Local Government in Malta

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution

Malta is a small state comprising an archipelago of islands, only three of which are inhabited: Malta, Gozo and Comino. It has a total land area of 316 square kilometres, with a population of 406, 771 (July 2010 est.).1Independence was obtained from the British in 1964 after more than one and a half centuries of colonization. On 21st September 1964 the Malta Independence Act 1964, a statute of the UK parliament, provided for the cessation of all responsibility of the UK government for the affairs of Malta, and the Constitution of Malta came into being. Malta became a constitutional monarchy, and from 1974 a Republic within the Commonwealth, with a unicameral parliament and adopting the principle of proportional representation using the single transferable vote.2In 2004 Malta became the smallest new member of the European Union and in 2008 it adopted the Euro as its national currency.

The island population until recently was fairly homogenous, with no distinctive ethnic or cultural variations; therefore, no federal arrangements were deemed necessary. Since the island is small there was also no need felt to establish local governance. The one exception was the island of Gozo.

In 1993, with the priority of EU membership in mind, the Local Councils Act was enacted (Act No. XV of 1993, Chapter 363 of the Laws of Malta, hereinafter «the Act»). This statute set up 67, later 68 local councils. The Act is modeled on the Charter of Local Self- Government of the Council of Europe (hereinafter, «ECLSG»).

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Under the Act, it is provided that: «The Council shall be a statutory local government authority having a distinct legal personality and capable of entering into contracts, of suing and being sued, and of doing all such things and entering into such transactions as are incidental or conducive to the exercise and performance of its functions as are allowed under the Act.» The Mayor is the political head of the Council and this figure will be presented below (see point 5).

Local government at its inception was characterized primarily by the slow decentralization of administrative functions. Through a number of amendments made to the Act the competencies of local government however have grown, and it has now acquired legislative and judicial powers.3Local councils are now empowered to make by-laws and to take decisions that affect their locality.4In 2001 local councils were accorded constitutional recognition and Act No. XIII of 2001 (an Act to amend the Constitution of Malta), was published.5With effect from this date, through Article 115A, the Constitution of Malta provides that: «The State shall adopt a system of local government whereby the territory of Malta shall be divided into such number of localities as may by law be from time to time determined, each locality to be administered by a Local Council elected by the residents of the locality and established and operating in terms of such law as may from time to time be in force

The Office of the Prime Minister is presently responsible for legal control of local government activities. A monitoring unit has been set up within the Department of Local Government to check compliance with existing laws and more particularly with the Act. The Director of local government may at any moment require any Executive Secretary to produce accounts and records. By virtue of a legal notice issued in January 2006, council members can now be held personally responsible for fraud.6

As a general assessment of the situation, it can be said that local councils have now been operating for over eighteen years and the role of local government is becoming increasingly important on the island to ensure the general health and wellbeing of the citizen. Local council authorities have therefore pointed to the need for further reform. It is argued that local councils need greater autonomy. However, this cannot happen without the introduction of local taxes, which will enable councils to provide for their own funding. On the other hand, it would be desirable that the administrative secretaries of the local councils be selected and placed under the remit of the local authorities rather than under other central government, which is presently the case. The role of

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the new regions also needs to be determined since as yet they are hollow organisations with no power. Local councils also need to be assisted in order to perform their role in an optimal manner. One bone of contention in this regard has been the issue of accessing EU funds though the new 2009 co-financing mechanism will to some extent mitigate the situation. It is envisaged that a strengthened local government will raise general standards at the level of the community.

However, there are several key issues regarding local councils which still need to be addressed. These comprise: (a) the limited delegation of powers by central government to local government; (b) the limited powers which local government has over its own affairs; (c) the fact that local government does not enjoy taxing powers; (d) the lack of adequate resources put to the disposition of local government by central government; and (e) the limited law making powers exercised by central government.

2. Basic facts and figures

Over the last 18 years, the structures, role and scope of local government in Malta have become more complex, more defined and enmeshed within the context of government institutions and civil society organizations. The Maltese political model since 1993 has evolved somewhat from the distinctive two-tier model of government, though the new tiers subsequently introduced were put in place for primarily administrative and accounting purposes. The system remains unitary, highly centralized with power located at the centre. Power rests primarily with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Central Government consists of a number of Ministries. Their number and their combination of competencies have tended to change over time. Presently there are nine ministries.7At the local level there are local councils which as previously stated fall under the remit of the Department of Local Government (Office of the Prime Minister).

Local councils, in accordance with administrative exigencies, were divided into 68 administrative units, the largest local council being B’Kara with 22,000 inhabitants and the smallest Mdina with 349. The number of councilors were to vary with the size of the population, the smallest number being 5 the largest being 13. Of these councils 54 councils are found in Malta, and 14 are to be found in Gozo.8These form the most basic form of local government and there are no intermediate levels between these councils and the national level. Having said this, local councils were originally subdivided into 3

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regions. These regions and districts as previously stated were not however levels of government, they were introduced to merely serve statistical purposes, and had no administrative role.9In 2002, joint committees were added to regions and districts.

This system was simplified with the Local Council Reform of 2009. Under the new legislation, the nine Joint Committees, the six districts and the three regions were to be phased out and the concept of Regional Committees was introduced. The sixty-eight local councils would now fall into five Regional Committees mainly: the Gozo Region, the Northern Region, the Central Region, the South Eastern Region and the Southern Region, as laid down in the revised Act.10However, to ensure a smooth running of the Regional Committees, these began initially to be operated in parallel with Joint Committees. According to a government directive (DLG 12/2010)11the regional committees are a new level of government operating above that of local government. Their responsibilities are devolved or delegated to them by the Minister when the latter believes that these organizations have the resources and competency to take on these responsibilities. They can also be delegated responsibilities by the local councils of the region. As yet is it unclear what the responsibilities and competencies of these regions are, however it is clear that presently they lack any formal legislative, political or administrative role. The members of each regional committee are the mayors of local councils that fall under that committee.

The local councils reforms of 200912also introduced the concept of administrative committees (also referred to as «hamlets» of «mini councils») answerable to the local council. 16 localities which were either distant from the centre, or which had particular needs, were given administrative committees. These committees each have five members – which, in some cases, amounts to the same number of councillors on the local council – and are elected by...

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