The Big Beautiful Municipality?

Harrie Scholtens* | 2013

Times are changing. In every society this will happen and has to be recognised. However difficult it is to say goodbye to the past, we have to realise that the past is behind us. Of course we have to learn from it, but we also have to look forwards and prepare society for the constantly changing future. Of course this also happens in governmental structures – slowly, but it does happen.

The responsibilities of the governmental levels will change throughout the years, as a result of changes in society, the needs and questions of inhabitants, new technologies et cetera. All of these changes therefore require more expertise from governmental organisations: expertise which can be found in cooperation, but also for instance in merging of municipalities and their organisations of civil servants. Larger organisations will offer more opportunities for civil servants to invest in their knowledge and skills. These aspects, including the talents of the other category of civil servants, are needed to handle the changes in these larger organisations.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a changin’

– Bob Dylan, 1963

In several countries in Europe, merging of municipalities is a subject of governmental discussion. In Belgium for instance, the Flemish Government recently decided to open a discussion on governmental reform at the local level.¹ In Denmark a reform was completed in 2007, and in The Netherlands there has been an ongoing discussion for a number of years about the scale of municipalities.

In this article you will be taken through the world of merging, a process of wondering, obstacles and standing by your vision. Four aspects of merging will be discussed. First: before we can walk into the future we need a vision (macro). The way we walk into the future, when a decision to merge has been taken, needs a micro vision (second), and can be by (third) a ‘big bang’ method, or the (fourth) ‘tailor-made’ method.

Macro Vision

Merging municipalities is ‘hot’. In many countries merging is occurring, or discussions are taking place about merging. The reasons are different. Sometimes the reasons are finance, quality, less bureaucracy, fewer representatives; however of course there will also be other reasons, depending on the specific situation. It is becoming increasingly important to formulate a vision of how to handle the structure of public government. It is not possible to form an opinion on merging municipalities without having a discussion about the position of the municipalities within the governmental structure. Where do municipalities stand and what do we expect from the politicians and the organisation of civil servants? It is therefore necessary to have an opinion about society and to know what the future could bring us–‘could’ because no one has a crystal ball to predict the future exactly.

But still it is necessary to make a prediction of what society might look like in the next 10-20 years. The technological developments will be huge. We cannot possibly imagine at this moment what will be possible at that point in the future. If we look back to 20 years ago you will see the beginning of the computer area. We had no words to describe what could be possible, but look at the situation today; the possibilities are almost endless. But it is not only regarding the technical side of the future; we also have to look at the reality of what all those developments will mean for society itself. People will be behaving differently –their needs will be different. What they demand from the government will change, but also the way they want to have contact with the government.

It is within this framework that we will have to build political systems and governmental organisations which function with the idea that there is always change. Nothing stays the same. The next step is to realise that we need modern information technology. Within that framework we need higher educated staff and perhaps also politicians. In the last category there is the concern that politicians must not lose contact with society.

The most ideal situation would be that the politicians are able, supported by well educated civil servants, to do their job as a representative of their inhabitants in a country, region or municipality. Within this way of thinking it will be normal to discuss the functioning of (local)government. Is the scale of municipalities enough for the future? Is there enough (governmental) power to carry out well the tasks they have to do? Are municipalities ready for the future?

It’s my strong opinion that within this timeframe merging will be necessary to provide an answer to these developments. Of course in some cases, alternatives such as cooperation will provide the solution; but at a certain moment the legibility of control by a democratic chosen government will make a merging necessary. For instance, cooperation in the field of ICT is a very logical thought. But never forget that this will need decisions regarding an enormous sum of money. It is logical that politicians want to have an influence on those decisions and do not want to have proposals from a relatively external organisation, where they only have to say yes or no.

Another circumstance is the development of a ‘United States of Europe’. Europe as an identity is a fact. Most countries in the EU have three levels of government. It seems that an extra top level will have consequences for the levels of government in the different countries. Perhaps in some cases, one of the three levels will disappear. Local government will stay, but increasing the number of municipalities will be necessary in that case, combined with all kindsof forms of local decentralisation,in order to stay close to the inhabitants.

Micro Vision

The vision must not be restricted to the national and/or regional level regarding the question of how many municipalities we must have,and more importantly,what the tasks of those municipalities are and what the size of the municipalities must be. If these questions are answered in a vision, then the procedure of a reform can start. Within this framework there will be new municipalities. A micro vision is necessary to see how these municipalities will be organised and how they will work.

Moreover,the most ideal situation would be if this vision was created by inhabitants, entrepreneurs, companies, culture societies et cetera of the new municipality.² A vision of that kind can tell the new politicians what society expects from the responsible people of the new municipality and what they expect from the organisation of civil servants. The organigram can thus be built by using the outcome of such a vision. It makes the start of the new organisation a little bit easier.

The reality is, however, that this is one of the most difficult steps in the building of a new organisation, because there are no politicians from the new municipality who can take responsibility for such a process. If this cannot be realised, the consequence is that an organisation will be built on the information and visions of consultants and/or other persons or institutes.

