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Must Brussels's communes be merged ? The experiences of Antwerp, Berlin and Vienna


Abstract and Figures

This discussion paper analyses the intra-municipal decentralisation process in Antwerp and evaluates the working of the districts, since their first direct election in 2000. Although scientific evidence is relatively limited and we often had to make judgements through a glass darkly, we nevertheless build on a number of important indicators to conclude that districts did not fulfil the expectations of increasing democracy and efficiency, set out by their initiators. They did not seem to bring politics closer to citizens, or citizens closer to politics for that matter. The competences of the districts are few and largely advisory. However, coordination issues as well as spillover effects limit the prospects for further decentralisation. We attribute this relative failure in part to the misfit between the district boundaries and the socio-demographic fabric of the city. We also believe that the creation of districts is an institutional and rigid answer to the dynamic and fluid problem of political alienation. We therefore argue that direct participation, neighbourhood-based as well as project-based, may be an attractive alternative to districts. The ideal would be to have strong neighbourhoods in a strong city.
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Must Brussels’s communes be merged ?
The experiences of Antwerp, Berlin and Vienna
Lead Piece by
Wouter Van Dooren & Dave Sinardet
Comments by
Stefan Sottiaux
Maik Martin
Harald Bürger
Re-Bel e-book 13 | September 2013
The Re-Bel initiative aims to rethink in depth, in an open, rigorous,
non-partisan way, what the institutions of the Belgian federal state -
or of whatever else this part of the world needs to become - can and
must look like in the longer term, taking full account of the evolving
European context.
The Re-Bel initiative does not aim to produce one programme or
manifesto to which everyone involved could subscribe. Its ambition
is rather to provide a fertile intellectual environment in which new
ideas and promising initiatives of all sorts can germinate and develop,
with a concern for their relevance to a thorough reform of Belgium's
institutions, but also to the institutional design of other complex
polities, most obviously the European Union.
The Re-Bel initiative involves scholars from all Belgian universities,
runs a web site, publishes e-books and organizes workshops and
public events. It intends to associate to its activities both foreign
colleagues and the Brussels-based international community. The
working language will usually be English.
The Re-Be initiative is supported by the University Foundation,
which will host all its activities. The University Foundation was
founded in Brussels in 1920 at the initiative of Herbert Hoover and
Emile Francqui. One of its missions, also central in the Re-Bel
initiative, is to foster fruitful contacts and collaboration between
academics of all Belgian universities.
Each contribution to a Re-Bel e-book is written under the sole
responsibility of its author. The views expressed in it cannot be
assumed to be shared by either the Re-Bel initiative as such or the
University Foundation.
Re-Bel initiative
Paul De Grauwe
Philippe Van Parijs
In partnership with
the University Foundation
rue d'Egmontstraat 11, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Table of contents
Lead Piece
Small is beautiful ? Lessons from a decade of decentralisation in Antwerp
Wouter Van Dooren & Dave Sinardet
Is small beautiful after all? Reply to Wouter Van Doornen & Dave Sinardet
Stefan Sottiaux
“Size matters” – comments from Berlin
Maik Martin
Decentralisation in Vienna
Harald Bürger
On the one hand, more competences must be exercised at the regional level of Brussels Capital. On
the other, there must remain a level of political participation closer to the citizens. On these
propositions, there is today a broad consensus. There are, however, fundamentally two distinct ways
of reconciling these two demands. One consists in transferring to the Region a number of
competences currently exercised by the communes, while keeping these as they are or even
increasing their number. The other consists in merging all nineteen existing communes into a single
one coinciding with the Region, while simultaneously creating, on the pattern of Paris or Antwerp, a
number of districts whose borders may or may not coincide with those of today’s communes.
During the great debate on Brussels organized at Bozar on the 6th of May 2013 by the dailies Le Soir
and De Standaard, the Flemish Minister and Brusseler Pascal Smet made a fiery plea in favour of the
latter option, while Olivier Deleuze and Didier Gosuin pleaded vigorously in favour of the former.
Both Deleuze and Gosuin are mayors of Brussels communes, while Smet has little chance of ever
being elected into that job. These facts may well help explain their positions. But this is no reason to
dismiss their respective arguments, nor indeed any other argument that can help us work out an
intelligent view on this important aspect of the governance of Brussels.
For this purpose, it is essential not to get locked up in useless quarrels about the alleged mess of the 19
“baronies”. There are, after all, only 19 mayors for well over 1 million Brusselers, while there are 49 per
million of Flemings and 74 per million of Walloons. The problem is not that there are too many
mayors in Brussels. It is rather that their communes are so highly interdependent that a number of
competences that can happily be left decentralised in rural communes can only be exercised
efficiently in the Brussels agglomeration if they are exercised jointly.
