By Michael A. Strebel (University of Zurich, Switzerland)
Editor’s Note: This post is based on a recent article published by the author in UAR.
Mergers of general-purpose local governments are a recurring topic on the agenda of national or regional governments in the OECD countries. From time to time, national or sub-national governments decide to reform the territorial structure of their local government landscape. These reforms usually consist of, or are accompanied by, territorial restructuring and municipal mergers.
A Burdensome Process for Municipalities
In some countries, for example in Sweden, Denmark and the UK, these mergers are forced upon local governments by national governments. In other countries, such as France, the US or Switzerland, municipalities are usually free to decide whether they want to merge or not. In the latter cases, they usually do not want to, because merging involves some important burdens.
- Municipalities and their citizens have to share their resources with other municipalities;
- They have to share their decision-making power with other municipalities, which reduces their autonomy and their control over local assets;
- Merging represents a challenge to community ties and local peculiarities of local constituencies
- In light of these burdens the question arises why municipalities embark on such a risky journey voluntarily?
Why Merge Voluntarily? Higher Tier Financial Incentives and Local Structural Pressures
The disadvantages of municipal mergers can sometimes be outweighed by the prospect of benefits that they bring along. In some cases, for example, higher tier governments incent municipal mergers via financial contributions: Municipalities receive a lump-sum payment when they decide to merge. Furthermore, municipalities facing strong local structural pressures – e.g. small or shrinking municipalities or municipalities that lack financial resources – have difficulties to deliver public services at a satisfactory level. In these cases, a merger can enhance municipalities’ governing capacity by facilitating scale economies and by reducing externalities via the consolidation of functionally integrated territories.
A Rare Event: The Large-Scale Territorial Reform through Voluntary Mergers in the Swiss Canton of Fribourg
One of the few cases in which a financial incentive was used to trigger voluntary municipal mergers is the canton of Fribourg, one of the 26 states in the Swiss federal system. Between 2000 and 2006, the canton issued lump-sum payments to municipalities that merged. Municipalities were free to decide whether and with whom they merge. Over half of the 245 municipalities in the canton (135) started a merger process and almost half of them (105) successfully merged by the end of 2006. The higher tier financial incentive can explain the high amount of voluntary mergers, but it cannot explain why certain Fribourg municipalities merged and others didn’t. To answer this question, an analysis of merger processes at the local level is needed.
The Differences Between Two Important Stages of a Voluntary Merger Process
Processes of voluntary municipal mergers involve different stages. Two stages must at least be distinguished: A preparatory stage, in which municipalities’ representatives and officials seek potential merger partners and negotiate the terms of a merger proposal, and a decision stage in which local constituencies accept or reject said proposal. In the direct-democratic system of the Swiss canton Fribourg, this decision is taken through a popular vote.
A quantitative analysis of all Fribourg municipalities between 2000 and 2006 shows that small and poor municipalities had a higher probability to start a merger process. It, thus, seems that these local structural pressures play an important role in municipal mergers: They determine to a large extent whether a merger is put on the local political agenda or not. However, such local structural pressures seem to be less important when it comes to the final acceptance of a merger by local constituencies. At this stage, considerations of political power become relevant: Municipalities that would be incorporated by other, bigger ones are less likely to issue a positive decision than municipalities that would “annex” another municipality. Furthermore, municipalities with “enrooted” constituencies are also less likely to accept a merger.
A Trade-Off Between Local Structural Pressures and Political Power?
Surprisingly, local representatives and officials – the dominant actors in the first stage – seem to be driven by functional considerations and not by political ones, while ordinary citizens – the dominant actors in the second stage – seem to care more about political issues. Moreover, the results indicate that citizens respond to a trade-off between local structural pressures and political power. A look at the graph renders evident that the probability a merger gets accepted by the citizens decreases when the size of a municipality increases.
However, this is only the case for municipalities that would be incorporated. Size does not influence the ‘annexing’ municipalities’ probability to accept a merger. This points to a potential trade-off: When a municipality is too small, it cannot afford to stay alone, even if merging means a substantial decrease in political power and the risk of being overruled by another municipality. Only from a certain size onwards, political power considerations become viable and affordable. This suggests that local constituencies carefully evaluate the benefits and the risks of municipal mergers – when they are asked to.
Incented Voluntary Municipal Mergers – An Alternative Approach for Large-Scale Territorial Reform
We must take into account different aspects to get a better understanding of the circumstances under which voluntary municipal mergers can be successful. First, incentives by higher tier governments in the form of lump-sum payments seem to be a necessary contextual condition to trigger a substantial amount of voluntary mergers. Second, local structural pressures are important to put the topic on a municipality’s agenda in the first place. And third, strong asymmetries between merger partners should be avoided for the merger to be successful at the second, decisive stage of the process. Despite all these constraints, the financial incentive policy of the Swiss canton of Fribourg was a success in triggering mergers: 42% of all municipalities that existed at the beginning of the year 2000 had merged voluntarily by the end of 2006. This example shows that national and regional governments that want to reform their local government landscape have realistic alternatives to forcing their municipalities to merge.
Michael A. Strebel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland and at the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau, Switzerland. His research interests include local government reforms and multi-level governance in subnational contexts and his current research focuses on citizens’ attitudes towards political integration and consolidation of metropolitan areas in Western Europe.