Government plans to slash number of municipalities in Latvia by two thirds

Latvia's government on April 10 outlined ambitious plans to reform local municipal administration, including a headline-grabbing pledge to reduce the total number of municipalities from 119 (110 municipalities and 9 cities) at present to just 35 by 2021.

The administrative-territorial reform project is being overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM) which envisages the creation of 35 local government regions centered on towns and cities rather than the more dispersed model currently in operation.

The ministry believes it will save millions of euros via the reforms and create a more populous and viable tier of local government, though some people in isolated and rural regions have voiced fears that they will lose influence and become even more dependent upon urban centers.

The number of municipal deputies elected across the country would drop from 1,614 to 686 under the proposals.

Speaking at a presentation that took more than an hour to outline the plans April 10, Minister Juris Pūce said the reforms would act as a "stimulus" to local government.

"We find ourselves in a situation in which municipalities are very varied," Pūce said, adding that in theory Latvian municipalities had some of the widest powers and functions in the European Union but often lacked the financial and infrastructural strength to do as much as they might. The reforms are intended to help them do more, he said.

"We are open to discussion and I am always ready to talk," Pūce said, adding that discussions would continue with municipalities and other stakeholders and modifications to the plan were still possible."

"As minister I am responsible for delivering quality services in the interests of all Latvian residents," Pūce said.

In an unusual move Pūce was flanked at the presentation by representatives of academia and business to bolster the reasons why reform is needed. These reasons included creating a better spread of infrastructure and services, acting as a means of combating mass emigration, improving economic productivity, attracting more investment and improving the educational network.

Territorial reform was named as one of the priorities of Krišjānis Kariņš' coalition government, though until recent days the form such reforms might take remained to be decided. LSM recently got Pūce to explain the rationale behind the reform in English, too.

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