This is why it is useful to learn from experience in other cities, starting with the Belgian city which is
size-wise most comparable to Brussels. Two of the contributions to this volume offer critical
discussions of the way in which Antwerp has been living with its large commune merged in 1983 and
its nine districts in operation since 2000. But in some respects the experience of foreign cities which,
like Brussels, are both capital cities and components of a federation, is even more relevant. This is why
the other two contributions to this volume are devoted, respectively, to Berlin and Vienna.
The functioning of the municipality of Vienna, in particular, deserves the Brusselers’ attention.
Vienna has a population 50% larger than that of Brussels and a territory that is two and a half times
bigger. It consists of 23 Gemeindebezirke with very unequal populations and territories, owing to old
and tough historical boundaries between formerly distinct municipalities. As regards population, their
average size (73.000 inhabitants) is close to that of Brussels’ communes (61.000 inhabitants) — to be
compared to the 55.000 of Antwerp’s districts, to the 112.000 of Paris’s arrondissements or to the
289.000 of Berlin’s Bezirke —, but their competences are far more modest. Vienna, moreover, has
the reputation of being well managed. This fact is certainly not a sufficient reason to want to transpose
its structures to Brussels. But in contrast to the litany about the “baronies”, a critical reflection on the
experience of Vienna and indeed on those of Antwerp of Berlin is a useful ingredient in a
serene and uninhibited discussion on the indispensable reform of Brussels’ institutions.
On this subject just as on so many others, this is the sort of discussion that the Re-Bel initiative aims to
foster through its e-books and public events. This thirteenth e-book is the first one to be published
simultaneously in three languages. While English has become today the best choice for the sake of
facilitating dialogue across our linguistic border as well as associating foreign colleagues and the
Brussels-based international community, the use of Dutch and French remains indispensable if our
initiative is to have a good chance of reaching, with the help of Dutch- and French-medium medias,
more than a small circle of highly motivated people. Our warm thanks to authors and translators for
the additional effort which made this trilingual publication possible.
Paul De Grauwe & Philippe Van Parijs
Coordinators of the Re-Bel initiative
Lead Piece
Small is beautiful ?
Lessons from a decade of decentralisation
in Antwerp
Wouter Van Dooren & Dave Sinardet
Universiteit Antwerpen and Vrije Universiteit Brussel
This discussion paper analyses the intra-municipal decentralisation process in Antwerp and evaluates
the working of the districts, since their first direct election in 2000. Although scientific evidence is
relatively limited and we often had to make judgements through a glass darkly, we nevertheless build
on a number of important indicators to conclude that districts did not fulfil the expectations of
increasing democracy and efficiency, set out by their initiators. They did not seem to bring politics
closer to citizens, or citizens closer to politics for that matter. The competences of the districts are few
and largely advisory. However, coordination issues as well as spillover effects limit the prospects for
further decentralisation. We attribute this relative failure in part to the misfit between the district
boundaries and the socio-demographic fabric of the city. We also believe that the creation of districts
is an institutional and rigid answer to the dynamic and fluid problem of political alienation. We
therefore argue that direct participation, neighbourhood-based as well as project-based, may be an
attractive alternative to districts. The ideal would be to have strong neighbourhoods in a strong city.
The question what Brussels could learn from Antwerp needs to be answered cautiously, as the context
is partially different. Brussels has for instance a larger scale and a more complex political landscape.
Yet, to the best of our knowledge, two points come to mind. First, it seems that if anything, the
strengthening of the city government at the level of the region of Brussels should be considered.
Antwerp, but also Ghent, benefited a lot from a strong city government that could govern at a scale
that mostly coincides with the sociological city. Although we do not think the districts have been a
great success in the Antwerp context, it could be a step forward for Brussels governance to reform the
current 19 Brussels communes in the direction of the Antwerp district model. In the Brussels context
this would imply an important strengthening of the city government at the regional level, while not
entirely dismissing the local dimension that still seems crucial to Brussels politics at the moment. But
secondly, Brussels could also simultaneously look at the participatory approaches that connect
citizens with policy and politics beyond elections. Instead of decentralising, Ghent chose to organise
participation in neighbourhoods using city staff with direct access to power in the city. The aim
should be to combine the best of both worlds; political decisiveness through representation and
accountability at a level that is relevant for policies (i.e. the sociological city), and involvement of
citizens at a level that is relevant for citizens as users of the city (i.e. the neighbourhood).
Few informed observers would disagree with the fact that city of Antwerp has witnessed some
important improvements in the past years. This comes to a good extent to the credit of the city
governance, which combined higher professionalism with appealing projects of city development
such as a new museum (the MAS), a large park (Park Spoor Noord) and the surroundings of the
central station. Also the new mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, explicitly pointed to the merits of the
previous government in running the city. Antwerp (but also Ghent) is a case in point of the positive
effects that can follow from a strong city government with a proactive attitude of politicians.
