rayon and oblast currently seem too bold.

 

Economic factors, first of all, expenditure cuts, can be key in triggering self-government restrictions at rayon level. Although in Ukraine there is no data on the economic impact of this move, it is a strong argument abroad, especially in hard times.

Therefore, tackling the aftermath of the global financial crisis was one of the reasons for the Kalikratis territorial reform in Greece (2010). Simultaneously with the hromada consolidation, 51 self-government prefectures (rayons) were eliminated and the self-government at the level of five regions was introduced. That same year, 10 districts ceased to exist in Lithuania, only the level of municipalities remained (although the districts weren’t self-government units before the elimination anyway). The rayons were also eliminated in 2007 in Denmark, where 98 large municipalities (with an average of 55,000 residents) were formed as a result of the amalgamation of territorial units, as well as 5 regions, which the main function is health care. In 2014 the rayons, albeit somewhat restricted in self-government, were eliminated in Ireland, and in Italy the powers of the provinces were limited (spatial planning, police, fire protection, transport and roads remained) and the method of electing the deputies was changed (elected by mayors and municipality deputies).

During the post-crisis period, there were similar initiatives in other countries: Poland, Romania, Belgium, France, but subsequently they were abandoned. For instance, in France it was suggested to unite the representation in the council of the department and the region, but in the end the reform went vice versa and slightly reduced the number of regions (22 to 13).

 

Conclusions. The issue of rayon self-government lies on the surface and the worst-case scenario would be to leave everything as it is. Consolidation of rayons and reformatting of state administrations could be a good opportunity to solve it. However, the choice between strengthening the rayon councils or vice versa, their elimination, should be prudent and reasonable. An unprecedented competition lies ahead between countable values – expenditure reductions or the speed of management decisions – and intangible benefits, like public participation, territorial identity or formation of local leaders. Crucial here might be the experience of our western neighbours, where reformist views are still losing, and being the first is always scary.

05.11.2019 - 14:46 | Views: 3960
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Author: Максим Бризіцький

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