Re-Shaping Local Government: What we can Learn from International Cases

The proposed mergers of City and County Councils in both Cork and Galway have faced serious scrutiny as many see the move towards amalgamation as regressive, preferring to see city boundaries extended and City Councils maintained. Reports on either side of the issue project contradictory outcomes for each region if the mergers go ahead. But perhaps wider insight can be gained by looking at the structural makeup of local authorities in other nations.

Dr Richard Boyle

Drawing lessons from international experience with regard to local government is fraught with difficulties. Different administrations devolve different functions to local government, and systems and practices of government differ.

A distinguishing characteristic of local government in Ireland is the relatively limited range of functions undertaken by local authorities. Many local authorities in other OECD countries have responsibility for a much broader range of social services, including primary and secondary education, health, social welfare, care of the elderly and childcare services, public transport, and policing.

The Irish local government reform programme based on Putting People First (Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, 2012), the action programme for local government reform, envisages new roles for local government with the alignment of community and enterprise functions with the local government system; greater impact and involvement in local economic and community development; and for local government to be the main vehicle of governance and public service at local level.

Ireland also has local authorities with a relatively large population size and geographical area compared to many other OECD countries (see Figures 1) at an average of 148,000 people per authority and an average municipal area of 2,267 square kilometres. Denmark, for example, has an average population of 56,000 per local authority, and The Netherlands an average of 41,000. But again this data should be interpreted cautiously and variations in the functions and tiers of government means simple comparisons of numbers and average populations can be misleading.

In considering the implications of international trends in the structuring of local government, these particularities of Irish local government should be borne in mind. It is not a case of simplistically transferring practice from one jurisdiction to another. But more of identifying lessons learned and considering if and how such experiences might support Irish reform efforts.

International trends

There is a general trend in many OECD countries to reduce the number of local authorities. In Finland, they reduced from 452 to 339 authorities in the 2000s and current plans are to reduce down to around 70 municipalities. In 2007 the Danish government undertook a major reform, which reduced the number of authorities from 272 to 98, and abolished the intermediate tier of 13 authorities. Proposals in Norway are to reduce from 428 to about 100.

The reasons put forward for merger and amalgamation are generally that it represents an effective method of enhancing the operational efficiency of local councils, improves their administrative and technical capacity, generates cost savings, strengthens strategic decision-making and fosters greater political power. By contrast, opponents of consolidation typically underline the divisive nature of amalgamations, the absence of supportive empirical evidence, the equivocal outcomes observed in case studies, and the diminution of local democracy.

Apart from a trend towards fewer local authorities, there has also been an increasing emphasis on greater cooperation and collaboration between authorities. However, collaboration is not easy and requires commitment, leadership and an ability to identify and overcome challenges. Forms of consolidation may vary, from boundary change, to shared services to regional collaborations.

Despite these trends there is limited evidence of the impact of amalgamation, merger and coordination on service delivery. Several studies have been found to suggest that larger local authorities may be less responsive, and more bureaucratic. The studies further suggest that because larger local authorities tend to undertake more ‘in-house’ activities than smaller local authorities they are less prone to using alternative delivery systems. Another study in Denmark found that citizen satisfaction with local services decreases slightly with increases in population size. It was found that that citizen satisfaction is lower in larger population authorities for person-based services but not for facilities-based services or problem solving capacity.

In many cases amalgamations are seen as important in strengthening the professional capacity of local authorities as much if not more so than improving efficiency. A key issue here is building and retaining capacity to ensure that services are maintained and developed and to attract and retain suitably qualified staff. It is about developing an organisation or organisations that has sufficient capacity and a critical mass to develop all levels of staff and create succession planning to support personal and organisational needs. The focus is on securing, maintaining and developing the highly skilled staff needed to manage the increasing complexity within local government services.

The experience with re-structuring seems to be an extremely varied one, with disputed costs and benefits. As restructuring can involve top-down decisions or bottom-up choices for merging or associating, either all at once or progressively with different population sizes and different tiers of government it is impossible to draw any conclusive theory regarding the idea structure. However, there are lessons to be learned for each case that could be beneficial to Irish local authorities.

Alternative approaches to re-shaping local government

If we look at examples of different approaches taken in the territorial and organisational restructuring of local government, two different approaches emerge. In the first we see the reforms aimed at enhancing the administrative capacity and efficiency by enlarging the territorial base of the local authorities by way of amalgamating and merging them and thus creating territorially larger local government units. This is at the same time expected to retain and strengthen local government. In the second approach the strategy hinged on retaining the (small) municipalities as a base and arena of local democracy and local identity while providing for operational capacity and strengthening the “muscle” of the existing (small) municipalities by promoting the establishment of a new set and layer of intercommunal/intermunicipal bodies of which the municipalities become members.

Let’s look now at examples from around the world of both kinds of local government structuring.

Amalgamation and Merger

This approach assumes that informal or voluntary cooperation amongst local authorities will not achieve strong enough results, and that what is needed is formal coordination promoted by agreed boundary changes. In order to ensure effective integration of economic, social and environmental development, integrated structures arising from merger are needed.



In 2010, Auckland merged seven local authorities and one regional environmental authority into a consolidated single metropolitan authority – the Auckland Council. This provides a unitary local government covering one third of New Zealand’s population, spending about $3 billion per annum and employing more than 5000 staff.

The Auckland case shows an emerging logic of super amalgamation in which the re-bordering and reconstitution of urban governance as a ‘super-sized’ metropolitan authority is designed to deliver coordinated efficiency. Super-sizing is emerging as a (neoliberal) governance strategy aimed at achieving metropolitan efficiency, economic and environmental goals and activating community governance.

The council comprises elected councillors, the mayor and local boards all working with a range of council controlled organisations (CCOs), which provide core services (CCOs provide such services as property management, tourism and transport). The Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009 established a two tier governance structure, comprising the governing body and 21 local boards. Thirteen wards elect 20 councillors to the governing body. The governing body deals with decision-making at a strategic and regional level. The 21 local boards deal with:
• community-based engagement
• shaping and monitoring local services
• bringing local perspectives to region-wide policies and plans

Local boards are intended to enable the governing body to focus more effectively on regional issues. Decision-making responsibilities are shared between the two tiers. Both tiers are responsible and democratically accountable for the council’s decision-making.

The Controller and Auditor General (2012) carried out a review of aspects of the merger. In relation to governance she found that:
• the governing body had not yet taken on its strategic and regional governance role but was still operating as an ‘old-style’ council; and
• local boards had not yet embraced their part in collective responsibility for the council’s decision-making, and tended to act in a more limited community advocacy role.

She was also particularly concerned about the huge amount of reading expected of members of governing body committees and local boards.

With regard to savings, she found that though the Auckland reforms were not primarily carried out to reduce costs, economies of scale and opportunities to leverage buying power were anticipated from a larger council. The council has reported $81 million of efficiencies in the first year and is forecasting $1.7 billion of efficiency savings during the next 10 years. Efficiency gains have been made through the bargaining power brought by the council’s scale in procurement. The council has consolidated multiple contracts with the same supplier for similar services throughout the region, and rationalised the numbers of suppliers of similar services, to improve value for money. For example, park maintenance contracts in the region were recently merged from 78 to 12 contracts, resulting in savings compared to previous contract costs.

Perhaps the main benefit she found was that unified and integrated direction has been achieved through the vision and plan for the Auckland region. “ The Plan has provided a coherent strategic regional direction, including a sense of purpose, a sense of regional identity, and recognition of Auckland’s national significance. This direction has a lot of organisational, stakeholder, and public support … Many people we spoke to told us that the proof of the success of the amalgamation lay in the planning achievements of the Council in the last two years.”

Plans for a similar merger of councils in the Wellington region were cancelled by the Local Government Commission in June 2015. The Commission cited a lack of public support for the plans.

The French ‘urban communities’

One of the concrete examples for amalgamation of metropolitan level authorities in Europe is that of the French ‘communauté urbaine’. Such organisations were created by the French Parliament in 1966 as compulsory associations of municipalities, with a formal administrative status. Originally there were only four (around Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon and Strasbourg), later others were also created, sometimes in much smaller urban areas.