A decade ago, the city of Antwerp also introduced districts that took over some of the competences of
the city. Yet, few evaluations of that enterprise have been made. Starting from the history of the
decentralisation process in Antwerp, we subsequently ask whether the districts fulfil the expectations
that were set out by their initiators in the past. Did the creation of a directly elected political tier within
the city bring politics closer to citizens? We also ask whether decentralisation of (some) competences
to the districts, has improved effective governance. Whether there are coordination issues or spillover
effects. We further look at alternatives for districts, and pay particular attention to the approach of
Ghent. Although we would like to leave it to the reader to draw parallels between Brussels and
Antwerp, we conclude by giving some tentative suggestions.
The history of decentralisation in Antwerp
On March 11th 1997, the Belgian senate approved a reform of article 41 of the Belgian constitution,
enabling so-called ‘intra-municipal decentralisation’ (‘binnengemeentelijke decentralisatie’). From
then on, municipalities with a minimum of 100 000 inhabitants could take the initiative to install
‘intra-municipal decentralised organs’, composed of directly elected members. Subsequently, other
relevant national and regional laws (including a transfer of competence to the regions) were changed
to take away the further obstacles for decentralisation and to determine the exact functioning of the
decentralised organs, which were given the name of ‘districts’.
The only Belgian municipality that has used this possibility up to this day is the city of Antwerp. The
other Flemish cities of more than 100 000 inhabitants (Ghent and Bruges) have shown no interest
and the Walloon and Brussels region have not even taken the initiative to adopt the necessary regional
legislation to pursue intra-municipal decentralisation. This is not surprising, as the constitutional
reform and the whole legislative procedure in the national and regional parliament were carried
through exclusively on the demand of Antwerp representatives, to respond to an Antwerp ‘issue’.
The proto-decentralisation
This issue had existed since (at least) January 1st 1983. This is when the merger of Antwerp with the
surrounding municipalities of Deurne, Berchem, Borgerhout, Merksem, Wilrijk, Hoboken and
(almost all of) Ekeren was ultimately enacted. In fact, the rest of the major merger of municipalities in
Belgium (from 2359 to 596) had been carried through six years earlier, but the complexity of the
operation in Antwerp resulted in postponement of 6 years (Van Assche & Buts, 2004: 38). The new
municipality of Antwerp ultimately became the largest in Belgium, with 490.524 inhabitants (Bertels
et al, 2011: 50-51).
The delay in the execution can be seen as symbolic for how the fusion was perceived among at least
part of Antwerp’s political class. During the first meeting of the new city council of ‘Greater-Antwerp’
in January 1983, concerns were voiced that the operation was democratically questionable, as it would
make the distance between the City Hall and the inhabitants of the city too large. However, criticism
on the new scale of governance also concerned the fact that the new merged city did still not cover
the entire socio-economic agglomeration and was still not economically and financially sustainable
(Van Assche & Buts, 2004: 40). While the fusion had in part made the city financially healthier, this
had not sufficed to solve Antwerp’s fundamental financial problems, aggravated by the economic
crisis of the 1980’s (Beyen et al, 2011: 102). As mayor Bob Cools summarized it: Antwerp was too large
for the small and too small for the large.
This double concern would remain present in the Antwerp (de)centralisation debate for years to
come (Van Assche & Buts: 40). Clearly, however, the first concern was much more coherently and
quickly met with political action. Right from the start in 1983, a number of decisions limited the scope
of the fusion so as to conserve the ‘individuality and visibility’ of the previously independent
municipalities. Nine districts with their own councils were created, which had as official goals to keep
contact with citizens and local organisations, thus also compensating for the fact that districts were
not represented proportionally in the city council. They got their seat in the old town halls, where as
much as possible of the services to citizens were located. While this could be seen as recognising the
separate identity of the former peripheral municipalities, it could also be interpreted as a way to bring
the City to these municipalities and thus reinforcing their unity with the city (Beyen et al, 2011: 101).
Another role that was ascribed to the district councils was that of an ‘antenna’, a signalling function for
the city hall to know which were the issues and concerns in the districts (Van Ascche & Buts: 44).
However, Antwerp could not give the district councils any decision power, since article 41 of the
Constitution stipulated that it was not possible to delegate the full competence of the council for
issues of municipal interest. The district councils therefore became mere advisory bodies for a
number of restricted matters. As they had no instruments to ensure that their advices would be taken
seriously, this was often not the case in practice (Van Assche & Buts: 41-44).
The district councils could also not be elected directly. They were therefore largely composed on the
basis of the number of votes a party had gained in the municipal elections, based on the Imperiali
system (favouring larger parties) which is also used for municipal elections. The district councils were
composed by the political groups in the City Council which all proposed their own candidates and
could also replace ‘their’ councillors at any moment. Next to these ‘real members’, every political
group in the municipal council also appointed one extra city councillor per district that had to
represent the group in the district council, officially so as to assure the exchange of information
between the municipal and district councils. In other words, the composition of the district councils
was largely controlled by the political parties at the city level. The district councils appointed a
‘bureau’, composed of a president and two vice-presidents that had to belong to a different party (in
1993 a third vice-president would be added).
