Merged municipalities show bigger is not always better

GLOBAL city regions appeal to politicians and planners alike — large mostly urbanised areas which share infrastructure and resources to create super- efficient conurbations.



But the seminal experiences of London Tokyo and Paris have demonstrated that they are often largely organic processes in their creation and that they carry significant risks for marginalised communities.



So it is intriguing to consider the plan of the African National Congress (ANC) in Gauteng to reduce the province to four metros by 2016 — not least because the metro which is to expand to become the country’s largest Tshwane is also considered one of the province’s “most vulnerable”.





Certainly the plan resonates with the imperative for a more efficient local government that can be more easily overseen. But it also amounts to a more regionalised one which on the downside risks diluting the rationale for local service delivery — not to mention local representation — especially where rural areas are mixed in with urban.





The number of service delivery protests in Gauteng suggest that the province is a hotbed of discontent. This paradoxical status for the country’s economic heartland can in part be understood by the rapid and recent increase in the province’s population and local government’s failure to keep up with demand for basic services (especially in ever-growing informal settlements).



The ANC has presented a clear response to delivery failure via a proposed “metro” system of governance which is expected to bolster capacity. In institutional terms this means dissolving district and local councils into Johannesburg Ekurhuleni and Tshwane with the West Rand in turn absorbing smaller neighbours and becoming a new metro.





First on the cards is the amalgamation of the troubled Metsweding district municipality including Kungwini (Bronkhorstspruit) and Nokeng Tsa Taemane (Cullinan) local municipalities into the already stretched Tshwane by next year. A number of specific outlying areas (farms) are to be included under Ekurhuleni’s boundaries.



But will this response address the perceived failure of local government in these areas a situation that has prompted numerous service delivery protests?



And ultimately will the incorporation of nonmetro areas into four megametros result in better municipal delivery outcomes for nonmetro residents of Gauteng?





Certainly Metsweding has been the “problem child” of the province; described by ANC provincial leader mouseover=" displaydata('37893' 'Politics' event); " style="cursor: pointer; color: #b30616; text-decoration: underline" onclick="CompanyLookup('37893' 'Politics' 'Paul Mashatile');" onmouseout="hidedata();">Paul Mashatile as “plagued by perennial problems of institutional and financial viability. This has led to ... mayors (being) redeployed time and again without improvement”.



Opposition parties in Tshwane have expressed reservations about the dramatic expansion of their city — Tshwane’s geographical area is set to increase from 2199km² to 6321km² incorporating another 153539 people or 46502 households. Where these households are less urbanised than the average Tshwane settlement they will necessarily be more expensive to service (and may require different service delivery solutions) without bringing in a significant expansion to the rates base.



The amalgamation is likely to put further strain on Tshwane’s already floundering budget. But the Municipal Demarcation Board approved the amalgamation of Metsweding into Tshwane in 2008 before Tshwane’s financial stress (and apparent institutional instability) was known.



The Democratic Alliance (DA) has said that the decision has a political motivation rather than a practical one and is concerned that some of the councils to be amalgamated might have been won by the DA in the next election. Fred Nel DA MPL also noted that the expansion of Tshwane would undermine the significant progress that Tshwane has made in amalgamating an already wide number of areas into Tshwane’s boundaries and compromise the strategic response devised to deal with these challenges (through for instance spatial development plans).





Intriguingly not only have ANC councillors in Metsweding and Kungwini voted against the amalgamation (which can be explained away by concern around the loss of individual power along with the apparent indictment of the councils) but there is also evidence of grumbling in local communities and associated protests against the proposal. This response is a clear departure from the sentiment expressed by residents of Khutsong and Standerton who took the view that bigger is better (in this case Tshwane being the bigger entity as opposed to Gauteng) and suggests fears that the more nuanced concerns of local communities will be muted in a monolithic council and administration.





Is there a concession being made that municipalities need to be moved to a larger regionalised scale in response to an apparent inability to bolster the existing 283 entities?



At a policy level the decision to do away with district councils in Gauteng and replace them with four wall-to-wall metros is significant and is an admission by the provincial ANC that at least in Gauteng the experiment with regional local government — district municipalities — has failed. This is an important precedent in local government in SA where until now it was made clear that the constitutionally enshrined three-category system (metros districts and locals) would be respected no matter what.



While the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs is already critically reviewing the different local government models and categories and it is already clear that the viability of both the district and local model in rural areas is being questioned by the government this is the first sign that there could be wholesale changes to the current metro-district-local configuration across the country.





Districts in other provinces will also now be under review and it is likely that a significant number of these will also be done away with. For most objective observers this is a sound approach and the closing down of a number of districts will be no great loss. Districts have always been prone to the criticism that they duplicate services as well as representation structures already present in local municipalities and many districts have failed dismally.



The question is what will replace districts (and for that matter locals) if they are dissolved. Will there be a specialised delivery agency such as a water board or a regional electricity distributor? What of local representation? Will local democracy become more limited? These greater issues aside will the solution to Metsweding Kungwini and Nokeng Tsa Taemane’s problems lie in integration into an already teetering metro especially since that amalgamation implies a period of (further) institutional stress?



Economies of scale and capacity are being sought and understandably so but there is a tipping point where existing capacity in metros risks being overstretched into diseconomies of scale which will leave communities feeling even further estranged from their municipalities.





While by all accounts the re-demarcation is a “done deal” one has to question whether the Municipal Demarcation Board adequately contemplated all the downside risks in its assessment and whether reconsideration or at least a postponement is necessary in light of Tshwane’s more recent and fundamental financial pressures.