The Regional Conference of Municipalities, a Regional Cooperation Mechanism in Different Urban-Rural Settings

Erika Schläppi and Kelly Bishop, Ximpulse GmbH

Relevance of the Practice

In the Canton of Berne municipalities of a certain geographical area have the possibility to establish a regional cooperation mechanism (RCM), the ‘Regional Conference’, with the purpose of delivering more effectively on tasks that are transferred to them by the municipalities or by the canton. This entry shows the practice of two regional conferences, one representing a more urban and the other a more rural setting. The practice explains a mechanism of municipal cooperation. It also relates to the institutionalizing of intergovernmental relations between the local and the cantonal level and decision-making among municipalities, in a specific kind of association.

Description of the Practice

The historical delimitations of municipalities often do not correspond to the dynamics of functional spaces that are emerging due to increased mobility or changing economic patterns. The need for regional cooperation among municipalities that are sharing common interests and challenges has been recognized for some decades, particularly in the area of zoning and traffic management. In the form of a voluntary association, municipalities united for making regional arrangements and cooperating on zoning issues. To promote more binding forms of cooperation, the cantonal authorities created a regional structure for municipalities willing to engage in regional cooperation, the regional conferences of municipalities. Their geographical perimeter is decided upon by the cantonal government, after consultation of the municipalities. The legal aim of the conferences is to efficiently fulfil tasks of the implied municipalities.[1] The conferences are separate legal entities that can take autonomous decisions within their competences and have the power to take binding decisions. They are established through a decision by the municipalities within the given perimeter with a majority vote (both the population and the municipal authorities of the concerned municipalities need to vote in favor).

The cantonal law includes a list of mandatory tasks that the regional conferences are responsible for – if and when such a conference is established. In accordance with special legislation, they are responsible for regional structure, overall transport and settlement planning and their mutual coordination, regional cultural promotion and regional tasks in the area of regional policy. The municipalities can assign the conference with additional tasks within the scope of municipal duties.

The cantonal Law on Municipalities and the related regulations also frame the organizational structure and decision-making processes but give some leeway for individual approaches of the regional conferences. The main decision-making body is the regional assembly consisting of the mayors of the concerned municipalities. The mayors have weighed voting powers which gives bigger municipalities a greater say. There are possibilities to ask for a referendum on some selected decisions of the regional assembly, and to take an initiative to submit an issue to the assembly. The Executive Board and the Head Office are the executing organs of the conference, which is funded by contributions of both participating municipalities (according to the number of inhabitants) and the canton (based on an ordinance or specific contracts). The regional conference has no direct tax income.

The Canton of Berne is geographically, socio-economically and demographically not homogenous. In terms of urban and rural settings, it consists mainly of three types of areas: a relatively big urban/peri-urban area around the major cities of the canton[2], a large area of agricultural farmland and a mountain area. This entry looks at two regional conferences that have been established over ten years ago. While both conferences include urban as well as rural municipalities, it can be said that Bern-Mittelland is characterized by a more urban or peri-urban setting, while Oberland-Ost is characterized by a small agglomeration as a regional center and two smaller regional centers (Meiringen and Brienz) surrounded by rural communities. The Regional Conference of Oberland-Ost belongs to the mountainous rural area that is mainly living from extensive farming and tourism and consists of 28 municipalities. The size of the conference’s perimeter takes up 21 per cent of the (land) area, 5 per cent of the population and 4 per cent of the workplaces of the Canton of Berne. In contrast, the Regional Conference of Bern-Mittelland refers to a more urban/sub-urban area around the capital of Switzerland and the canton, the City of Berne, and consists of 77 municipalities. 40 per cent of the population of the canton live in this area and 50 per cent of the workplaces are provided here. The main economic activities are within the service delivery, industrial and the public administration sector.

The topics and areas of competences of the two regional conferences and the way they are dealing with the issues, are similar. The Regional Assembly of Bern-Mittelland has formed commissions for each mandatory sector of competence and sub-commissions are dealing with specific topics such as economy and regional politics. The Regional Conference of Oberland-Ost has formed commissions in the following areas: Public transport, landscape, traffic and spatial planning and ADT (quarry, landfill and transportation), and energy. The area of regional development and the culture divisions are directly under the management of the executive board.

In the framework of the cantonal regulations, both regional conferences have issued their own regulation on organizational procedures but in terms of content they are largely the same. Both have detailed rules on the composition of the executive board (Geschäftsleitung). The regulation for Bern-Mittelland foresees that the composition of the executive board should be balanced taking into account the size of the municipality, its geographical location, the political party and gender of the person to be elected (Article 23). Furthermore, the regulation also mentions that the rural area of the (mainly urban and peri-urban) region must be represented in the executive board. The more rural counterpart for Oberland-Ost does foresee a balanced representation of the various municipalities and lists how many representative members per sub-region (group of municipalities) should be part of the executive board (Article 22). It, however, does not include a reference to political party or gender as seen in the one for Bern-Mittelland.

