So now we know who will be running our councils for the next four years – but does it matter?
In the wake of the news that lowly Balanegra has become an independent municipality after breaking away from Berja, I ask whether the province should be reducing, not increasing the number of local administrations
Balanegra recently joined a not very exclusive club. Earlier this month it became Almería’s 103rd independent municipality, which means the town will now have its own council administration free from the constraints of its larger Berja neighbour.
It was hardly an earth-shattering event, but gaining independence evidently meant a lot to its residents as they held a street party late into the night to celebrate their new found freedom.
For better or worse, they now form part of a very large, extended family.
Aside from 17 regional governments and 41 Diputaciones (or provincial councils), Spain has about 8,000 local councils. Compare this to Germany, which has about half that number, or Britain with just over 350, and it all adds up to a lot of paperwork.
Strikingly, in Almería nine of the 103 councils (or 104, if you count Fuente Victoria, which is confusingly classed as a ‘territorial entity inferior to a municipality’) have fewer than 200 inhabitants.
‘So what?’ I hear you ask. After all, even the tiniest hamlet should be entitled to decide over its own future.
But how does this work out in practice?
Plenary meetings are a good way to gauge public interest. It’s the only time most people ever get to see their locally elected officials ‘perform on stage’, in a manner of speaking. It’s where ruling councillors (or to be precise mayors, as ruling councillors rarely get to utter a word) explain their actions in public and in front of the opposition benches.
Unfortunately, debates invariably descend into groan-inducing school-yard squabbles, where the mayor unfailingly scoffs at a counterpart’s proposals and the opposition cynically criticises every council ruling in turn.
An honest appraisal of a carefully considered proposal is conspicuous by its absence.
In any case, decisions are made well in advance and the results a foregone conclusion, which means that plenary meetings are really little more than theatrical productions with very poor attendance figures.
Jose Luis Cano, a former Mojacar councillor now retired from politics, has little good to say about the political system he served under for a number of years.
“Politicians here are not very creative, irrespective of how they run their respective councils – and they’re generally quite bad at it, anyway,” he says, dismissively.
Having political representatives who are not exactly top-tier material is only part of the problem, he reckons. “We don’t need so many councils. It’s a waste of money as in many cases councils and diputaciones overlap.
“If Diputación closed down tomorrow no-one would miss it.
“As for councils, the affairs of Mojacar, Turre, Garrucha and even Los Gallardos could be handled efficiently from Vera. We’re all in the same area.
Ignoring for a moment the issues of alleged corruption, voter apathy and the vested interests of select groups, the fact remains that the vast majority of local councils in Almería have been singularly unable to solve deep-seated problems under their remit.
So far, only three out of 87 municipalities in Almería have fully approved PGOU development plans – Lubrín, El Ejido and Roquetas de Mar. Huércal Overa could soon join them, but that’s it.
By contrast, it could take years for the regional government to approve the PGOUs in municipalities notable for having large numbers of illegal properties. When Arboleas council approved their much-heralded development plan in September 2012, mayor Cristóbal García trumpeted that it “could be the beginning of the end to Arboleas’ planning problems”. Well, they’re still waiting for the Junta to ratify it.
Gerardo Vázquez, the lawyer for the AUAN property rights association, argues that planning should be centralised and no longer under the control of councils.
“The whole process should be de-politicised and taken out of the elections. Small councils find it hard to deal with planning issues because they lack the resources and it’s a very expensive business – drafting a PGOU can cost some €10,000.”
Merging tourism under one controlling authority could also make sense. To illustrate the point, there is the case of the 1st century Roman villa, discovered years ago in Los Gallardos but which was re-buried by archaeologists due to a lack of funding. With proper co-ordination and a joint strategy, the ‘Cadima’ site could still become a viable tourist attraction.
But we may never know. Early in 2013, the archaeologists at the site revealed their findings at a presentation in Turre – not Los Gallardos – a seemingly innocent gesture which angered council officials in the neighbouring village so much that they failed to turn up to the event.
Yet, barely six miles down the road in Mojacar, there is a whimsical campaign hell-bent on claiming that the hill-top village is Walt Disney’s birthplace.
So, is there a point to councils? Manuel León, an experienced author and reporter with La Voz de Almería, believes there is, and claims it’s linked to something far more emotive than bean counting.
“You can’t take away the identity of a municipality because people are closely linked to their village. Los Gallardos and Turre, for instance, are different to each other, despite their geographical proximity.” And there’s the rub.
León believes that sense of identity is best served by having representation at local level, and rejects suggestions that councils should merge. He’s also indifferent to the idea of unifying departments, pointing out that local authorities already share the management of some basic services.
Balanegra’s recent celebrations may seem absurd to an outsider, but ignore them at your peril.
If identity and self-government, however small, are inseparable concepts for the majority of Spaniards, there is little likelihood of finding a politician brave – or foolish – enough to challenge that notion.