The functioning of the districts was quickly met with generalised discontent. Qualitative interviews
with aldermen, as well in the city as in the districts showed that this was due to a number factors (Van
Assche & Buts, 2004: 45). There was the lack of relevance, due to the dependence on the city: the
district councils only had advisory power and their advices were generally not taken into account by
the city college (despite promises of the opposite). The city also did not ask for advice. There was also
the lack of legitimacy among politicians as well as the population because the political parties
appointed the councillors and the composition of the district councils did not reflect the specific
election results in the district but only those of the city as a whole.
This negative evaluation fuelled projects of further decentralisation, which were addressed by the new
coalition that came into power after the elections of 1994. However, other factors were also at play. In
1994 the extreme right Vlaams Blok became the largest party at the municipal elections with some
28% of the votes. In those days, one of the dominant analysis attributed the success of the extreme
right in part to a gap between citizens and politics, leading to an ‘anti-political’ vote. Specifically in
Antwerp, decentralisation was seen by a number of politicians as a way to make the distance smaller
between the people living in Antwerp and those governing them. Stopping the rise of the extreme
right had also been one of the arguments used by Flemish minister Kelchtermans in 1993, when
Antwerp decentralisation was for the first time officially mentioned as an option on a higher
governance level.
The success of the Vlaams Blok also had an indirect effect on the new city college’s viewpoint on
decentralisation. Due to the success of the Vlaams Blok, a coalition of five parties was needed,
including the Greens who had always been a strong defendant of decentralisation. Since the fusion of
1983, they had referred to ‘Greater-Antwerp’ as ‘Far-too-great-Antwerp’. In addition, the Liberals also
pleaded for decentralisation and the Christian-democrats had already been in favour much longer.
An element, which also played a role, is that parties that were electorally less strong on the city level,
but stronger in some districts also favoured decentralisation out of partisan interests.
The 1994 coalition decided that it would very actively advocate a legal framework on the national and
regional level to permit actual decentralisation. But in the meantime, it already tried to attribute a
number of competences and financial means to the districts, whose decisions would then still have to
be voted by the community council. However, in practice this initiative became more of an
administrative deconcentration as the legal framework did not permit much more. The district
bureaus became competent to draft a policy note and a note listing priorities. The number of district
councillors was raised and city councillors could no longer be appointed.
Besides district formation, the new coalition also announced a debate on ‘region formation’, referring
to closer collaboration with the surrounding municipalities of Antwerp. However, this part of the
Antwerp governance debate would not really be addressed, due to lack of political unanimity on the
issue: parties that were strongly represented in the peripheral municipalities of Antwerp, such as the
Christian-democrats, had always voiced the reluctance of these municipalities. Although the political
consensus on the decentralisation debate seemed to be much greater than the region formation, the
actual support for district formation should no be exaggerated.
The fact that top politicians of all parties had agreed to make this a priority can somewhat
paradoxically also be explained by the fact that the general impression also among those less
favourable to decentralisation was that the chances of Antwerp being able to get all the necessary
legislative work done - including an institutional reform, in the course of one legislature were very
limited. In that sense, it was pretty harmless to call for it. But things would turn out differently.
The road to actual intra-municipal decentralisation
The national legislative procedure was quickly started up, most notably by a proposition for
constitutional reform, introduced by five Antwerp senators (one per party in the Antwerp coalition). It
happened that the article that had to be revised had been opened for revision by the previous federal
government. The headquarters of the Flemish parties had to be convinced, as well as the
francophone parties, who saw no real interest in this constitutional change. However, with five parties
behind the proposition, as a result of the multi-coloured Antwerp coalition, all necessary national
political networks could be activated. It also helped that the senate had just been reformed into a
reflection chamber and was looking for material to reflect on (Van Assche & Buts, 2004: 57).
The argumentation used in the complementary documents of the proposed legislation mostly
referred to the democratic deficit after the fusion: the distance between citizens and those who
govern them allegedly became too large, the transfer of information and the detection of problems
and needs diminished and participation of the citizens was lacking. Decentralisation within larger
cities was put forward as the answer. More precisely, the constitutional amendment proposed to
reform article 41 of the constitution, by inscribing that ‘intra-municipal territorial institutions could
deal with ‘matters of municipal interest’. National and regional laws with two-thirds majorities
would further have to elaborate the competences, working and election of these institutions. During
the course of debates a number of elements were added to the article 41 reform proposal: the direct
election of the new organs, the fact that the community council had to take the initiative and that this
type of decentralisation was only possible in municipalities of more than 100 000 inhabitants.
