The announcement made a couple of weeks ago by the mayors of two municipalities in Badajoz about the start of a merger process, if the respective neighbors endorsed it in a referendum, became news. The opposite, that is, the segregation of neighboring nuclei to create new municipalities had been the trend until now. If in 1980 we had 8,022 registered municipalities, now there are 8,131. In 40 years, only four Galician municipalities have merged, two in Pontevedra and two in A Coruña.
The municipal fragmentation is very notable. More than 60% of all Spanish municipalities have less than 1,000 inhabitants, and there are almost 17% that do not exceed one hundred neighbors. Although this is the general picture, if we look at what happens in each Autonomous Community, the differences are notable. On the recent study by Professor Abel Albet It is highlighted that communities such as Castilla y León or the Canary Islands, with a very similar total population, have an absolutely disparate municipal map. In the case of Castilla y León there are more than 2,200 municipalities, while in the Canary Islands there are only 88. In the case of the Basque Country or Galicia, which also have a population similar to the Castilian-Leonese community, they have 251 and 313 municipalities respectively .
The fragmentation of the municipal map is therefore not homogeneous throughout the country, although in general there is a very general consensus that, for the sake of greater efficiency and capacity to provide services, municipalities should have a larger population size. The reforms in many European countries before the 1980s, were along this line, and this allowed the processes of decentralization of basic services, such as health or education, to have an adequate scale, improving from the proximity the quality and adaptation of these policies key public in citizen well-being.
Despite everything mentioned, if only the technical logic that seeks to optimize services from a certain scale is taken into account, and from that perspective the problem is addressed, failure is assured. I understand that there must be a combination, not easy to achieve, between space (considered natural by its inhabitants), identity (feeling of belonging that makes you of that place and not another) and scale (size and number of inhabitants suitable for each service). It is therefore not a question of going “fixed gear”, drawing maps of what would be a technically adequate distribution of population and municipalities. In fact, we can remember different episodes of resounding failure when, with all good will, they wanted to do something similar to the above.
The issue, not because it has a long historical trajectory, is less urgent. The depopulation process in different areas of the country is constantly news. The Spain 2050 Report shows that the forecasts point to a strengthening of urbanization throughout the country, and a worsening of the population loss in more than half of the autonomous communities. The aging of the population is generalized, but it affects small towns much more, and it is precisely in this sense that there is worse access to services. In infrastructures and opportunities of all kinds it becomes more evident. Either the issue of the scale of services is addressed and responsibilities and power are determined in relation to that scale or things will get worse. But, if it is done without attending to the sense of belonging and spatial considerations, the war of bell towers is served.
In France the number of municipalities is scandalously greater than in Spain. For a population of more than 67 million inhabitants, it presents a highly fragmented municipal map, with almost 35,500 municipalities, of which there are 6,000 with less than 100 inhabitants. The logic in the case of France is clearly political, since the municipalities generally have very few powers and responsibilities, which in fact have and are supervised by the Department and its Prefect, and on the other hand, the political career of mayors constitutes a whole tradition. by allowing the accumulation of positions and responsibilities in the different institutional spheres. In this way, mayors have had and still have a power in France far superior to what we could imagine if we take care of its population and its powers.
Since 2013, with the new law of local administrations (LRSAL), it was wanted to stop new segregations (without much success) and it was legislated in the line of encouraging mergers. But the truth is that it has not been made explicit that we know those resources, nor is there any plan in place to help some municipalities voluntarily undertake this path, as the municipalities of Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena have done in a prudent but firm manner before. mentioned. Any initiative that wants to force municipalities to merge is going to meet with more than likely opposition from those who represent them and with the incomprehension of residents fearful of losing their origins. In the region of La Garrotxa (Girona), more than 50 years ago, seven municipalities of the Vall d’en Bas decided to unite into a single municipality, becoming the second municipality in the region and thus obtaining access to services that never would have been achieved from fragmentation. But they did it wisely. Keeping its seven major festivals and its masses on Sundays. Combining scale and power, with space and identity.
In the end, what is important is to know why we want stronger and more powerful municipalities. What is at stake is ensuring a better and greater capacity to respond to social problems that are growing in substance and complexity. The diversity of life, family, work, origin and cultural situations require not only a greater capacity for service, but above all a better tuning between needs and responses. Proximity is an undoubted value for this, since it allows to bring diagnosis and treatment closer, to work more transversely and to facilitate community action and mutual aid. We need stronger, more capable and closer municipalities. Perhaps it is not necessary to suppress municipalities, but to connect them, strengthen them and improve their response capacity. More local power.