Introduction During the past twenty years the Italian system of local government has undergone considerable change, leading towards greater decentralization. The 1990s was the decade that saw the greatest change in the century-long history of Italian local government. It opened in 1990 with a law reforming local authorities that was partially rewritten in 2000; it continued in 1993 with the introduction of the direct election of mayors, and followed this in 1997 with the adoption of numerous measures to modernize the administration and to bring about a vast process of decentralization. It concluded with two constitutional amendments, in 1999 and 2001, that were intended to transform Italy into a quasi-federal state. However, if we examine merely the structure of the system, continuity seems to prevail. In 2004 the Italian Republic was still divided, as it was in 1986, into twenty regions (regioni), 110 provinces (province) (95 in 1986) and 8,101 municipalities (comuni) (8,086 in 1986). These figures display an apparent stability. In particular, they show that Italy was unable to undertake the process of territorial reorganization deemed necessary in order to overcome its traditional fragmentation. While the 1990 law had tried to push local governments into amalgamation through financial incentives, the small municipalities were successful in hindering the merger process. Today, half the 8,000 Italian municipalities have fewer than 3,000 inhabitants (Table 8.1). The number of provincial governments has even increased (95 to 110) under the pressure of medium-sized cities that longed to be promoted to a higher status. A similar failure occurred with the institution of metropolitan governments. According to the 1990 law, directly elected metropolitan authorities were to replace the provinces in nine metropolitan areas. But the law’s provision has still not been implemented in any of the nine metropolitan areas, despite the constitutional amendment of 2001 that introduced the “metropolitan authorities” as one of the institutions of the Republic, alongside the communes, the provinces and the regions. The actual creation of metropolitan governments was hindered by the resistance of the provincial governments, which did not want to see the major cities escaping from their jurisdiction, and by the suspicion of the municipalities
involved. This story fully confirms Sharpe’s dictum that “no one really loves metropolitan governments” (1995: 27). Despite the apparent continuity, however, the overall picture is less static than it appears. The fragmentation of Italian municipalities and the rise of new functional needs pushed the Italian system towards the creation of new intermunicipal bodies and field agencies that greatly altered the scene. Since 1971 the (often tiny) municipalities in the mountain areas have been compulsorily grouped into inter-municipal bodies called “mountain communities” (comunità montane). These bodies had to provide services on behalf of the associated communes under regional regulation. In recent decades the mountain communities have increased their role and legitimacy. Because of the country’s geography, today half of all Italian municipalities are members of one of the 356 mountain communities. Moreover, as mergers failed under the 1990 law, in 1999 a new law allowed neighbouring communes to create a “union of communes” (unione di comuni) that could provide common services while preserving the identity of the associated municipalities. This move was more successful: today, 269 such unions involve 1,217 small municipalities and 3.8 million inhabitants. The traditional form of cooperation among Italian communes is that of consortia (consorzi) – that is, associative specialized bodies that perform a single task (transportation, waste management, social services, etc.) on behalf of members. Recently these forms of cooperation were enhanced and rationalized. National and regional laws defined special areas (ambiti) (normally smaller than a province) in which the municipalities were obliged to participate to a specialized authority or agency. The supply of water and sewerage is now regulated by special area authorities (autorità d’ambito) under the control of the municipalities, and a similar arrangement exists for waste management. Moreover, a number of agencies were creasted by cities or by clusters of municipalities to deal with innovative policies, such as internationalization, local development, city marketing and the like. We can conclude that the meso level of government (Sharpe 1993) has become more crowded and more complex over the past twenty years, with
different kinds of arrangements (unions, consortia, agencies, authorities) in place. For the citizen the municipal tier is still the most important one, but many local policies are formulated through a wider process of multilevel interaction. The role of municipal governments was strongly enhanced by the 1993 reform that introduced the direct election of mayors. The council is elected from party lists on a proportional basis, but the parties linked to the winning mayor automatically obtain 60 per cent of the seats. The mayor is thus guaranteed a majority within the council. The reform was successful in giving stability to municipal executives. In the past, party fragmentation (a result of proportional representation) caused frequent changes of the governing coalition. Now the directly elected mayor is able to remain in charge for the whole five-year mandate (and very often is able to double it). The reform has placed the mayor in a central position. He or she is more autonomous from the political parties. The mayor is able to make his or her voice heard in the often contentious local political system. He or she has gained a personal reputation that is important both inside and outside the municipal sphere (Bobbio 2005). The mayor’s new role has had important effects on the access issue, as we shall see later. A similar device was also adopted for the provincial (1993) and regional (1999) governments, whose presidents are now directly elected.