Mónica Domínguez Martín (coord), Carmen Navarro, José María Rodríguez de Santiago, and Silvia Díez Sastre, Instituto de Derecho Local, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
The Spanish Constitution lays down municipalities and provinces as the two most important levels of local government. But it also allows the existence of groupings of municipalities different from the provinces. Especially in the regions of Aragon and Catalonia, the whole regional territory is divided into a network of counties (comarcas) asymmetrically overlapped with that of the provinces. Both the province and the county (comarca) are local entities with a second-degree democratic legitimacy. The creation of counties (comarcas) is legally more flexible than that of the provinces since it takes place under a legislative decision of the regional parliament. In this decision, it is possible to take into account criteria specifically aimed at a more balanced development of relations between rural and urban territories. In Aragon there are 3 provinces and 33 counties. In Catalonia there are 4 provinces and more than 40 counties.
The Spanish Constitution allows the existence of groupings of municipalities other than the provinces. Some of the fundamental laws creating the regions and the legal provisions of the central state regarding the foundations of local government in Spain specifically provide the creation of counties (comarcas), which can up to a certain extent replace the provinces in much of their powers. This form of municipal grouping has been developed especially in Aragon and Catalonia. In Catalonia, for instance, the regional law of the local government provides that the counties (comarcas) group together municipalities with common social, cultural, and historical characteristics and that are located in a territory geographically relevant for the structuring relations of economic activity. This allows us to think that these groupings of municipalities can adequately serve a more balanced development of relations between rural and urban territories.
The executive and legislative branches of the region and the municipalities are involved in the creation of the county (comarca). The municipalities and the executive of the region have a right of initiative for the relevant procedure. The laws of the autonomous communities determine the creation procedure and the territorial scope of the counties, the composition and operation of their governing bodies, as well as the powers and economic resources assigned to them (Article 42(3) of the Law on the Basis of the Local System, LBRL of 1985).
If the initiative has been exercised by the regional executive, a certain number of municipalities have a veto right. Article 42 LBRL establishes that the county cannot be created if two-fifths of the Municipalities that should be grouped in it expressly oppose it, provided that, in this case, such Municipalities represent at least half of the electoral roll of the corresponding territory.
The most interesting purpose of the analysis of this practice is probably to examine whether it is more suitable than the province to adequately integrate rural and urban territories in a better urban-rural interplay.
The (asymmetric) overlap of provinces and counties obviously results in a redistribution of local responsibilities and public services (report section 2), local financial arrangements (report section 3), and the shape of intergovernmental relations of local government (report section 5).
The regional power to largely establish the criteria which have to be taken into account in order to divide the regional territory into counties (comarcas) allows the regions to pay attention to their own actual territorial particularities when making that decision. That is not possible in relation to the division of the regional territory into provinces, because this decision is attributed to the central state, which will have to take into account the national interests and its own administrative ones when making it.
This relevant practice focuses specifically on the question regarding whether the county (comarca) in Aragon and Catalonia is a more effective and efficient type of local organization than the province to fit the necessities of a fair urban-rural interplay.
Frequently, both in political and economic fields, the counties (comarcas) of Aragon and Catalonia have been criticized for their supposed overlap with the provinces, and for their high operating cost, concerning the scarce services they provide. However, no empirical and analytical study has yet been carried out on the real usefulness and efficiency of the different comarcas. Some sector-oriented studies point to a favorable assessment in some specific subjects, such as waste management, environmental protection, and school busing between small municipalities within the same comarca.
According to an extended opinion of practitioners consistent with some empirical data, the comarcas are not currently playing a relevant role in local government. Compared to the provinces also acting in Catalonia and Aragon, the counties (comarcas) play a conspicuous secondary role. Provinces have solidly guaranteed sources of financing. That is not the case of the counties. The counties certainly carry out some important services for the balance between rural and urban areas: school busing, social services, selective waste collection, etc. But the relatively high costs derived from maintaining the organizational structure of the (numerous) counties raise doubts about their efficiency. There does not seem to be any precise economic analysis in relation to this issue. It might be possible to draw the conclusion that the relevant public services carried out by the county could indeed be provided more efficiently through cooperation between municipalities or through organizational changes within the provinces.
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