Spain: Local Governments in a Largely Decentralized State

Spain: Local Governments in
a Largely Decentralized State
Spain’s provinces and municipalities find their roots in the nineteenth century,
but their current sense and function can only be properly understood
within the framework of the principles of democracy and territorial decentralization
established by the Spanish Constitution of 1978. Although local
bodies account for only 13 percent of total public expenditure, their political
relevance is in no way secondary and often matches that of the regional divisions
– the Autonomous Communities. It is no surprise that politicians experienced
in national or regional policy become candidates for the mayoralty
of larger cities like Madrid. The political relevance of cities also results in
the generalized rejection of any municipal amalgamation, regardless of the
economic inefficiency of the exaggerated number of municipalities in Spain.
Spain consists of 17 Autonomous Communities, two Autonomous Cities in
North Africa (Ceuta and Melilla), and two types of local divisions – 50 provinces
and 8,108 municipalities. In the Canary Islands and the Balearic
Islands, this basic organization is complemented with specific local bodies
encompassing each of the archipelagos. Municipalities are the principal local
bodies, entrusted with the delivery of local public services, while provinces
assist the small villages and towns with the performance of obligatory tasks
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that overreach their organizational and economic capacities. The current
existence of the provinces is explained by two main reasons: first, all municipalities
are assigned nearly the same responsibilities, without regard to
size; and second, more than 80 percent of municipalities are composed of
less than 5,000 inhabitants and have scarce revenues at their disposal.
The institutional uniformity of municipalities is a major feature of Spanish
local government. Only the cities of Madrid and Barcelona differ partially
from other municipalities. Both maintain complex structures for the cooperative
provision of metropolitan public services such as the intercity transport,
the water supply and the sewage system and for the
coordination of urban and environmental planning.
The Constitution of 1978 includes two principles
regarding local government: the right to
“local autonomy” from other authorities including
the state legislature, and legislative powers
over local government conferred to the State
and Autonomous Communities. The constitutional
recognition of a right to local autonomy
implies that the municipalities and provinces are
not merely internal divisions of the Autonomous
Communities, but are part of the State as a
whole. However, local autonomy does not mean
that power is directly conferred upon local authorities: there is no specific
designation of power for local bodies, unlike the constitutional regulations
that govern Autonomous Communities.
Local government is therefore defined by State laws and by regional laws
of the Autonomous Communities. The State establishes the “basis of the
legal system of the Public Administrations.” On the other hand, the Statutes
of Autonomy confer exclusive powers over local government to the
Autonomous Communities. The Constitutional Court has concluded that
the Spanish local system has a “two-fold nature.” The State is responsible
for “fundamental” regulations while the Autonomous Communities are
responsible for the “non-fundamental” or so-called “development” regulations.
Thus far, the State has interpreted its own powers broadly, limiting
the regulatory capacities of the Autonomous Communities. This situation
should change profoundly once the effect of the new Statues of Autonomy
– Catalonia in 2006, Andalusia, Aragon and Balearic Islands in 2007 – is
felt. Both new Statutes strengthen the exclusive powers of the Communities
over local government. Further statutes concerning other Autonomous
Communities are likely to follow, and it is clear that the extent and scope of
State powers must be reinterpreted in light of the new Statutes of Autonomy.
Generally speaking, Spain’s local government system includes very limited
State and Autonomous Community supervision or control of municipal and
provincial activity. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the local auto-
The institutional
uniformity of municipalities
is a major
feature of Spanish
local government.
Only the cities
of Madrid and
Barcelona differ
partially from other
38 Francisco Velasco Caballero
nomy excludes most governmental monitoring. Supervision is thus replaced
with a complex system of intergovernmental relations based on the idea of
full respect for the powers of local institutions and the principle of cooperation.
The local governmental system in Spain has functioned smoothly since
1985. Local government is thoroughly democratized and has been receptive
to new forms of participatory democracy. The citizens directly elect
councilors, who in turn choose the mayor. According to the results of the
municipal elections, political parties then designate representatives to the
Provincial Council. Electoral participation has been relatively high and
local governments are generally stable when in power. Several recent proposals
for direct election of mayors have been rejected simply because
there are no perceived deficiencies in the way the present system operates.
The elimination of controls from other levels of government has not
resulted in a deterioration of local public services and only in recent times
have a few isolated cases of corruption arisen in local planning matters.
Despite repeated complaints, claims from local bodies about lack of
funding are not always justified. Medium-sized and large cities generally
have sufficient sources of revenue at their disposal to effect their own political
choices, but they rarely take advantage of the powers of taxation
granted to them by law. On the other hand, smaller municipalities experience
a more significant shortage of assets, often lacking the assistance
they should receive from the provinces or the Autonomous Communities.
Current debates on financial issues concern the possible distinction
between big cities and small villages and towns. Medium-sized and larger
cities already obtain a small percentage of the revenues obtained through
State taxes. The big cities propose to raise this share to ten or 15 percent,
mirroring the revenues generated in each municipality. But such a proposal
encounters significant objections. First, lack of financial accountability is
feared since the city councils do not directly impose the tax. Second, the
greater the share of State revenues redirected to the larger cities, the smaller
the amount directed towards small towns and villages.
Perhaps the most significant failures at the local level emerge from the
rivalry between local bodies and Autonomous Communities, mainly in two
areas: jurisdiction on matters of local interest and funding. According to
the Constitution, most local matters are governed by laws of the regional
Parliaments. These laws often assign costly services to local bodies without
the funds necessary for them to be performed effectively. On the other
hand, Autonomous Communities contribute very modestly to the general
expenses of the local bodies and prefer to finance specific municipal projects
by means of agreements. These projects have to be discussed and approved
each time by the regional government and are often presented as shared
public policies. There remains some work to be done in defining the scope
of intergovernmental cooperation, a precise distribution of powers, and the
relationships between financial and political accountability.