Already in March 1997, the senate approved the constitutional reform. The rest of the legislative
procedure (including a delegation of competence to the regions through a special majority law and
changes to the municipal law, electoral laws and regional laws) also went quite quickly, the last hurdle
being taken on June 30th 1999 with the publication of the Flemish regional laws in the Belgian
Monitor. During the course of the national legislative procedure a number of important decisions
were taken. The decentralised organs were officially called districts (referring to the legislation on the
civil registry). Regional laws activated this national legislation.
There was still some criticism in the Flemish parliament however. Surprisingly, one of the previous
advocates of decentralisation in the Antwerp city council, the Liberal Ward Beysen, pleaded against,
on the basis of arguments such as that the fusion in Antwerp may have been difficult but had now
been accepted, the old municipal frontiers that would be used were out of date, non-Antwerp
representatives would just vote the reform without knowledge of the local situation, deconcentration
of services would be a better option, decentralisation went against the necessary scale enlargement
that should be achieved trough the creation of a larger metropolitan area, it hampered the unity of
governance in the city and (somewhat surprisingly) that the extreme right might be able to get into
power in one of the districts. In the end, the regional law was voted with unanimity, except for three
Following the national and regional legislation, the Antwerp city council enabled decentralisation in
December 1999. The official goals that were formulated mostly concerned democracy (by having
more councillors the contact with citizens can be repaired, the participation and dialogue of citizens
can be improved) and efficiency (improvement of direct and indirect service (‘dienstverlening’) and
subsidiarity through the realisation of local interests). During the debates and through interviews with
politicians that had worked on the decentralisation issue a number of other motivations for
decentralisation came to light. One of them is the relation between politics and civil service: it would
enable a larger control on the civil service and reinforce local decision-making through replacing civil
servants by politicians as decision-makers on local issues. Many within the administration were
therefore not very enthusiastic about decentralisation (Van Assche & Buts, 2004: 55-56). Some latent
goals, according to some, were to provide in jobs for politicians who did not get elected, or who were
not trusted with higher impact positions by the political parties.
What clearly also played a role was the position of the extreme right. By bringing politics closer to
citizens, it was argued, the Vlaams Blok could be stopped. Yet, the Vlaams Blok was very much in
favour of decentralisation because it saw a possibility to gain a majority in districts where it was
particularly strong. This was in turn also something that worried the majority parties, which was one of
the reasons to keep the number of competences of the districts fairly limited. Other reasons for this
were scepticism about whether enough qualified political personnel could be found as well as the
concern to not generate too many extra costs.
Antwerp decentralisation: how it works
On October 8th 2000, simultaneously with the municipal and provincial elections, Antwerp held
direct district elections for the first time. 211 district councillors were elected in the nine districts of
which 43 become district college members. Table 1 summarizes the most important characteristics of
Antwerp’s nine districts.
As foreseen in national and regional legislation, the number of district councillors is established at two
thirds of the number of municipality councillors that a municipality with as many inhabitants as the
district would have. District councillors cannot combine their mandate with a seat in the community
council. Somewhat surprisingly, the electoral system used for the district elections is not Imperiali
which is used for the municipalities but the more proportional D’Hondt system. Out of the district
council, a district college with a district president is composed: the number of college members is
maximum two thirds of the number of college members that a municipality with as many inhabitants
as the district would have, but with a maximum of five.
The legislation left the determination of the competences of the districts to the municipalities. The
division of competences could differ per municipality, but not per district within one municipality. An
exception is the competence on civil registry ‘burgerlijke stand’ which was automatically and entirely
attributed to the districts by national legislation. A number of competences were also explicitly
excluded as potential district competences: municipal budget, taxes, personnel and police tasks.
Other competences can be devolved (but also reattributed) by the city council, college or the mayor.
In Antwerp, the districts have a number of autonomous decision-making competences. However,
these are all shared competences with the city, as the districts are only competent for the district
elements. These include public domain, culture, festivities and events, markets, youth, elderly, sports,
organisations, traffic, communication, neighbourhood participation (‘wijkoverleg’) and security
policy. Next to these decision-making competences, districts also have advisory competences,
concerning all matters that are related to the district, and initiation competences resulting in the
possibility to add district competence related issues to the agenda of the city council.
The functioning of the Antwerp district councils and colleges is very similar to that of the municipal
council and college. The districts entirely rely on the city administration for the execution of their
policies. There is however a number of deconcentrated civil servants, who operate under the district
secretary. The city secretary, who also remains the head of the city personnel that works in the
districts, appoints the district secretary. The city departments and agencies can be considered as
service centres that deliver products and services to the districts. The financial means of the districts
come from a city dotation. For specific public works they can also use the ‘district development fund’
of the city and they also receive some cultural subsidies from the Flemish community. As districts are
not incorporated, they cannot take any loans (De Herdt & Voets: 61-70).
