National Conference “Administrative Territorial Reform in Albania” Tirana, 17 October 2013

Speech by Denis Huber, Head of Department “Cooperation, Administration and External Relations“, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Minister, Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,

I am happy to be here and represent the Council of Europe and its Congress of local and regional authorities, and I thank you for the invitation we received.

The Council of Europe is supportive of all reforms and initiatives aimed at reinforcing local democracy in Albania, and it is looking with great attention at the prospects for territorial reform that are being discussed today.

Territorial reorganisation is a challenging but necessary reform. All over Europe, many countries have recently gone through such a process as part of their on-going modernisation of the public sector, and it must be seen as a milestone for Albania in its objective to set up efficient local authorities which are able to properly serve their citizens. Moreover, this reform is to be considered as fundamental on the path to obtaining candidate status of the European Union (and I welcome yesterday’s positive development in this respect), and for achieving compliance with the principles enshrined in the European Charter for Local Self Government, ratified by Albania in the year 2000.

The Congress has recently conducted its monitoring of the implementation of the Charter in this country, and will be discussing the report and a draft recommendation at its 25th Session on 31 October. One of the main concerns that are highlighted in the monitoring report is a “vivid need for territorial reform in order to rethink the current scope of local self-government in Albania”. As a consequence, the Congress will be asking, through the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the Albanian authorities to “begin a reform of the territorial system that will allow small communes to carry out their responsibilities, particularly in the area of the spatial development of their territories and urban planning”.  I invite you to consult the draft recommendation which is available in the room.

Territorial fragmentation is one of the major barriers for the decentralization and effective functioning of the local government system, and lies at the heart of many problems, such as high imbalance in the size of population, unequal ability to raise taxes and have access to resources, inability to deliver good quality of basic services to the citizens, and proper implementation of the principle of subsidiarity.

Local boundary restructuring always finds opposition, as boundaries are obviously of fundamental importance to a local authority and the citizens whom it serves. Whilst it is of course unrealistic to expect the local community to have power to veto such changes, prior consultation with the community concerned, either directly or indirectly, is essential.

We must not deny that there can be negative side effects to the territorial consolidation. For example some communities might become geographically peripheral and thus experience diminished access to local administration; other small communities could feel a loss of identity, and find it difficult to have their interests properly represented; moreover, conflicts could arise among communities which suddenly find themselves within common boundaries and having to share common resources or services.

These difficulties must be taken into account when a process of reorganisation is initiated, and it is essential that the process is organised in a fair and transparent manner, with direct consultation of all interested parties, drawing from all political resources and leadership skills available, and, last but not least, that everyone is open to compromise and negotiation. The benefits coming from such a reform need to be “readable” by Albanian citizens, who should be able to understand what they will gain form it, and what direct impact the changes will have on their daily lives and on the services they have access to.

The size of a local authority has an important and complex impact on its capacity to function and perform its tasks, as well as on the effectiveness of local and regional democracy. There is no such thing as “standard optimal size applicable to all situations”. The optimal size is dependent on factors such as the distribution of competences between levels of government, the degree of financial autonomy and the existence of financial equalisation systems, and all these variable factors should be taken into consideration at an early stage.

The Council of Europe is very pleased to acknowledge the Albanian Government’s eagerness to proceed with major reforms in this area. We would like to underline that it is important that local government units are fully involved in the decision-making process regarding the territorial reform. We are glad to hear that the Government intends to formalize and institutionalize this consultation. The manner and timing of consultation should be such that the local authorities have a real possibility to exercise influence, either directly or indirectly, and to be involved in all relevant procedures for consulting the communities they represent.

The Council of Europe is ready to offer appropriate support and assistance to the government of Albania and to LGUs in the planning and implementation phase of the reform. Cooperation between the Council of Europe and Albania is a long-standing process. As mentioned in the document presenting this Conference, ten years ago the Council of Europe already conducted an extensive study outlining the requirements and methodology to be used as a working basis for the administrative and territorial reorganisation, together with a draft law on territorial reorganisation.

Since 2010 the Council of Europe is working in close cooperation with Albanian local and regional authorities for the implementation of a multifaceted project entitled “Strengthening Local Government Structures and Cooperation of Local Elected Representatives in Albania”. We would like to thank once again the Swiss Cooperation Office Albania for supporting both the first phase of the project, which took place in the years 2010-2012, and the second phase, which is currently being implemented. This project is composed of two lines of action: one is focusing on inter-municipal cooperation and on human resources management; and a second one aims at building a pluralistic platform of dialogue among local elected representatives.

Our activity on the field, in close contact with mayors and other elected representatives, has allowed us to have a sound knowledge of the difficulties and problems faced by local authorities in their everyday activity and confirmed the importance and necessity for territorial reform in Albania. On behalf of the Council of Europe I cannot but encourage the Government’s efforts and re-confirm our readiness to assist the implementation of reforms in every possible way, while expressing our confidence that the Albanian authorities will continue to make full use of the support and cooperation we offer.