CONGRES DES POUVOIRS LOCAUX ET REGIONAUX
DE L'EUROPE
CONGRESS OF LOCAL AND REGIONAL AUTHORITIES
OF EUROPE
 



 
 
 

Statement

by

Ulrich BOHNER,
Deputy Head of the Secretariat of the
Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe,

on behalf of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe
General Assembly of the United Nations

New York, 7/8 June 2001



I am particularly honoured to speak on behalf of Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, at this special session of the General Assembly and I should like to take this opportunity to give you a short overview of the main achievements of the Council of Europe in the field of local democracy over the past 50 years.

The Council of Europe's major achievement for drawing up a set of common principles of local self-government all over Europe was the adoption and opening for signature of the European Charter of Local Self-government, an international convention which has been signed and ratified respectively by 37 and 34 countries from a total of 43 member States of the Council of Europe.

The idea of having an international treaty which would recognise the rights of local communities is not a new one.  Since its early creation in 1949, one of the main objectives of the Council of Europe has been the promotion at European level of the idea of an international instrument for the protection of local authorities' rights, but such a treaty was developed only later when the principle of institutionalised representation of local communities within the Council of Europe was recognised.

Until 1994 local authorities in Europe were represented within the Standing Conference of local authorities, a consultative body of the Council of Europe which was the first ever organ representing local authorities on such a large scale.

Since 1994 local and regional authorities of Europe have been represented in the Council of Europe by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, the successor to the Standing Conference, which today gathers some 600 delegates from 43 member States and is the broadest forum in Europe for discussion on the issues of local and regional democracy and is well placed to ascertain and summarise the political and methodological basis for solving the problems that local authorities may encounter.

 The main basis for discussion is the European Charter of Local Self-government, which was prepared by the Congress predecessor, the Standing Conference, and adopted by the Committee of Ministers in 1985.  In recent years, signing and ratification of the Charter has become one of the major conditions of accession for the countries that wish to join the Council of Europe.

The main purpose of this convention is first of all to provide member States with a common basis of shared values in the field of local democracy which every national government and local authority could refer to in building or reforming their institutions. By signing and ratifying the European Charter, national governments recognise the vital contribution of local self-government to democracy, democratic stability, effective administration close to the citizens, the decentralisation of power aimed at rationalizing the decision making process and to giving citizens the opportunity to participate in public life.  It also means that the local authorities are seen in a democratic society as democratically constituted bodies enjoying and exercising wide ranging responsibilities and able to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and, which is of the utmost importance, doing so in the interest of the local population.

In order to allow local authorities to manage "a substantial share of public affairs", the European Charter provides for a number of principles which must be respected by the member States of the Council of Europe which signed and ratified the Charter.  I am not going to list all of these guarantees as the Charter consists of 18 Articles but should like to quote those which are essential for building genuine local democracy from the Council of Europe's stand point.

First of all, the European Charter attaches great significance to the formal establishment of local self-government and its recognition in the Constitution or by law.

The Charter also defines what may be called the structural conditions of self-government: the existence of councils elected by direct suffrage, executive organs responsible to those councils, direct participation of citizens in public affairs and, of course, the application of the principle of subsidiarity in the division of powers and responsibilities between different tiers of government.

The latter principle laid down in Article 4.3 of the Charter offers keys to the vertical distribution of powers, also making it possible to save money and resources or to use them in a more efficient way: "Public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen.".  The great merit of this principle lies in the fact that it enables elected bodies at local level to discharge their responsibilities in close proximity to the people they serve, whose needs they know perfectly, and gives them full freedom of decision, provided they respect decisions applying to the country as a whole.  In fine, there are more guarantees that the local populations will be respected because the population controls democratically elected local authorities.

The other important guarantees provided by the Charter are the rights granted to local authorities of recourse to a judicial remedy and to enjoy sufficient financial and managerial resources for the performance of their duties.