The purpose of the urban communities was to achieve cooperation and joint administration and investment between large cities and their independent suburbs. The status of the urban communities was modified and the range of their competences enlarged by the Chevènement Law of 1999. The emphasis changed from top-down compulsory creation to a framework-legislation: if municipalities decide under given conditions to form an association, then this association has to fulfil obligations by the law while getting some additional financial resources for development. Three types of ‘communities’ were created, urban communities being the strongest ones. At the beginning of 2009 there were 16 urban communities in France with a combined population of 7.5 million inhabitants. All urban areas in France with more than half a million inhabitants became urban communities, except for Paris.

The method is notable for the following factors:
1. A council is formed at the urban community level, consisting of delegated members from all municipalities (e.g. 85 in Lille). The council makes decisions in a similar way to municipalities; some important functions are compulsorily transferred to that level, some others on a voluntary basis.
2. As a step towards indirect democracy (democratising the delegated system), communal councillors will be identified on the basis of direct elections, as people during normal elections have to identify which candidate they want to see representing the municipality on the urban community council.
3. In an important step some years ago, local business tax was equalised among municipalities and transferred to the community level, putting an end to much criticised tax competition. The business tax has been abolished recently.


A Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery (2014) has reported on an examination of all aspects of governance and delivery in the devolved public sector in Wales. This included the issue of local government re-organisation. While no action has yet been taken on the report findings, the thinking of the Commission with regard to local government amalgamations is of interest.

The Commission find little evidence that small authorities provide worse services than larger ones. However, they find that the breadth and depth of capacity and particularly the resilience of smaller organisations can be a real challenge. They believe there are several areas where small scale creates critical and unacceptable risks to governance and service delivery. In particular they find:

“the focus in smaller organisations tends to be on simply providing day-to-day services in established ways. There can be neither the expertise, nor the funds, nor the leadership to do anything else. In particular, we agree with the main regulators that smaller organisations may lack the flexibility to anticipate and respond to emerging pressures; and to do so effectively and with the necessary pace and consistency. They can also lack the vision or capacity to develop and adopt innovative approaches to service provision and management. That is not a criticism of those involved: it is simply that when managing routine delivery is such a challenge, it is hard to find the space or resource to do anything more strategic or long-term.”

The existence of a large number of small organisations is found to increase competition between them to secure the best leaders, managers and professionals, and overall means that talent is spread too thinly.

They note that small organisations often seek to collaborate and share services so as to secure the capacity and expertise they need. But they heard evidence both that smaller organisations often find it harder to collaborate effectively, due to the need to devote significant management capacity to this, and that national and regional-level organisations find collaborating with so many other organisations difficult.

The Commission recommend merging the 22 local authorities into larger units:
“This appears to be the best option for addressing the risks of small scale and indeed the only one that is both viable and deliverable in the short to medium term. Such a programme is necessary to maintain local democracy, deliver cost savings and create local authorities that are resilient and better able to withstand the challenges ahead. It is also the option that will allow for timely implementation and the least possible impact on the delivery of front-line services.”

In June 2015 the UK government set out options for the possible reorganisation of councils in Wales that would see the number of councils cut down to eight or nine. This would include merging Cardiff with the Vale of Glamorgan and Swansea with Neath Port Talbot.


Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland in April 2015 26 pre-existing councils were reduced to 11 local authorities with a range of additional functions. In the case of Belfast City Council the decision was taken to expand the city council to include the contiguous urban area to form a coherent urban authority. This boundary extension resulted in a population increase from 270,000 to 335,000. The new areas were formerly parts of Lisburn City Council, Castlereagh Borough Council and North Down Borough Council. Economic development was one of the main drivers behind the decision to extend the boundary. The reforms in Northern Ireland, while devolving relatively minor additional functions to local government, offer councils a significant role in community planning – the legal power to hold central departments to account for services provided by them in local areas.