Table 1: Antwerp districts: inhabitants, surface, council members and personnel
Number of
(in km2)
Personnel (in full
time equivalents)
182 492
73 758
44 080
41 548
41 806
39 133
36 244
22 592
9 791
The debate continues …
In the years following the installation of the empowered districts, debate and also frustration on their
functioning remained. Complaints concerned the distribution of competences between city and
districts which was not always clear and coherent, lacking financial means and personnel, long and
complicated procedures, personnel that could not be directed from the districts, slow and inadequate
response to advice and demands from the city and its administration. Often, the scale of the districts
was also subject to criticism: particularly the districts of Antwerp (150 000 inhabitants) and Deurne (70
000 inhabitants) were said to be too large (Van Assche & Buts, 2004: 59).
The so-called political Visa-crisis in 2003, which brought to light a number of organisational problems
in the city and its administration, was a reason for the district presidents to reinforce their demands for
more power. The district of Ekeren even wanted to become an independent municipality again.
However, as from 2003 when the new coalition headed by Patrick Janssens came into power, focus
was put more strongly on a more efficient organisation of the city services and a strong re-
organisation, modernisation and depolitisation of the administration. Janssens did not believe in more
decentralisation, as this could in his view harm the possibilities of the city to develop new projects.
The N-VA of Bart De Wever, which won the 2012 elections, had strongly advocated more
decentralisation in the campaign. However, the new coalition that came into power in 2013 clearly
does not intend to change much to the current situation. The districts will receive somewhat more
means, but they will no longer have the competence to draft circulation plans for local traffic.
According to the government agreement, other transfers of competences will be ‘studied’. Just like in
the past, it seems that parties’ position on decentralisation also depends on whether this could lead to
diminishment or extension of their political power (Sinardet, 2010).
Party political dynamics can also more generally contribute to explain why autonomy of the districts
has been even more limited in practice than in theory. While in some cases the district elections lead
to substantially different election results per district, coalition formation generally remained directed
from the party headquarters to create congruent coalitions with the city level. This is what happened
after the three direct elections so far, in 2000, 2006 and 2012. Nevertheless, a number of incidents
occurred. During the 2000-2006 legislature, the already very narrow coalition in Deurne lost its
majority due to councillors leaving their political group. In 2006, it was not possible to form a coalition
in Hoboken without either the extreme right or the extreme left, which had as a consequence that a
minority coalition was installed, receiving support from the radical left opposition (PVDA). In 2012,
the attempt to reflect as much as possible the right wing coalition of Flemish nationalists, Christian-
democrats and liberals in all districts through a deal made between these parties at city level to
exclude the socialists (SP.A) – failed in a few districts, of which Borgerhout is the most prominent as it
saw the instalment of a left wing coalition of socialists, greens and the radical left (together with an
independent councillor that was elected on the Christian-democratic list). This is the first extreme
example of party incongruence between city and district – with not one party overlapping. Moreover,
the coalitions are also each others ideological counterparts. The relations between the city of Antwerp
and the district of Borgerhout will therefore become an important test for the Antwerp
decentralisation model. The Borgerhout coalition is said to also have played a part in the decision of
the new city council to not extend the competences of the districts.
The criteria
Before we set to the task of evaluating the districts, we discuss the evaluation criteria we use as well as
our view on governance. Few would disagree that governance today is rather complex, and in
Belgium/Flanders probably even more so. This is the case for citizens, who have to vote for the
district, the city government, the province, the region, the federal government and the European
Union. It is also complex for policy makers. When a local alderman wants to do something about
homeless drug addicts causing trouble at a city square, (s)he has to combine forces of the local police
to make arrests and patrol the streets, with the federal police to track down drug lines, with the public
prosecutor (federal) to press charges, with the social welfare agencies and non-profits (largely local) to
remedy drug addiction, with social economy (local, but regionally regulated) to develop job-skills,
with the housing corporations and social rental agencies (largely regionally regulated) to find
permanent residence, and with private developers to create a social mix in housing. If (s)he wants to
renew the public domain at the square, she has to cooperate with the district. Probably some
European subsidies can be obtained as well.
In response to complexity, governments search for better governance arrangements. The standard
repertoire of administrative policies is institutional. Reformers seek structural solutions by creating
new organisations, by setting up formal coordination committees and by pressing for increasingly
more regulation. One of the holy grails of institutional reformers is homogenous competence for tiers
of government. The idea is to establish once and for all what tier of government is best fit to develop
particular policies. In practice, institutional reforms seldom reduce complexity. In the early 2000s, an
effort in Flanders to determine core tasks for the regional, provincial and local governments largely
stranded in a trench war between the three levels. At the federal-regional level, homogenous
competences are equally hard to determine. After the sixth’ reform of the state (2011), the Flemish
administration drafted a document with the steps to be taken when competences will be transferred
to the regions (Diensten Algemeen Regeringsbeleid, 2011). The 547 pages in annex are
recommended reading for those who believe that reforming a state is only about political courage.
