It’s Monday morning. Katrín wakes up and gets her daughter ready for school. After dropping her off, she heads to the local library, where she does freelance work. On her way there, she notices the progress in the apartment housing being built across the street: she’s renting now, but has put a down payment on an apartment there. During her lunch break, Katrín drives out of town for a walk at her favourite hiking spot. Since it was designated as a protected area several years ago, it’s been getting more popular. She works until 5.00pm. Her daughter participates in an after-school program until then. After picking her up, they head to the local pool for a bit of fun before dinner. One organisation has had a hand in every aspect of Katrín’s day, as well as her daughter’s: her local council.
What do local councils do?
Katrín is imaginary, but the effect that local councils have on Icelanders’ day-today lives is not. Unlike most larger nations, Iceland only has two tiers of elected government: local and national. This means that local (or municipal) councils in the country have a wide range of responsibilities and a larger impact on the individual than in many other countries. Some of the areas that municipal governments oversee are public childcare services, primary education, zoning and development (this includes protection of natural areas), and social services.
The role of local councils, however, is changing. As more Icelanders move from smaller towns to larger ones, their number has been decreasing. In the year 2000, Iceland had a total of 124 municipalities. In May of next year, when the most recent merger agreement takes effect, that number will be just 69. A government proposal aims to further decrease the number of local councils in stages, so that by 2026, no council will oversee fewer than 1,000 residents. Only 32 of the country’s municipalities currently reach that number, meaning there could be many mergers ahead.
The problems mergers address…
Small communities in any country face a number of challenges, whether ensuring enough funding to provide services to their residents, creating employment opportunities, or making their voices heard by federal authorities. Róbert Ragnarsson is a former mayor who has worked as a consultant for municipal mergers for over 15 years. He believes mergers can address many of these problems. After a successful merger, Róbert says, “services would be better, the administration would be more efficient and quicker to deal with issues, and the municipality would be a stronger advocate for its interests to the legislator and state government.”
By pooling their resources, municipalities can potentially streamline their operations, as well as free up funding, which can then be invested in improving services. Merger advocates also maintain that larger municipalities have a louder voice when it comes to issues under state jurisdiction, such as healthcare, transportation, and road infrastructure. In turn, improved infrastructure is expected to create more and diverse job opportunities within a municipality, supporting its future development and social and cultural life.
… And the challenges they create
Of course, bringing multiple communities under a single council presents challenges as well. With fewer councillors responsible for a larger area, there’s an obvious risk of smaller issues falling through the cracks. Residents of smaller communities may also fear a loss of influence by merging with larger ones. “The biggest challenges are to ensure that residents, especially in smaller localities, still have influence on issues, particularly schools and planning in their communities,” Róbert says.
It turns out, however, that Icelandic legislation does have a provisional clause to address such issues: forming so-called “home councils” within each town under a consolidated municipality. The four East Iceland towns that recently voted to merge will be the first to apply this provision. While Fljótsdalshérað, Borgarfjarðarhreppur, Seyðisfjarðarhreppur, and Djúpavogshreppur will share one local council, each will also have a home council made up of three representatives. Two members of each home council will be elected directly by the locality’s residents, while the third will have a seat on the municipal council.
While the municipal council will decide on general zoning plans, detailed land-use plans will be under the jurisdiction of the home councils. The municipal council will determine general environmental policy, but specific environmental projects within a locality’s area will be in the hands of its home council. Home councils will, therefore, have a big influence on environmental protection as well as development within their locality. They will also have a voice when it comes to social and cultural events.
Róbert is currently working to help the four East Iceland municipalities implement their merger, and it’s no simple task. “The biggest challenge in the transition is to get all of the staff in all of the localities to take part and work towards the changes and ensure that there’s satisfaction with the whole process. And to make sure that the funding is in place.” In general, says Róbert, East Icelanders are optimistic about the coming changes. “Here in the East it’s gone really well. Better than I dared to hope. We are working on a similar project in Þingeyjarsýsla [North Iceland], and the outlook is also positive there, at least in these early stages. I think, in general, the outlook is more positive than when I was working on similar projects 15 years ago.”
Municipal mergers have not only been discussed in the context of small towns, they have also been considered in the capital area. “I think it wouldn’t be a good idea to merge all of the municipalities in the capital area into one. If it were one 200,000-person municipality, it would be by far the largest in the country, and that would create new problems,” Róbert says. “But it could be positive to merge some of the municipalities. Kjósarhreppur, for example, has only 240 residents. There are localities in the capital area that have reason to consider mergers.”
Some have pointed out that the municipalities surrounding Reykjavík are able to take advantage of its services without contributing tax funds to support them, or developing their own. According to Róbert, that’s not a challenge that should be addressed by mergers. “Capital cities in all countries provide services that others use, and Reykjavík will never be able to avoid that. Akureyri is also providing services that other municipalities near it use, and Egilsstaðir does the same. Larger urban centres and all capital cities are in this position.”
Joining the club
Municipal mergers will likely reshape Iceland’s local government in the near future, and, in the process, reshape the lives of their residents. Some post-merger municipalities are already seeing positive impacts, Róbert says. “Money that was previously used to pay councillor salaries is being used in social services and schools. And municipalities are seeing more results in development or transportation issues after merging.” He adds, however, that some residents, particularly in rural areas, have reported feeling a reduction in their influence on their local council, but if home councils manage to prevent this issue in the East, they could be implemented elsewhere in the country. At the very least, considering whether to merge or not to merge is getting Icelanders to consider what effective local government should look like – and that, in itself, could prove to have a positive impact.