The Malta Independent 18 April 2024, Thursday
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Local Councils, PL, PN and ADPD

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 24 August 2023, 07:30 Last update: about 9 months ago

Overdevelopment, dirt, waste management and criminality are just some of the issues which have a strong localised dimension, yet in which local councils have little, or no authority at all.

Not that local councils in Malta and Gozo ever had sufficient authority or resources to be sufficiently effective in their respective localities. But it seems that in the past years the Labour government has practically removed all authority from local councils, only to have it centralised within Malta’s super Ministries. Hence, local councils are excessively dependent on central government even for the most localised of issues. This adds layers of bureaucracy and devalues local know-how on particular issues, and encourages clientalism.

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The lack of authority of local councils has been noted by many, including some prominent Labour councillors, the most recent being the outgoing Mayor of St Paul’s Bay, Alfred Grima who said that local councils have lost much of their autonomy. One possible silver lining of Labour’s local council reform involved regional councils, but again, their authority is limited, and not clear where and what they stand for. It is interesting to note that the legislation which regulates them gives due importance to the assessment of social impacts. This, I believe, can enable regional and local councils to participate more fully in policymaking processes, other than having the odd-vocal local council mayor who adopts an activist role on certain issues.

In sum, I think that local councils have, in many instances, an identity crisis, with one of their only ‘rational’ roles being acting as platforms for budding parliamentarians. This is a far cry from having local governments with authority in their respective localities. Thus, I believe that Malta needs a comprehensive reform in local council policy. To begin with, a proper assessment and consultation process should take place. This should be based on dialogue and deliberation, rather than top-down rubber-stamping exercise, or even worse, an electoral gimmick. Let us keep in mind that just a few days before the 2019 Local and European elections, Government, through the Planning Authority, quickly launched a consultation process on Social Impact Assessments. This consultation process disappeared after the said elections. We have never heard from it since then.

I believe that in the upcoming local elections, political parties should try to fill up the current political void of local governance. To begin with, they should not treat these elections as second-tier to the European elections on the same day.

The Labour Party should reverse its top-down, centralised, local council policy. This would represent a political U-Turn, but I don’t see anything wrong with this as long as it is for the better. Maybe more pressure needs to be made on Labour in this regard, as was the case with the Jean Paul Sofia and Marsascala yacht marina campaigns, among others.

As far as the Nationalist Party goes, it should capitalise on local resentment on various government decisions, proposals and absences. Rather than replicating tried and tested losing electoral campaigns, the PN should be active on the ground, engaging with local groups and residents and vocalising their daily quality-of-life issues. In this regard, the inaccessible pavement is much more important in many people’s lived experience than a puritan political sermon. The Nationalist Party has some talented councillors – they should have a leading role in the 2024 elections. The PN should make it clear that it is for stronger local councillors which are closed to people’s daily realities.

As far as ADPD goes, I have always believed that local elections represent the only real opportunity for green candidates to be elected. Not only because there were past examples of this (myself being one of them), but even more so because here ADPD can win the support of voters in an election which does not elect or dethrone governments. Besides, ADPD does not need to ‘return favours’ to financial backers, and can represent residents’ interests with no strings attached. If I had to give one piece of advice to the new ADPD leadership, it would be to immerse itself in local issues and form broad coalitions. Incidentally, this strategy is being taken up by some NGOs. By focusing on local council elections, ADPD will not be ‘relegating’ itself – far from it: In my view it can open a window of opportunity in the formation of bottom-up politics.

 

Dr Michael Briguglio is a Sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta

www.michaelbriguglio.com

 

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