The Valley Communities (comunità di valle) in the Province of Trento

Alice Valdesalici, Eurac Research

Relevance of the Practice

Italy is characterized by an extreme territorial fragmentation at the local level. All the more so the problem affects the territory of the Autonomous Province of Trento, which back in 2006 was sub-divided in 217 municipalities (double the number of the neighboring Autonomous Province of Bolzano/South Tyrol), with a population of 502,478 inhabitants. More than 90 per cent of the municipalities had less than 5,000 inhabitants. With the outbreak of the economic crisis, the extreme territorial fragmentation has been targeted as responsible for inefficiency and overspending and different forms of inter-municipal cooperation have been introduced both by the state and the regional authorities, as an instrument of ‘spending review’ to reach a balanced budget.

On these grounds, the solution of the Autonomous Province of Trento appears as an original answer, aimed at reforming the territorial organization and local governance, on the one hand, and at contributing to the recovery of public finance, on the other hand. This is of particular interest, if one considers the province’s topography that is almost entirely mountainous, with the exception of a few small flat areas nearby the main rivers. To avoid additional depopulation there is the need to ensure that all citizens are entitled to a comparable level of services, disregarding the place of residence. However, the necessity to have a consolidated balanced budget taking into account all territorial entities within the provincial territory and the obligation of the province to contribute to both the recovery of the national system of public finance and the respect of EU obligations, have brought about the need to reform territorial organization and local governance within the province.

Description of the Practice

With this twofold purpose in mind, the provincial legislator adopted Law no 3/2006 and soon afterwards – with the outbreak of the economic crisis – introduced significant changes: first, with provincial laws no 15/2009 and no 26/2010, more recently with Law no 12/2014. The latter has substantially revised the governance system, on the one hand, and the territorial administrative structure, on the other. Consequently, over a decade later, the implementation process is still a work in progress and the provincial government is discussing a further reform of the system in place.

The current system provides for a new scheme of territorial administration, in which local entities are forced to exercise certain administrative competences and jointly deliver well-determined public services. To this extent, the provincial territory has been divided in 16 sub-territories named ‘Comunità di Valle’ (literally, valley communities). These are local public entities mandatorily made up of the municipalities located in the territory of reference. The reform basically affects the way administrative functions are exercised and public services are performed. In fact, the communities are responsible for the exercise of almost all administrative functions and public services the territorially-related municipalities are vested with (Trento as the main city represents an exception to this pattern).

In addition, the 2014 reform has provided for an additional form of inter-municipal cooperation. The main reasoning is to consider the scope of the interest involved and the adequate territorial dimension, with a view to reducing public spending and ensuring administrative efficiency. Accordingly, either municipalities under 5,000 inhabitants accept to merge, or they are obliged to exercise additional well-determined functions and services in cooperation with the other municipalities as located in an area delimited by the provincial executives (so-called optimal territorial area). This approach of mergers as a means to avoid inter-municipal cooperation is interesting because in most cases it is exactly the other way round.[1]

The 2014 reform has also reviewed the system of government of the valley communities. Since 2015, the related governing bodies – the president and the council of each community – are only indirectly elected by the respective municipal councils.[2] To compensate the lack of a democratic legitimation, the reform has also introduced strong forms of participatory democracy. As such the decision-making process within the governing bodies of the communities is complemented by a preliminary consultative phase that provides for the direct involvement of the population. Of interest is the fact that this consultative phase is mandatory for the adoption of the most important decisions for the community (enumerated by the provincial law), and is optional for all other decisions, i.e. a participatory phase can be started on request for instance by the municipalities, the community itself or the at least 5 per cent of the residents within the community over the age of sixteen. It is the responsibility of the authority for local participation to decide on that. The authority is an ad hoc institution entrusted with the promotion, implementation and management of the participatory process at both the community and municipal level.