 Let me underline that all these provisions of the Charter which I have briefly listed have the merit of being adaptable to very different situations.  The Charter should be seen as a means of encouraging states to develop their legislation in order eventually to guarantee their citizens the right to participate in the management of public affairs.

In the early 90's, after the fall of communist governments in Central and Eastern European countries and accession to power of newly elected governments, the Council of Europe was asked to provide help to its new members with regard to reform of local government because the role of democratically recognised local authorities was seen as a key element for democratisation of the whole State structure. It is worth noting that since that time the European Charter of Local Self-government has been the legal instrument which has inspired eastern European governments in their reform of local administration and supplied them with an institutional framework for such reforms.  As I mentioned before, joining the Charter has now become one of the key conditions of accession to the Council of Europe.

Although the European Charter does not provide for a specific judicial mechanism of monitoring of the implementation of its provisions, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe instructed the Congress to prepare on a regular basis country-by-country reports on the situation of local and regional democracy in all member States and ensure that the principles of the European Charter are implemented.  So far around 30 country reports on local and regional democracy have been prepared and adopted by the Congress.  In these reports, the Congress analyses the situation in a given country and makes its recommendations to the government with a view to improving the legislation related to local and regional democracy. This overview process is conducted in the spirit of a permanent dialogue between the Congress and national authorities which involves patient work of liaison and explanation of the principles of the Charter. The main objective of such an exercise is to set up channels between local authorities in Europe and governments for constructive dialogue in defining and conducting policies and practices of local self-government.

Over the past two years, the Congress has followed with great interest the work of the UN Commission for Human Settlements relating to the preparation of a draft World Charter on Local Self-government. Two eminent members of the Congress, Dr Gerhard Engel (Germany) and Mr Alan Lloyd (United Kingdom), participated in the preparatory work and twice attended the Commission's sessions in Nairobi in 1999 and 2000 where the first and second drafts of the charter were discussed.  Last week they reported to the Congress on the progress made in this respect.  Unfortunately, the Congress ascertained that the draft has encountered a number of difficulties and that the progress is not as fast as would have been hoped.

However, the Congress expressed the view that it was important to continue to support - in conformity with the objectives of the Council of Europe - the ongoing worldwide dialogue on the principle of subsidiarity and good governance at local level. The Congress encourages international associations of local authorities to continue a permanent dialogue with the national governments of all countries in order to endorse the idea of a World Charter on Local Self-government.  In the Congress' view, this Charter should be seen as an instrument designed to promote sustainable development of our municipalities and will, if adopted one day, no doubt contribute to strengthening citizens' participation in the decision making process at the local level, to developing local economy and improving social cohesion.

The Congress also considers also that a World Charter in the manner of the role played by the European Charter of Local Self-Government in Central and Eastern European countries will help promote decentralisation through democratic local authorities and will certainly contribute to enhancing their financial and institutional capacities, while ensuring their transparency, accountability and responsiveness to the needs of people within the framework of national development plans.

The Chamber of Local Authorities of the Congress also had an exchange of views on this matter with representatives of the American conference of mayors and the Chinese association of local authorities and it was felt that further dialogue is needed and will certainly help to promote the idea of a world charter.

Finally, the Congress called upon governments and parliaments of the member States to support the draft World Charter.  As for the Congress, it is going to give an opinion on the second draft of the Charter.

Similarly to the UN, local democracy and Habitat questions are conceived and dealt with in the same unit, the same arena within the Council of Europe.

I have spoken a few moments ago about this unit, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, which brings together local and regional politicians, at the highest level, from our 43 member countries.

It is a simple reality, in Europe and elsewhere, that solving the problems and facing the challenges of town and country is best done locally, at the coal face. In this context, let me quote a former European Union Commissioner Bruce Millan, who stated at an EU initiative on urban regeneration a few years ago in Glasgow, that "urban policies are best tackled at a local level".

This also means that our work on urban questions takes very much its flavour both from the inspiration of the forces behind our work on local democracy, the European Charter of Local Self-Government; and the overall vocation of a Council of Europe wedded to the principles of democracy and human rights. As Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, pointed out at the last Congress Session: "there is no democracy without local democracy".