Much can be said about merging of municipalities,at every level of government; but when the decision has been taken to merge, the procedure has to start and therefore two options are available: the ‘Big Bang’and the ‘Tailor made’one. Both options require the full attention of those who are responsible for carrying out the merging decision. Procedures must be carried out and people have to be consulted much as possible about the expectations for the new municipality.

Big Bang

For the ‘big bang’ solution we can look at the reform in Denmark. The decision was made at the national level that the municipalities were too small for their future tasks. This choice was the result of a conclusion of a State Committee in 2002. They were not able to perform their tasks at the required high level. At least 20.000 inhabitants were needed and up to 30.000 inhabitants were necessary for a forced partnership. Through an interactive debate in the country, followed by referenda on local level and elections on a national level, the law for the merging was realised on 23 June 2005. On 1 January 2007 the number of municipalities decreased from 278 to 98.

After a ‘Big Bang’ operation the discussion about merging municipalities will fade away for the time being. Scientific research shows that the first year was relatively chaotic because of removal, personnel, phone and IT problems. For a while the municipalities were not able to issue building permits for instance. After one year the situation stabilised. Nowadays the difference in cultures is still a problem. Some investigations in the second year showed that there were severe cuts in budgets at the national level. There was almost no efficiency profitand the national government was still dominant. The costs for the inhabitants had increased a little and there was a lack of transparency. And most of all: the service level had not increased


‘Tailor-made’ solutions are oftenthe way in whichmerging is often realised in the Netherlands. The difference from the situation in Denmark is that the most powerful governmental level for a merging is the regional level (Provinces). Of course the national level has an opinion about merging (MacroVision almost changing with every new cabinet contract, which is not in favour of sustainability), which they can use when a Province sends a merging proposal to the Ministry for the law procedure.

This is also the case with a merging which is the initiative of two or more municipalities (voluntary merging). To act on the field of merging in this way includes a long process of reducing the number of municipalities and a constant discussion about this theme. The noise about merging will not fade away for some time.

On the other side, it is always possible to work with the latest knowledge and the solution will be more fitting to the concrete situation. The law process in the Netherlands leads to the fact that the final political decision is mostly made about three months before the merging has to be realised; and a period of three months is far too short for a good implementation of a merging.⁴

Due to the fact that some merging of municipalities takes place every year in the Netherlands, some scientific research has been undertaken over the years. The outcome of this research is almost the same as in Denmark. It takes several years to find a new balance. But one of the most important conclusionswas that a merging often does not have the promised financial benefit. Due to several circumstances it will take 5-10 years before old contracts fade away and the real situation can be seen.⁵


One of the most important aspects of merging is that there will always be resistance, even when it is a voluntary merging. The resistance comes mostly from the inhabitants who are afraid of losing, for example,the identity of a village. The argument they use is the fact of increasing costs for inhabitants, while the governmental institutions often claim that a merging is profitable. As mentioned before, investigations showed that this is not the case for at least 5-10 years. It is very important to tell the true story, namely that it will cost money, but that a merging is necessary based on the Macro Vision. Use the knowledge of inhabitants in writing the Micro Vision and find in cooperation with them forms of decentralisation within the new municipalityto end the feeling of loss ofidentity.


  1. Let the (macro) Vision not be: ‘We merge municipalities, because of the merging’. Then the goal of merging has become the vision. The merging must be a result of a vision, developed in cooperation with stakeholders. It gives the politicians the possibility to explain why a merging is necessary.
  2. Realise that working on the vision is sometimes one of small steps towards the future and in some cases a hold is necessary. Before a merging, a strong cooperation between municipalities is a temperand acceptable solution. Even after a merging, cooperation can be necessary (for instance in the field of ICT).
  3. Based on the vision, make a choice at national level for the method: ‘big bang’ or ‘tailor-made’.
  4. Realise that there will always be resistance, based on emotions. Allow room for this to be expressed.
  5. Take the merging steps with participation of stakeholders (micro vision).
  6. Let the political decision be taken before the merging of the organisations of civil servants take place.
  7. And finally: tell the truth, not only the financial benefits, which will not be there in the first 5-10 years, but the (macro) vision makes a merging of municipalities necessary.


  1. Vlaamse Regering, Witboek interne staatshervorming, 8 April 2011. (Macro Vision)
  2. Royal Haskoning, ‘Aanzet voor een maatschappelijke agenda voor Goeree-Overflakkee’, een slagvaardige gemeente voor een economisch vitaal eiland. 13  May 2011. Discussion document for the merging of municipalities on the Island Goeree-Overflakkee in the Netherlands. (Micro Vision)
  3. Laheij, B.M.A., Masterscriptie aan de Universiteit van Tilburg, 24 July 2009.
  4. Wet Algemene Regelen Herindeling. Law in the Netherlands about Merging governmental organisations.
  5. Universiteit van Groningen/Berenschot, Effecten van gemeentelijke herindelingen in de provincie Zuid-Holland, June 2008.

Seconded National Expert at European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA), former City Manager of Middelharnis/Goedereede, The Netherlands and Public Governance Expert at PRIMO Europe.  He writes this article on personal title.