The previous Sliema local council epitomized the decadent nature of local governance in Malta.
Last Saturday, residents in 35 localities elected their representatives on their respective local councils. Next year, local councils in Malta will be celebrating their 20th birthday and although the creation of local government in 1993 was a huge step forward in the country's young democratic life there has been little progress on all fronts since then.
Local councils filled in the space on a local level which was previously occupied by the political parties' local clubs found in every village and town and the district offices of ministers and MPs.
If you needed a pavement or a street bulb fixed before 1993, you had to either visit the PN or PL club or your district MP. The creation of local councils offered citizens a new point of reference with no direct link to any party and to a certain extent councils diminished the importance of parties and MPs on a local level.
Although local councils changed the political landscape as it created a new level of governance and dented the complete occupation of the public (and private) sphere by the PN/PL tandem, it seems that residents are becoming increasingly indifferent to local councils. The lowest ever voter turnout on Saturday is not only down to a segment of the electorate sending a message to the parties. An ever-growing part of the electorate seems to have simply lost interest in local councils.
Local councils should have revolutionised the way of doing politics and the way people participate in the country's democratic life. Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, councils failed to reform the country's governance system. The councillors are not at fault for this, although in recent years councils were embroiled in a number of controversies and some councillor's transformed them into personal fiefdoms. Instead, the legislation and the country's political culture are at blame.
The 1993 Local Councils Act was modelled on the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which the Maltese government had signed and ratified. However, local council powers are limited to the general upkeep and embellishment of localities, refuse collection, general administrative duties for the central government such as collection of government rents and funds and engaging local wardens.
Apart from the limited powers, in many aspects local councils have become an extension of the power structure dominated by the two big parties and big businesses. Instead of creating a new level of governance which is distinct from the national level, the two big parties turned the councils into a nursery for aspiring MPs and an extension of their vote-catching tentacles.
Instead of strengthening the three pillars of democracy; delegation, direct democracy and participative democracy, local councils may indeed have weakened the whole structure. It is useless trying to strengthen decocracy through cosmetic changes.
Local councils must be granted more autonomy especially in regards to town planning. They should be granted more powers when it comes to development and land use. Other areas where local councils should be granted more autonomy are transport, education, elderly and child care, sport and the local commercial community. This would only be possible if councils themselves are reformed.
The structure of the councils must change from the current voluntary nature to a more professional one. This would mean changing the way councils are funded and their ability to create revenue.
At present, councils are involved in consultation processes held by MEPA, Transport Malta and other governmental authorities. This allows councils to influence decisions on a national and local level. However, the councils themselves should open up and become a work shop of ideas through structured local consultations with residents.
The growing disinterest can also be addressed by encouraging the residents to participate, not only in consultation processes over one off projects but also in minor desicions and the day to day running of the councils.
Encouraging residents to participate is not enough. Residents have to be reassured that their opinion counts and that their ideas are as good as the ideas of their representatives. Residents will not participate if they are faced with a fait accompli every time they are asked to come forward. Residents must be reassured that they have a say in changing things and that their efforts are not only required on voting day. Residents should be able to live and experience democracy every day.