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Rational plan

The reform of the country’s town halls should form part of a broader political overhaul

After remaining on the back burner for several months due to internal opposition, the government has relaunched its project to overhaul the system of local administrations, this time around by means of sounding out the main opposition party and the Federation of Municipalities and Provinces.

The merger of town halls, or the joint management of some of them, along with a reduction in the number of councilors, could end up being painful for local political circles, but necessary in any program, as now undertaken in Spain, that seeks to rationalize how the public administrations operate.

In essence, the issue revolves around the question of whether it makes sense to maintain 8,000 municipalities, particularly in the lean times we are currently experiencing after the bursting of the property bubble, which was the ersatz source of income for many of them.

The leaders of the two main parties are in agreement over the need to impose limits on the powers of town halls and on reinforcing control over their budgets. Other issues are of a thornier nature. It comes as a surprise that there is consensus on the need to strengthen the powers of the central government's provincial delegations — handing over control of small- and medium-sized town halls to them — when Socialist leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba had proposed dismantling this arm of the public administrations during the party's campaign for the 2011 general elections. For the moment, the Socialists deny there is an agreement in this area.

It will also be difficult to do away with the municipal communities that provide common services to a number of town halls, a proposal specifically in dispute with the Socialists.

At the same time, the Catalan government believes it remains at the margin of any of the measures the main national parties may agree on, insisting that it has full powers in the area of local organizations within the region.

What will be much easier to reach an agreement on is a reduction in the high salaries earned by the mayors of large cities, with the ceiling established at the same level as the remunerations of secretaries of state, who currently earn 67,000 euros a year. Easy because although this will have a minimum impact in reducing public spending, it is a measure of symbolic value. Few people would lament the curtailment of municipal powers in this aspect, particularly when the public, suffering the strain of cutbacks, want those in office to feel the bite of austerity measures as well. However, we should not confuse the situation of a few large cities with that of mayors and councilors of small municipalities, many of whom do not receive a public salary.

In any case, a cut in public remuneration afforded to municipal officials would constitute a reform that's lacking in ambition. The plan to restructure how the public administrations work should be included in a broader program that affects all political levels and their maintenance. Reform of the local administrations makes more sense when included within a reconsideration of the system of regions and of their evolution toward federalism as a non-traumatic solution to the biggest territorial problems that are currently facing Spain. The leadership of such an enterprise falls to the main political streams, but it would be inefficient not to count on other parties.

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