Local Government in Sweden

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. A brief introduction
1.1. The history of local self-government

Sweden has a very long history of local decision-making. During the middle ages, there was a well-developed system of local self-government, both in rural areas and cities, but during the 17th century, the monarchy strengthened its centralised power. However, during the 18th century some local self-government issues were extended to the Church, which was organised in local units, the parish ([c56][c52][c46][c4e][c48][c51]), and to city governments (stad). Both parishes and cities became responsible for poor relief.1«In rural areas, local self-government assumed rather clear shape as a result of ordinances issued in 1807 and 1843, while city governments remained unregulated. The concept of municipality ([c4e][c52][c50][c50][c58][c51]) as an independent legal person had not yet emerged. Instead, inhabitants of a parish or a city were regarded as the actual subjects of self-government.»2An important cornerstone of local self-government was laid with the local government reforms in 1862. Ecclesiastic and secular affairs were separated and the cities and rural municipalities – which had the same geographic boundaries as rural parishes – became responsible for secular affairs. At the same time, elected county councils with a rather broad range of powers on the regional level (landsting) were established. Since the 1977 Local

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Government Act, the same rules apply for all municipalities and county councils.To some extent, the historical heritage of the legislation of 1862 still can be found in the 1991 Local Government Act. First of all, the Swedish municipalities are based on a competence of power between a directly elected municipal assembly and an executive committee. Secondly, already in 1862 the municipalities and county councils were granted the right to levy their own taxes and to set their own tax rates when they adopted their local budgets – without the approval of any central government. A third heritage is the citizens right to appeal against the legality of local government decisions.

1.2. The challenge for Swedish local government

For many years, the main responsibility for providing various types of public services in Sweden has rested on local government. The importance of local government has also grown apace with the construction of the welfare state. The municipalities (charged with local government functions) have, during the last decades, taken over responsibility in several areas where central government or the (regional) county councils used to have responsibility, e.g. the responsibility for providing basic care and treatment for the elderly, the chronically ill, the care for the physical or mentally disabled and other residents of «special types of accommodation» and child care.

The changes in Swedish welfare policies during the last two decades – with decentralisation and privatisation – have also been aimed at decreasing the size of the public sector, whilst keeping up the levels and maintaining the goals of the welfare state. Legislation on social services and other local government issues has increasingly been structured as «frame-work» laws while providing few details. This gives the municipalities responsibility for organising and providing several types of public services, whilst central government has retained the means to exert influence and control. In general terms, one could say that during the last decade, the public sector in Sweden has been characterised by less central government control. The legislation has been constructed as «defined-rights legislation», imposing duties on public authorities but not conferring enforceable rights on individuals.

Today, municipalities, county councils and regions to a large extent procure services from private companies. Activities carried out by private companies on behalf of municipalities, county councils or regions are financed using public funds. In some areas – such as refuse collection, public transport and dental care – it has been for a long time common for the public authorities to procure services externally. During the last ten years, an increased number of private companies have begun to run preschools, schools, hospitals and care facilities. Competition with private enterprise, and privatisation, has been a hallmark of

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the municipal area since the beginning of the 1990s and in this respect, the influence of European Union cannot be underestimated.3One of the biggest challenges today is to define the ability of local authorities to determine their own internal structures.4In Nordic societies, the provision of welfare services through the welfare state has been a key element for a number of years and there has been considerable political consensus on the desirability of preserving the welfare state.5However, liberalisation and privatisation, which is generally promoted at the economic and social level through the development of the Internal Market in the EU, may put pressure on welfare states and create tensions between the EU and Member States in matters of welfare. One problem with the development is the so-called Kommunalblindheit – blindness regarding local authorities – of EU-law when it comes to the municipal responsibility for planning and developing infra structure and social services etc. – a responsibility that has a long tradition in the Scandinavian welfare states.6

2. Basic facts and figures

Sweden has a population of 9.3 million people and the surface area is 450,295 km2, which makes 20.1 inhabitants/km2. The mostly spoken language is Swedish, but there is also some small Sami- and Finnish speaking minorities.

There are two tiers of government in Sweden – central government and local/regional government – and there are two levels of local and regional administration in Sweden. At the local level there are directly elected municipalities ([c4e][c52][c50][c50][c58][c51][c48][c55]). At the regional level there are directly elected county councils (landsting) or, in a few cases, «regions», who have more extensive functions than the county councils. In addition, there are central government agencies at regional level: a general purpose county administrative board (länsstyrelser) in

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each county (län) and regional branches of specialized central government agencies (which may cover other territories than counties).

Sweden is divided into 290 municipalities, 18 county councils and two regions: Västra Götaland and [c36][c4e][c6e][c51][c48]. There is no hierarchical relation between municipalities, county councils and regions, since they all have their own self-governing local authorities with responsibility for different activities. While the municipalities are responsible for providing services in many different areas, the main responsibility for the county councils is to provide medical care and to run regional hospitals. The only exception is Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea, where the municipality also has the responsibilities and tasks normally associated with a county council. The smallest municipality is Bjurholm, with a population of 2,500 people, and the largest municipality is [c36][c57][c52][c46][c4e][c4b][c52][c4f][c50], with a population of 829,417 people.7

3. Legal framework of local self-government
3.1. The legal framework of Swedish local government

The principle of local self-government is one of the fundamental principles of the Swedish democratic system, and forms the basis of activities undertaken by municipalities. This means that the inhabitants of each municipality and regional municipality – county council – elect their political representatives to a municipal or county assembly every four years through direct elections. In this way, inhabitants can influence how the municipalities and the county councils fulfil their mandate. Local and regional autonomy is written into the Swedish Constitution. It follows from Chapter 1, Article 1, of the Instrument of Government (Regeringsformen, one of the four fundamental laws that form the constitution) that Swedish democracy is founded on the free formation of opinion and on universal and equal suffrage. It shall be realised through a...

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