It is therefore concerned with the improvement of life in our cities; with social cohesion; with participation and community development; with a good quality architecture and environment; with peaceable coexistence between minorities and ethnic groups; with a transport system balanced between its various users, with the prevention of crime; with employment policies geared to demand, with the regeneration of industrial areas via social, cultural and environmental policies acting as a magnet for and a vector of the private sector; with the democratic control by local authorities of the price and quality of public utilities; ... in other words, giving a town a human dimension.
You will not be surprised to learn that just as the human rights jurisprudence of the Council of Europe has its reference, the European Convention of Human Rights; just as local democracy has its reference with the European Charter of Local Self-Government, so the work on urban policies has its guiding light, the European Urban Charter.

In WACLAC and the UNCHS, you have taken the European Charter of Local Self Government as an influence in the World Charter; I would like to see the further development and refinement of the Habitat Agenda avail itself of the European Urban Charter, in a similar manner. After all, it is, in effect, the collected policy reflections of local politicians, town planners and architects in Europe.

What is the Charter?

It results from many years of work on urban questions at the Council of Europe, work which concentrated on some of the aspects which I have already mentioned. Inspired by one of our campaigns, the European Campaign for Urban Renaissance and characterized by comparative reports, conferences, seminars, exchange of best practice and policy proposals, the Charter is both a distillation of this work and a guide by local authorities for local authorities on good urban practice.

It has been translated into several languages and distributed to towns in Europe, asking them to adhere to its principles. Next year, in Sofia, we shall organize a Conference on the extent to which these have been reflected in local government policy and practice in member countries.

Another aspect of our work on urban questions is the creation, by ourselves, of specialist non-governmental organizations which become, once they have reached their cruising speed, our natural partners in the sector of work concerned.

Examples are the European Forum for Urban Security, arising from our work on crime prevention; the European Association of Towns and Regions of Industrial Tradition, arising from conferences organized on urban industrial regeneration, and the European Association of Historic Towns and Regions, arising from our work on the protection of the historic heritage and the achievement of balance between conservation of the heritage with the requirements of contemporary society and economic development.

The responsibility for this work now lies with the Congress Committee on Sustainable Development. When we talk of Habitat, however, we also talk of the rural environment which, as a consequence, finds its place naturally into the objectives of this Committee. It will therefore shortly embark on an analysis of the problems of rural society, particularly on questions such as financial equalisation between rural and urban municipalities; infrastructure, spatial planning and the environment in rural areas; the problems created by the reduction of postal services, local police stations, transport; potential threats to rural areas through tourism; and the impact on the rural economy of structural changes faced by the agricultural community.

Another preoccupation faced by local authorities, one which will be the subject of new work of this Committee in the immediate future, is dealing with disasters and emergencies, of which we seem to have had a spate in Europe in recent months: storms, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, marine pollution, forest fires, and above all, floods. Local authorities have a role in gathering historic and geographic information on high-risk areas; establishing risk exposure maps and risk prevention plans; providing proper warnings for populations and coping with the aftermath of disasters.

In conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to affirm the coincidence of the objectives both of your Habitat Agenda and our own work on the challenges of town and country in Europe. We naturally therefore support the Habitat Agenda.

Equally, we support the work of the UN Commission on Human Settlements and its work on preparing a draft World Charter of Local Self-Government. In this context, only last week in Strasbourg on the occasion of the Plenary Session of our Chamber of Local Authorities, we spoke at length to delegations from local authorities in USA and China.  We can now trust that their influence will be brought to bear on their respective national authorities in order to dilute their opposition to the Charter. In our own geopolitical zone, we have received commitments from member countries of the Council of Europe, to support the Charter.

We are supportive of the strengthening of a local government dimension in the work of the United Nations, in a way similar to the one we enjoy in the Council of Europe with our Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe and the European Union with its Committee of Regions, a UN Association of Cities and Local Authorities - UN.ACLA.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention.