International Conference of capital cities of the Council of Europe Member States

“Making the metropolis citizen-friendly: a challenge for public authorities” Yerevan, Armenia, 11 October 2013

Part II: “The [institutional] capacity of capital cities to address the challenges of the quality of life”

Speech by Vice-President John WARMISHAM Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

Deputy Mayor,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

In the first part of this conference, we spoke about the growing role and responsibilities of capital cities in ensuring a good quality of life for their populations. However, these role and responsibilities must be matched by necessary resources, infrastructures, governing methods and institutions, as well as legal competences enabling capital cities to meet the demands and expectations of their residents.

A crucial indicator of a capital city’s success is indeed its capacity to make adequate responses to the problems and challenges for the citizens’ well-being. We must therefore make sure that our capital cities have the budgets, the status and the power to act, that correspond to their role as engines for development. Municipal authorities must also make sure that their citizens are fully involved in democratic decision-making and provided with the structures, means and opportunities to participate in the public life of the cities that they live in. If we can harness our citizens’ potential for innovation, our cities will benefit and we can give a major boost to city development.

One way of ensuring a capital city’s capacity is through the full implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government and its Additional Protocol on citizen participation. The principles set out in the Charter and its Protocol – those of decentralisation and transfer of competences, financial and decision-making autonomy, consultations on matters affecting the city, as well as the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local authority – provide a solid legal basis for building up the institutional capacity of capital cities.

This is why the Congress, in its recommendation on the status of capital cities, adopted in 2007, emphasised that the capital city, as a municipality with a pre-eminent role in most states, that is also facing specific problems, must have the right to self-government in conformity with the Charter, and should be granted a special constitutional or legal status giving it the power to enact specific regulations. Our recommendations, in particular, call on national governments to provide capital cities with sufficient capacity to raise their revenues in order to run their administration, fulfilling their functions as national capitals.

Hosting the seat of a national government also carries the risk that the management of the city can become something of a political football. Political conflict can cause disruption to the city’s smooth functioning and undermine its capacity to respond to the citizens’ needs – even to the point of disruption of normal public services. Mindful of this problem, we in the Congress have called for measures to promote co-operation between central and municipal governments regardless of political differences. We recommended, in particular, certain measures to prevent the misuse of a capital city’s financial system as a political instrument – I am speaking, for example, about tax reductions or other financial restrictions.

I am convinced, however, that the best way of boosting the capital city’s capacity is through better governance, a kind of governance that is citizen-oriented, efficient, transparent and open to citizen participation. Our vision of this new urban governance has been presented in the European Urban Charter II: Manifesto for a new urbanity, adopted in 2008.

Our prime ambition, reflected in the new Urban Charter, is building a city for the people, a city that develops through the engagement of its residents and where democracy is practiced in all its forms – elections, civil society, citizen consultations, political debate. It is a city that fosters transparency and a strong relationship between public authorities and citizens. In this regard, the Congress’ initiative known as the European Local Democracy Week, which is marked every year in mid-October by municipalities across Europe, can be a useful tool for bringing together local authorities and residents to discuss the problems and priorities of city development.

Our second ambition is that of a city that is sustainable and environmentally friendly. For example, more compact neighbourhoods and districts within a capital city can conserve space and facilitate general access to services and recreation. We need to develop energy-efficient public transport and alternatives to motor traffic such as cycling and pedestrian travel, in order to reduce pollution and improve road safety. We need to promote the use of green technologies and to plan urban space that reconciles built environment with green areas.

Our third ambition is for a city of social cohesion, a city that combats division, exclusion and discrimination. The social dimension must be in the centre of our urban development policies, especially because the alarming processes of impoverishment, segregation and exclusion in cities have been aggravated today by the economic crisis. Social cohesion takes on a particular importance against the current situation of unprecedented and growing cultural diversity in European cities. This situation brings to the fore the need to foster intercultural dialogue and to better manage intercultural relations in order to diffuse tensions and avoid conflicts. 

Our fourth ambition is for a city that is a knowledge-driven, modern hub of culture and learning, a catalyst of artistic creativity and technological innovation – a knowledge city, to use the expression of the Union of Capitals of the European Union.

I would add to this list the crucial importance of ethical governance, based on transparency and the fight against corruption and abuse of power. Europeans today identify corruption as a major challenge to democratic development, undermining the rule of law and slowing down the economic development as well. Making the city government, so to speak, “lean and clean”, efficient and transparent, is a way of regaining public confidence and the trust of citizens, much of which has too often been lost through corrupt practices and the failure of public authorities to deal with the crisis.

In this regard, I should make reference to the European Code of Conduct for local and regional elected representatives, which was adopted by the Congress in 1999 and which deals with their specific obligations during the taking, holding and relinquishing of office.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The unprecedented urban growth today raises new questions with regard to the structure of municipal government, which is part and parcel of good governance issues. On the one hand, we are witnessing urban spread – or sprawl – into ever more distant areas away from the city centre, the need for more compact neighbourhoods that are easier to manage, and the growing ethnic diversity of new localities. All this necessitates the setting-up of district governments operating closer to local residents and responsible for public services in these metropolitan regions.

On the other hand, such a model also carries a risk of governmental fragmentation and a potential for incoordination, overlap and even conflict, requiring strong co-operation between different district structures and entities. At the same time, an opposite process of metropolitan consolidation, while improving the “chain of command”, may thwart flexibility and responsiveness in dealing with specific concerns of particular neighbourhoods. This is also something that needs to be taken into account when deciding on a governance model.

Finally, I would like to stress the importance of building partnerships between public authorities and both civil society and the private sector. Especially in this time of crisis, such partnerships are indispensable for responding to the problems and improving governance. In many municipalities today, the voluntary sector helps to provide social assistance to vulnerable groups, filling in the gap left by budget cuts. In a similar way, public-private partnerships, or PPPs, help to reduce housing, healthcare or training costs, to finance social initiatives, support business development or invest into infrastructure. In some of our member states PPPs are beginning to evolve into PPCPs - Public–Private Community Partnerships, where both government and private players work together to improve social welfare, rather than focusing on profit.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by underlining our conviction that developing a robust urban governance along these principles will result in a stronger capacity of our capital cities and metropolises to ensure a better quality of life for our citizens.

Thank you.