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NEWS ANALYSIS: Consolidation of municipalities in Greater Helsinki region causes friction within and between major political parties
Local Government Minister Henna Virkkunen of the National Coalition Party stands to make enemies whatever solution is chosen
By Joonas Laitinen and Teppo Moisio
Finland’s municipal leaders are waiting for the turn of the year like naughty children for Christmas.
It is not the wrath or stinginess of Santa Claus that they should fear, however, but the intentions of Minister of Public Administration and Local Government Henna Virkkunen (National Coalition Party).
A report by a ministerial working group set up by Virkkunen looking into the situation of Finland’s municipalities is being anticipated either excitedly or with mortal dread also in Helsinki and the rest of the surrounding Uusimaa Province.
The minister’s task is not an easy one: Helsinki wants to have at least the surrounding cities of Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa pinned to its already ample bosom.
In the wildest scenario, also Kirkkonummi, Kerava, and the rest of Sipoo [Helsinki took a slice of this neighbouring municipality to the east not long ago] would be annexed to the capital.
In the view of eager Helsinki politicians, the consolidation of the municipalities would reduce competition over good taxpayers and even out the bill for social problems between the communities.
But what of the objects of Helsinki's amorous advances?
Espoo to the west is dead set against all kinds of consolidations.
According to Espoo Mayor Jukka Mäkelä (Nat. Coalition Party), the realisation of Helsinki’s dreams would ultimately lead to catastrophe and cost everybody a whole pile of money.
Mäkelä is also vexed by the way his own party colleague Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen has presented his views on the municipal structure on the pages of various newspapers.
North of the capital, Vantaa, too, would prefer to maintain its autonomy.
At least from the economic point of view, however, this makes little or no sense, as Vantaa’s debt burden is heavier than that of the rest of the metropolitan area.
A more likely explanation for Vantaa’s aspirations to retain its independence is the local politicians’ desire to hang on to the exercising of power that they have grown accustomed to in the city council.
What adds further obstacles to Virkkunen’s task in Uusimaa is the timing of it all, as well as the balance-of-power questions between the political communities in the midst of the consolidation/merger/annexation turmoil.
Municipal elections are just around the corner in October 2012, and in the south of the country the local politics battlefield is dominated by the National Coalition Party.
The Minister, therefore, has to decide on some kind of damage limitation: which city to displease will be least harmful for the party.
An educated guess, based on voting patterns in the 2008 municipal elections, is that Espoo is not going to be among the ones to be made furious.
The Social Democrats within the Helsinki Metropolitan Area share one quite unshakeable view: the division of the capital area into a "Greater Kauniainen" and a "Greater Vantaa" simply will not do.
The model is a suggestion for the new consolidation of the Uusimaa municipalities presented also on the pages of Helsingin Sanomat.
In the suggestion Espoo - which as noted above is dead against an arranged marriage with Helsinki - and its more rural western neighbour Kirkkonummi would instead be spliced with the small but perfectly-formed (and wealthy) Kauniainen.
Helsinki, which continues to suffer from the flight of good taxpayers, would in turn receive reinforcements in the form of Vantaa and the remaining part of Sipoo that survived Helsinki’s previous expansionist moves in that direction.
Of all the possible alternatives this is the worst one, the Social Democrat camp complains.
Officially, however, the Social Democratic Party is yet to express its view one way or another with regard to the consolidation of the municipalities in the metropolitan area.
The SDP would like to see the establishment of an elected regional government in the [rather larger] Greater Helsinki Area.
The regional body would decide on housing, land use, and transportation - in other words - on the location of residential areas and the areas where people have their jobs, plus the rail links and other traffic arrangements between the two.
The task of providing services would remain with the municipalities.
But how many separate municipalities would be left standing of the current 14 that fit into this area?
In Helsinki itself, even the Social Democrats yearn for a "Greater Helsinki", in which the well-to-do taxpayers of Espoo and Kauniainen could be harnessed partly to defray the expenses of solving the accumulated social problems of Helsinki and Vantaa.
The SDP supporters in Vantaa, in turn, cling on to the looser metropolis model.
It is seen as the last means of saving the independence of Vantaa from the clutches of the larger Helsinki.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.11.2011