Policy implementation time after time proves to be thornier than envisaged at the reformers drawing
With the concept of multilevel governance, academics proposed an alternative solution to this
situation of dispersed authority (L. Hooghe & Marks, 2001). Rather than being stuck in rigid
institutions and institutional reform, actors need to be able to navigate through the levels of
government. It is a system of continuous negotiation among nested governments in policy networks.
Rather than to engage in institutional discussions on the division of competences over tiers of
government, or to create new institutions and organisations, proponents of multilevel governments
would suggest building capacity for networking and cooperation across governments. The idea is to
cope with, rather than to combat complexity. Yet, some also warn for the great expectations that the
idea of multilevel governance generates. Guy Peters and Jon Pierre argue that democratic safeguards
are guaranteed by traditional institutions such as parliaments, governments, elections and not through
fast changing processes of negotation (Peters & Pierre, 2004). Even in a multi-level world, strong
forums for democratic accountability and for protection against arbitrariness are needed.
From this discussion, we take to our assessment of the Antwerp districts that we should not
overestimate the potential of institutional solutions to reduce complexity and increase effectiveness of
policy implementation. Yet, we also learn that strong institutions are needed as a backbone for
democratic governance. In the following sections, we discuss whether the districts in Antwerp have
contributed to more effective governance. Whether Antwerp is better able to deal with complex
policy challenges. Next, we discuss whether Antwerp districts are a relevant institution for democratic
Are districts needed for more effective governance?
There is not much research on the effectiveness of decentralisation. We thus have to base our
arguments on few studies and indirect observations. With those data limitations in mind, our general
argument would be that districts did not contribute to more effective governance in Antwerp. The
substantial, and widely acknowledged improvements in governance of the city of Antwerp were
largely due to the professionalization and strengthening of the city government a decade ago,
supported by an increased funding of the cities of the Flemish City Fund (Stedenfonds) as well as the
federal policy for large cities (federaal grootstedenbeleid).
Inner-city decentralisation in Antwerp is faced with looming coordination issues. Districts for instance
have an advisory role in the design of the public domain; local streets, playgrounds, parks, etc. Yet, the
policy for the city of Antwerp is to have a uniform streetscape. The purpose is to make the streets
readable for users. Most of the districts seem to follow these guidelines. Hence, all new cycling tracks
in Antwerp are red, which also helps children to use them. Very sensible, but this demand for
coordination allows for little room for a district to leave its mark. And indeed, few would argue that
you should be able to know the district from the colours of the cycling tracks. Similarly, parks and
playgrounds need to be maintained by the parks department of the city. Some uniformity across the
city is probably useful in order to use equipment efficiently. Another coordination case is the plan of
the mayor-to-come to work with the concept of spatial safety. It holds that the design of the public
domain can discourage crime and encourage feelings of safety. If this concept will be implemented,
new city guidelines will need to be imposed. A final example is the traffic circulation plans at the
neighbourhood level. The districts have to draft these plans, but the plans need to fit with the traffic
circulation plan of the city. The citywide plan in turn is subdivided into plans for eight zones. Those
zones only very partially coincide with the district boundaries. Several districts are thus responsible for
drafting neighbourhood plans within one zone. It seems that policy coordination in this case is mainly
achieved by contracting out the neighbourhood planning to the same engineering firm that drafted
the city plans. Again, where is the leverage for district policies? Overall, it seems that coordination
issues are potentially there, but that they do not materialise because the competences of districts to
make their own policies are relatively weak.
Coordination issues are further aggravated by the mismatch between district boundaries and the
morphology of the city the urban fabric. The boundaries of the districts are based on the
municipalities that existed before the 1976 merger. The growth of the city in the 20th century has
effaced the open spaces between pre-merger municipalities. Open spaces that served as structural
boundaries between former villages such as Deurne, Wilrijk and Hoboken. Mainly in the inter-
bellum, the city has engulfed previously rural communities and integrated them into the city. The
construction of new highway infrastructure in the 1960s has created new physical boundaries. The
highways have carved out new cleavages across the city and have created new barriers that are
difficult to negotiate. These new barriers have thus rearranged the city fabric and therefore also the
ways in which people use and experience the city.
The post 1960s division of city quarters does not follow the district boundaries. In many instances, the
administrative boundaries of the districts only partially coincide with socio-economic fabric of the
city. A virtual Berlin wall of a 2x4 beltway (R1) separates the districts of Berchem and Borgerhout. In
the local elections of 2012, some observers argued that the R1 also marks an electoral border, with a
more leftist city centre and more rightist neighbourhoods in the periphery. Inhabitants of Antwerp
speak of Berchem and Borgerhout intra and extra muros, since the Antwerp ring road replaced the
city fortifications built by Brialmont in the 1870s. The most striking example however is Deurne where
a highway (E313), a large park (Rivierenhof) and a secondary traffic artery (N116) separate north from
south. The southern part of Deurne is highly integrated with parts of Berchem and Borgerhout extra
muros. It should be noted that not all districts are that fragmented. The districts of Ekeren and
Merksem are more homogenous, as well as the polder villages of Berendrecht, Zandvliet and Lillo.
