Exploring Sub-Municipal Units of Government in Rural Local Governments

Mónica Domínguez Martín (coord), Carmen Navarro, José María Rodríguez de Santiago, and Silvia Díez Sastre, Instituto de Derecho Local, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Relevance of the Practice

By definition, the first level of local government is the municipal level. However, beyond municipalities, there is a rich variety of multipurpose local entities that have been much less studied by academia. Both above and below the municipal level of government, a densely populated world of institutions (e.g. provincial, inter-municipal, district) is also in charge of providing services and addressing public demands.

Among them, sub-municipal units stand as a fascinating face of local democracy to look at, for two reasons. Firstly, due to their potential for accomplishing one of the core values of local government, citizens’ participation and involvement. And secondly, because they embody two contrasting realities of self-government, with their distinctive traits, logics, and trajectories: the oldest—rural parishes—and the newest—urban districts. EATIMs (entities of a territorial area smaller than a municipality) and districts are both organizational structures placed below municipal governments. However, they have distinctive origins and logic and express specific answers to different circumstances. While the first is mainly found in rural areas and is the consequence of historically rooted institutions that have evolved up to the present without much change, the second emerged recently to give an answer to the functioning of big cities trying to put local democracy closer to citizens by decentralizing tasks and implementing citizens’ participation mechanisms.

The study of this practice is of great relevance as it will allow them to identify and discuss:

  • some factors of success or failure of the role the sub-municipal units of government in the Spanish local structure;
  • the extent to which the institutions increase or decrease the decentralization/ deconcentration of power;
  • if the sub-municipal units have implications on the legitimacy or autonomy of municipalities;
  • impact of sub-municipal units in the municipalities’ actions;
  • the contrast of sub-municipal units in big and small municipalities, especially, in rural areas.

Description of the Practice

According to the Law no 7/1985 on the Basis of the Local System, the regulation of these entities is a responsibility of the autonomous communities (the regions of Spain) and, thus, 13 out of 17 autonomous communities have developed a distinctive legal framework. Certainly, some of them have been especially active in this field, but still, the contents of the regulations have a common basis.

The general regulation of EATIM can be found in the Law no 7/1985, which awarded them the consideration of local entities. However, although they are distinct and autonomous local entities, their legal and real self-government is quite limited. First, because each city council decides the functional scope of the EATIMs; and second, because their autonomy is not guaranteed by the Constitution, but only by laws.

Special attention should be given to the last broad reform of the Local Government Act that entered into force in 2014 and included some changes in this matter. In the context of a severe economic crisis and according to the guidelines of European institutions, the Spanish Parliament approved a set of laws designed to restrict public expenditures and control public debt. Even though local finances presented favorable indicators, the majority of Spanish local entities were in the eye of the storm and therefore some of the measures included in the texts aimed to reduce the number of bodies or organizations and erode the capacities of those remaining. EATIMs were affected by these measures in several ways:  decrease in income, limitation of expending capacity, reduction of competences, and tougher requirements in creating new EATIMs.

In Spain, districts have been part of the cities’ functioning for decades (e.g. Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia), since the start of democratic town halls in the late 1970s. But municipalities with districts increased in the first years of the current century when the 2003 reform of the Local Government Act—the so-called Measures for the Modernization of Local Government—made them compulsory in large urban agglomerations to facilitate citizens’ participation.

National legislation sets general guidelines that municipalities have to follow in setting up districts. They are included in the Local Government Act, Law no 7/1985, and in the Royal Decree no 2568/1986. The national legal framework is quite general and does not go into detail. It just allows municipalities to set territorial bodies for the deconcentrated ‘management in order to facilitate citizens’ participation in local issues management, according to the organization, tasks, and functions each municipality decides’ (Section 24(1) Law no 7/1985). The link between this report section 4 on local government structure and the other report sections of this country report shall be scrutinized by the researchers. Mainly, the impact on service delivery (report section 2), financial arrangements (report section 3) and intergovernmental relations (report section 5).

Assessment of the Practice

Exploring sub-municipal units of government in Spain requires one to travel to two contrasting worlds: to the very small municipalities in rural areas, that delegate some functions to even smaller units (parishes, communities); and to the large and very large cities, that by means of internal subdivisions (districts) try to find a way to improve effectiveness and make citizens’ participation doable.

The trip to the small municipalities is a trip to past and tradition and, particularly, a trip to the north of the country, where most of the EATIM are concentrated. These units were already present in the nineteenth century and even now they are still known by their old designations: concejos, pedanías, parroquias, aldeas. These smaller entities have their own governing body, whose members are designated by the municipal council. They do not participate in the election of the provincial government, nor in the municipal council on which they depend. There is a strong sense of identity or belonging of the citizens with respect to the sub-municipal units. In general terms, rural sub-municipal units of government are an effective alternative to the creation of new rural municipalities with low functional capacity. In this sense, although they are often inefficient units, they do not have a viable institutional alternative.

The trip to the big cities is a trip to the future, to the attempt of meeting the challenges urban areas pose from a democratic perspective. Through the introduction of districts, local governments in urban agglomerations try to put in place a vehicle of citizens’ participation while adapting services to the specific needs of each neighborhood and improving on efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and proximity. In legal terms and notwithstanding the diversity of urban districts, the contemporary creation of districts qualifies as administrative deconcentration to improve citizens´ participation and efficiency in the provision of municipal services. The central bodies of the municipal councils coordinate the districts in order to achieve unity of action along the whole city. Sub-municipal districts have been largely promoted in large cities since 2003 and nowadays are well assessed by citizens.

Notwithstanding the general usefulness of both rural and urban sub-municipal units of local government, some reforms should be tackled, mainly referred to their democratic legitimacy and their managerial capacity.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Galán A and Galindo R, ‘Las entidades de ámbito territorial inferior al municipio’ in Marcos Almeida Cerreda and others (eds), Racionalización de la organización administrativa local: las experiencias española, italiana y portuguesa (Civitas 2015)

Jiménez Asensio R and Mallo Gómez M, ‘La organización territorial en distritros del municipio de Barcelona’ in Cayetano Prieto Romero and Alfredo Galán Galán (eds), Los distritos: Gobierno de Proximidad (Civitas 2007)

Navarro C and Pano E, ‘Rural and Urban Sub-Municipal Governance in Spain: The Contrasting Worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnang’ in Nikolaos-Komninos Hlepas and others (eds), Sub-Municipal Governance in Europe. Governance and Public Management (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) Orduña E, ‘Las entidades territoriales inferiores al municipio: del pasado al futuro’ in Francisco Sosa Wagner (ed), El derecho administrativo en el umbral del siglo XXI: Homenaje al profesoro Dr. D. Ramón Martín Mateo (Tirant Lo Blanc 2000)