Both regional conferences have a thematic focus on urban/rural regional planning with different challenges at stake. On the one hand, Oberland-Ost has an agglomeration area around Interlaken, one of the few agglomerations in the mountain region. The agglomeration Interlaken consists of several municipalities and faces particular challenges due to being an alpine city and tourist destination. In Bern-Mittelland there is also a focus on the agglomeration and rural area surrounding the bigger cities.

Another important focus for both regional conferences lays on regional development. Swiss and cantonal regional policies provide targeted support for rural and agglomeration areas, focusing on strengthening the competitiveness of the regions and increasing their value. Both conferences support the design of projects and their funding requests to the canton and submit own projects for funding. A regional development strategy has been established in Oberland-Ost, and the regional conference has the task of a coordinator between the different actors of the region implementing the strategy, in addition to its mandatory tasks. Regional development contributions have been channeled through the regional conferences mainly in the area of tourism, renewable energies and innovative offers in social or cultural areas, but less for industrial projects.

Assessment of the Practice

Looking at this practice, we can see that, first, for small (rural) municipalities, inter-municipal cooperation – with neighbors or at the regional level – can be a way to ensure an adequate level of services and quality and can be an alternative to mergers. According to their purpose, the regional conferences are adequate structures to help municipalities fulfil duties where regional coordination is needed to take regional dimensions into account. They can focus on specific issues that are deemed particularly important for the whole region. However, it seems that in both regional conferences, a regional identity is still to be developed.

Second, the regional conferences also serve to some extent to coordinate the interests and common concerns of municipalities of a certain region and defend these interests in cantonal politics and for accessing cantonal and federal regional development funds. Rural areas and small municipalities in peripheral regions might face particular challenges in communicating with the cantonal authorities, which can be overcome by joining forces in the regional conferences. Generally, the regional conferences provide a platform for regional exchange and decision-making and thus serve as a bridge among the municipalities of the regional conference, the canton, public administration and private companies. In contrast, urban municipalities often have direct connections to authorities and private companies and may be less interested in the regional coordination.

Third, the two regional conferences that we looked at have different demographics, geographical settings, and socio-economic conditions. They have both urban, peri-urban and rural areas whose differing interests and concerns have to be balanced by the regional conferences internally, in their strategic focus und in their decision-making processes. Both regions are well aware of and address the diversity within the region. Both regions include spaces that are more marginalized than others and in need of additional economic and political support and promotion.

Fourth, in the regional conference model, regional interests are expressed and framed mainly by the municipal mayors of the regions. Space for public participation is clearly narrower than in municipal decision-making, although the impact of regional planning and zoning on municipal life might be relatively high.

Fifth, while letting municipalities decide whether they want to establish a regional conference or not, the cantonal law provides a clear guidance on the structure, mandatory competences and decision-making processes of these regional conferences. This leaves space for increased cooperation among municipalities. However, the incentives for municipalities to cooperate in the form of regional conferences does not seem to be big enough for all, since only three regional conferences out of six regional perimeters have materialized in the last 10 years (two rejections by referendum and one region still without a referendum process).

Sixth, although smaller municipalities may profit from the services offered by the regional conferences, the mode of weighed voting can make them hesitant to join the regional conference. They may fear to be overruled by bigger municipalities and their interests. On the other hand, urban centers may not always have a keen interest in regional cooperation and joining forces with weaker partners, as they may be strong enough to defend their position directly.

Seventh, it has been questioned whether the perimeters of the regional conferences are appropriate for its various topics. The 70 municipalities forming the regional conference Bern-Mittelland have commonalities and differences – depending on the topic at stake. What might be an appropriate perimeter for cooperation on traffic planning, might not be adequate for regional development.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Federal Law on Regional Politics (Bundesgesetz über Regionalpolitik), SR 901.0

Federal Regulation on Regional Politics (Verordnung über Regionalpolitik (VRP)), SR 901.021

Cantonal Law on Municipalities (Gemeindegesetz (GG)), BSG 170.11

Cantonal Regulation on Municipalities (Gemeindeverordnung (GV)), BSG 170.111

Cantonal Regulation on Regional Conferences (Verordnung über die Regionalkonferenzen (RKV)), BSG 170.211

Cantonal Regulation on Organizational Rules of Regional Conferences (Verordnung über das Geschäftsreglement für die Regionalkonferenzen (RKGV)), BSG 170.212

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Regional Conference Bern-Mitelland, ‘Regionalpolitik Bern-Mittelland Regionales Förderprogramm 2020-2023‘ (Regional Promotion Program, 2019)                                                                       <>

Regional Conference Oberland-Ost, ‘Regionales Förderprogramm 2020-2023 Oberland-Ost, Umsetzung der Regionalpolitik des Bundes’ (Regional Promotion Program, 2019)                            <>

—— ‘Entwicklungsstrategie 2019 Oberland-Ost’ (Development Strategy, 2019)   <>

Website of the Regional Conference Bern Oberland-Ost, <>

Website of the Regional Conference Bern-Mittelland, <>

[1] Art 137 of the cantonal Law on Municipalities.

[2] Classified by the Federal Office of Statistics as areas of urban character (‘Räumliche Typologien’ (Federal Statistical Office, undated) <> accessed 27 July 2020, according to criteria such as population density, size and reachability as well as socio-economic criteria.