Assessment of the Practice

Also due to the pace of the reforms, the implementation process is still a work in progress and as such it is too early to assess if and to what extent the new system has brought about any improvement in the performance of administrative functions and public services, or any significant savings in terms of public spending. This holds true especially due to the fact that the 2014 reform has substantially changed the way functions are exercised, requiring additional efforts of territorial reorganization. Besides that, the system is rather complex and requires strong coordination from the center. Therefore, the challenge to local autonomy is high. However, due to the change of the governing parties at the provincial level (the Lega party has won the provincial elections in 2018) a reform of this system is under discussion. It is far too early to understand if there will be a radical change (as promised during the political campaign) or if the intervention will be limited to minor cosmetic adjustments.

Apart from that, an interesting result has anyway emerged as a side effect of the reform. To bypass the obligation to resort to compulsory forms of inter-municipal cooperation, numerous municipalities have opted to merge. Back in 2006 there were 217 municipalities, while at present there are 175. This result represents a first important step in terms of economic efficiency and spending review, although there is still considerable scope for improvement.

When analyzed against the background of other Italian territories it is remarkable that Trentino’s valley communities are quite similar to the Unioni territoriali intercomunali (UTI) in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region. This suggests that – despite the differences between the Special Regions – there are also similarities. Even if institutions may be called differently in different places, horizontal processes of inter-regional exchange and emulation still give rise to similarities regarding their nature.[3] Some observers caution, however, against the belief that the Trentino experience can be easily transplanted to other Italian territories because the solid bureaucracy in the province enables a top-down policy-making effectiveness that is lacking in other contexts.[4]

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Alber E and Valdesalici A, ‘Framing Subnational “Institutional Innovation” and “Participatory Democracy” in Italy: Some Findings on Current Structures, Procedures and Dynamics’ in Francesco Palermo and Elisabeth Alber (eds), Federalism as Decision-Making – Changes in Structures, Procedures and Policies (Brill Nijhoff 2015)

Baiguera Beltrami E and Bondi M, ‘Comunità di Valle: tutto fermo’ Questo Trentino (n 5, 7 May 2011) <>

Baldo D, ‘Giudicarie, Valle dei Laghi, Alto Garda e Ledro. I presidenti delle Comunità: ”Non sono superflue ma decisive per la coesione”’ Il Dolomiti (30 December 2017) <>

Bondi M, ‘Un altro pateracchio. Sepolte le inutili Comunità di Valle, sono in arrivo le “Nuove Comunità”, altrettanto assurde’ Questo Trentino (n 11, 1 November 2014)     <>

—— and Paris E,‘Comunità di valle: scommessa o azzardo?’ Questo Trentino (n 9, 2 October 2010) <>

Cortese F and Parolari S, ‘La Provincia di Trento e la riforma amministrativa dell’autonomia speciale’ (2006) 15

Trettel M, Parolari S and Valdesalici A, ‘Innovazione istituzionale in Trentino. Soluzioni e prospettive’ in Alice Engl, Günther Pallaver and Elisabeth Alber (eds), I comuni dell’Euregio Tirolo-Alto Adige-Trentino. Partecipazione, collaborazione, finanziamento. Un confronto (Politika 2016)

Parolari S and ValdesaliciA, ‘Le Comunità di Valle: prime prove di attuazione della riforma istituzionale dell’autonomia speciale trentina’ (2011)2 Le Istituzioni del Federalismo 423

Valdesalici A, ‘Decentramento a cerchi concentrici e inedite forme di governance democratica: il caso della Provincia autonoma di Trento’ (2017) 113 Protagonisti 103 Woelk J, ‘Italien: auf der ständigen Suche nach Gleichgewicht’ in Elisabeth Alber and Carolin Zwilling (eds), Gemeinden im Europäischen Mehrebenensystem: Herausforderungen im 21. Jahrhundert (Nomos 2014)

[1] Statement by Silvia Bolgherini, Senior Researcher, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[2] The prior system provided for a mixed system of direct and indirect election. However, doubts of constitutional legitimacy had emerged, as the Italian Constitution (Art 114) enumerates the territorial entities that make up the Italian Republic, and the Constitutional Court considers the list to be exhaustive. See: Constitutional Court, Judgement no 876/1988 and no 107/1976.

[3] Statement by Silvia Bolgherini, Senior Researcher, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).

[4] Interview with Andrea Lippi, Professor, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Florence (10 June 2021).