Latvia’s Minister tells about the regional reform, Ventspils its merge with other municipalities and other topics

Dainis Lemešonoks for
The interview with Latvia’s Minister of Environment Protection and Regional Development is dedicated to the topic of the future of Ventspils and municipality. Though organised remotely, it was direct and lively.
-Last year multiple cities in Latvia were scandalously saved from unavoidable «marriage» with neighbouring municipalities. Otherwise it would lead to an investigation of Saeima deputies’ decisions… Are your and Mr. Pūce (former minister Juris Pūce) intimidated by the Saeima? Could the requirement for the merge be sabotaged in the next Saeima vote?
First of all, it was a request from the Constitutional Court. In its ruling – regarding Ozolnieki and Ilūkste municipality’s merge with Jelgava and Augšdaugava – the court concluded that the parliament acted arbitrarily and did not include am important criterion of the reform considered important by the Constitutional Court – inclusion of a development centre within the territory of the new municipality. This means such a ruling from the Constitutional Court – which is required to be complied with by the legislator – applies to those two municipalities and others that are in a similar situation: South Kurzeme municipality, Ventspils municipality, Rēzeknes municipality – territories detailed in the ruling of the Constitutional Court.
If the Saeima resolves the two specific situations, others should be resolved through a systematic approach.
The Ministry of Environment Protection and Regional Development proposed to merge national cities with their neighbouring municipalities starting with 2025. It is important to outline here the Saeima doesn’t have much time left until the end of the year for law amendments to come to force with 1 January 2022. Otherwise Ozolnieki and Ilūkste would be crossed out from the law – these territories will no longer legally exist! It is clear we cannot allow this. This is why I hope the Saeima will act responsibly.
-So its the Constitutional Court «to blame»? Do you or your party have no enthusiasm or commitment to this? Do you only follow requirements of the ruling?
Implementation of the administrative territorial reform was one of our party’s main emphasis during election. I am happy to see we have accomplished this result through energetic and hard work. It will benefit residents’ quality of life – I have no doubts about that. The ministry’s initial offer provided for the development of those cities and nearby territories. This has not changed at all. Generally the Constitutional Court has admitted the ministry’s proposed model was sufficiently discussed, is justified and generally needed for regional development. This is true for other parts of Europe: the development centre and other territories generate a much larger development potential.
-From the 28 October meeting of Ventspils City Council: ‘The municipal council believes the legislative draft was prepared in breach of Sections 1 and 101 of the Constitution, as well as part six of Section 4 and Section 5 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government passed by the European Council 15 October 1985.’ How would you comment on this claim?
We have not breached any laws, the Constitution or charter. Our consultations and offers the ministry submitted to Saeima committee for review and later passed in the first reading – all of it was analysed and discussed in detail. We’ve had discussions in 2019 with municipalities and residents about different models for the best possible solution. This year the ministry organised talks with other municipalities. I believe consultations and analysis were sufficiently deep.
For example, discussions were held in regards to Ventspils city and Ventspils municipality’s territory: only 20% of all of the municipality’s residents work within the municipality’s territory; 40% have jobs in the city, and more than 20% have jobs in Riga. It is clear with this percentage of labour force it is not possible to develop the territory and provide quality services to residents. We can see most residents of the municipality use services in the city itself. People employed in the municipality and city know this well.
This is why it is possible to accomplish a better economic effect and improve quality of life through unified management of this territory. This is in the interest of residents. We can see this fractured municipality has problems. Often the road leading to a city has asphalt surface, but immediately outside the city the road is not repaired. But people still drive home every day…
-Let’s ask: where would we see something like that?
I believe every resident of Ventspils and the municipality that traverses these routes is aware of this problem!
-Another excerpt from the city council’s decision: «…does not meet the opinion voiced by Ventspils city and Ventspils municipality’s residents in November-December 2019: only 29% of residents agree fully or mostly agree with the merge of Ventspils city and Ventspils municipality in a single municipality and only 33% of Ventspils residents agree fully or likely with the merge of municipalities into a single municipality». How far are you committed to respecting results of this survey and the decision of the city and municipal council to object this merge?
Implementation of the ruling of the Constitutional Court and decision-making is the parliament’s competence. It is important for us to make sure the reform contributes to the development of the country. Some exceptions will remain and some disorder will remain that will negatively affect development. In reality – when it comes to the state power – we are about ten years late with decision-making. Now is the last moment to do it. We cannot afford to spend more time on arguments about preserving existing territorial planing of cities and municipalities. We can see this does not contribute to development. What I mentioned about migration of labour force also outlines the problem.
-What do you think: are there any SPECIFIC local arguments why Ventspils and municipality should merge?
Looking at development of entrepreneurship in general – and this was obvious for the previous 119 municipalities model – it is important for each territory to have its own development centre. It should be a centre with concentrated capital, resources, people and knowledge. What we see is: municipalities that have no development centres and which fail to create them in the future will have a harder time getting access to EU funding. Even support intended to support businesses. For example municipalities are already aware of programmes that were and will remain accessible for territories that have a development centre.
We can see that after the last municipal elections, opportunities have spread to territories in which support was not previously available. This affects creation of new jobs, preservation of existing ones and improvement of territorial competitiveness. It is in the interest of the municipality and its residents to combine resources to ensure successful economic development. Access to support mechanisms is a very important aspect.
-We can see the idea of the merge is not very popular among townspeople. Four opposition deputies abstained in the vote – they didn’t vote against the city council’s decision. Even Edgars Čeporjus and Normunds Pūpols – members of your party. Do you object to such evasiveness in a topic that is important to your party?
First of all we need to know their reasons. I’ve not talked with them about it. They are capable of making development-focused decisions on their own. I believe they had some serious reasons for doing what they did.
-The merge with neighbouring municipalities may – at least hypothetically – undermine the bastions of power For Latvia and Ventspils and the Union of Greens and Farmers in Ventspils and Jelgava. It may also shake up Harmony’s rule in Rezekne and Daugavpils. Would you agree the merge also has an element of political necessity to it?
I cannot agree with that! The main element of necessity or the main objective of the reform is providing residents quality services in the territories they live in. More than 100 days have passed since the reform came to force. We can see that the quality of services have improved. This is true for Latgale and Kurzeme. And this is just the beginning! It is clear the next budget creation process will show municipalities are able to use resources more effectively and ensure more rapid development. Councils should be proactive with a clear understanding of how best to invest taxpayers’ money and other resources at their disposal.
For example, Ventspils municipality’s neighbour – Talsu municipality – has already improved its social support mechanism for foster families, and increase benefits.
Similarly residents of the city and Ventspils municipality would receive bigger benefits if the two developed as a single territory. By working together and creating synergy we can create a better foundation for economic growth. This is proven by countless similar examples in other EU member states. If we look at Nordic countries, Finland has one of the lowest differences for regional development. Cooperation between Oulu, Tampere and Lahti and their surrounding territories has allowed them to use their growth potential. The economic reality and the single labour market show that these territories are very closely tied together.