Coordination and Cooperation

This approach is based on informal and voluntary cooperation and coordination. In some countries, central government provides a framework for such cooperation, in others initiatives are dependent on local authorities themselves.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority

The ten authorities in Greater Manchester were the first in the UK to develop a statutory combined authority which co-ordinates key economic development, regeneration and transport functions. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) was established on the 1 April 2011. It is important to note that the ten cooperating authorities remain, so it is not a merger or a boundary change, but a higher tier of government at the regional level. As a body, the GMCA comprises the Leaders of the ten constituent councils in Greater Manchester (or their substitutes). It meets on the last Friday of every month.

The GMCA has the power to establish joint committees, committees, strategic commissions and agencies. These are designed to discharge the functions of the GMCA Executive Board in respect of particular areas of work such as:
• Greater Manchester Low Carbon Hub (formerly the Environment Commission)
• Greater Manchester Interim Health and Wellbeing Board (formerly the Health Commission)
• Planning and Housing Commission
• Transport for Greater Manchester Committee
• Manchester Family / Centres of Excellence

The leadership for the above is made up of a mixture of elected members and representatives from other partners, including the private sector, other public sector agencies and the voluntary sector. The representatives are not there to represent specific geographical areas, political groups or sectoral interests, but to perform a role for the city region as a whole; and are appointed based on skills and experience. Consequently, the intention is that not every local authority will have a representative on each of the above.

Under arrangements agreed with the Government a new, directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester will receive responsibility for a devolved and consolidated transport budget, for franchised bus services, for strategic planning, for a new housing investment fund, and for the role currently covered by the Police and Crime Commissioner.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will receive the following powers:
• Responsibility for devolved business support budgets, including the Growth Accelerator, Manufacturing Advice Service and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) Export Advice.
• Control of the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers in Greater Manchester and power to reshape and re-structure the Further Education (FE) provision within Greater Manchester.
• Control of an expanded Working Well pilot, with central government funding linked to good performance up to a fixed DEL limit in return for risk sharing.
• Opportunity to be a joint commissioner with Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the next phase of the Work Programme.
• GMCA and Greater Manchester Clinical Commissioning Groups will be invited to develop a business plan for the integration of health and social care across Greater Manchester, based on control of existing health and social care budgets.

Finland has no regional tier of government. In the Helsinki area, municipalities have joined forces to form their own political and administrative arrangements as needed for developing and managing the metropolitan area.

The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Advisory Board is a cooperation body of leading elected politicians of the four cities (Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen) in the Capital Region of Finland.

The activities of the Advisory Board are based on a cooperation agreement, a common vision and a joint strategy. The Advisory Board deals with issues concerning strategic cooperation and steering of the most important joint municipal organisations. The main pillars of the strategy are common welfare services, international competitiveness, land use, housing and transport. The activities of the Advisory Board are based on decisions made by the city councils of the cities involved.

Within the metropolitan area and for the wider Helsinki Region, which includes up to ten additional municipalities, a number of joint agencies have been established for organising or coordinating strategic issues, such as transport, environment, economic development, hospitals and land use structures.

Eindhoven City Region

Eindhoven city-region is one of the voluntary regional associations allowed by Dutch law. Such associations can be formed bottom-up and the law gives them a legal basis for cooperation. These regions have statutory policy competences, such as economic development, transport and environment. Differently from similar associations in the Netherlands, the municipalities around the cities of Eindhoven and Helmond decided to also create a separate body, the Eindhoven city-region. The participating 21 municipalities further decided to create a joint fund to strengthen the economic structure of the area. This led to the creation of the Brainport Foundation, which developed into an action programme and city marketing strategy. Based on the initial successes, cross-border strategic cooperation has been initiated with knowledge-based industries in Belgium, Germany and France. The voluntary cooperation between governments in the border region is supported at the national level.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg incremental approach

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, experience has been described as ‘functional consolidation’ of city-county services, as contrasted with ‘political’ consolidation. In essence, for the past 60 years, increasing amounts of the major services of the city and county have been provided across the county either by Charlotte or by Mecklenburg County. In an incremental process, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has instituted a set of inter-local service agreements in service areas that span parks and recreation to public transit. In all, more than 20 major public services have been consolidated. This incremental process of service consolidation followed several failed attempts at political consolidation.

This abridged version of a report written by Dr. Richard Boyle as part of the IPA’s Local Government Research Series was produced by the Council Journal.

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