Similarly but to a lesser extent, Hoboken and Wilrijk in the south are also fragmented. These more
homogenous districts account for roughly 150 000 of the 500 000 inhabitants of Antwerp.
A second issue is the division of competences. The city is running the swimming pools and the sports
halls, while the districts are doing sports promotion. The districts are amongst others providing
subsidies for sport clubs, but the city is providing subsidies as well. The same goes for cultural
subsidies, provided by the city and the districts. Districts, or the city for that matter, have no
homogeneous competences. Those in favour of districts are arguing that precisely more homogeneity
in competences would increase effectiveness of the districts. Mainly person-bound competences
such as cultural, sports and youth policies come into the picture. Yet, experiences at other tiers of
government learn that this homogeneity is very difficult to reach.
Coordination issues and the division of competences are mainly felt in the city administration. It
should hence not come as a surprise that civil servants of the city have a significantly more negative
perception of the districts than city politicians, district politicians and district civil servants (De Herdt
& Voets, 2011). Only 18% of city civil servants believe that more competences for districts are a good
idea. Roughly 40% of city politicians and 50% of district civil servants are for more competences.
District politicians (85%) are almost all in favour of stronger districts.
A third problem with decentralisation are spillover effects. Citizens from other districts cannot be
excluded from most of the services a district would provide nor can they be asked to pay for the
services through higher taxes or retributions. The city provides a dotation for districts proportionate to
the number of inhabitants. When districts specialise - say one district has a state-of-the art cultural
centre and another a top-notch sports infrastructure – than it seems plausible that citizens will take
the best from every district. A concrete example: which district would have to provide (and would
have to pay for) an Olympic swimming pool? This could lead to an upward pressure on the quality,
but also the costs of service delivery. Moreover, if the whole city uses services of a particular district,
why should it be a district competence?
The competences of the districts in Antwerp are all in all rather limited and hence, the impact on
effective policymaking and implementation seems also largely absent. For many territorial
competences, the need for coordination seems to be the reason why decentralisation has not taken
place, while for person-bound services, potential spillovers could hamper further decentralisation.
Spillover and coordination issues are not found in the support for local socio-cultural associations and
neighbourhood initiatives – a task which many district politicians claim to take to hearth. Studies tell
us that precisely those citizens active in all kinds of socio-cultural associations seek contact with
district politicians for reaching the city government (De Herdt & Voets, 2011). Statements of district
politicians suggest that they are inclined to listen. This seems to be the essence of the policy role of the
district: to give the district organisations a stronger voice at the city level. But can’t this voice be heard
Are districts of democratic relevance?
The main purpose of the districts has never been to improve policy implementation. The main
purpose of installing an elected district level was to bring politics closer to the citizens. This in turn was
expected to strengthen local democracy. Again, research evidence is not abundant, but we do have
some clues on whether the districts fulfilled the promise of governance that is ‘closer to the citizens’
and hence more democratic.
Did district politics bring politics closer to citizens? Peter Thijssen (2007) studied the proximity of
district politicians based on three electoral indicators of the 2006 election. First, he expected that if
district politicians stand closer to citizens, there would be fewer blank votes in the district election
compared to the city election. This was not the case. On the contrary, the district lists accumulated
more blank votes compared to the city. Secondly, based on the same rationale of proximity, he
expected that the number of list votes would be fewer in the districts and the number of preferential
votes to be higher. Again, the opposite was true. Thirdly, Thijssen proposed that pronounced
differences between the electoral results of the city and the district could theoretically be an
indication of an electoral arena in the district. This appeared to be the case. Voters voted for different
parties on the city and district list. This effect is however not attributed to the district dynamics.
Thijssen argues that the difference mostly reflects changes in the logic of the city elections. In 2006,
the city elections were ‘presidential’, with a strong antagonism between two candidacies for mayor:
the incumbent socialist mayor Patrick Janssens and the extreme-right leader Filip Dewinter. While
many voters voted strategically at the city level, the district elections were used to vote for their
preferred political party. The 2006 findings are further corroborated by a study in the district of
Deurne demonstrating that the names and functions of district politicians are not very well known
(Peter Thijssen & Dierckx, 2011). After four years of the legislature, only the name of the president of
the district of Deurne is known by more than half of the inhabitants of the district (61,8%), the other
members of the district college score between 28% and 7,7%. It should be added that Deurne was one
of the more active districts in promoting its own identity. One study would provide some
counterevidence. Van Assche and Dierckx (2007) concluded from a survey in three districts that
citizens put more trust in their district than in city government. The survey was conducted in 2003 at
the height of the so-called visa crisis that led to the dismissal of the city mayor and all the aldermen,
which is rather uncommon in Belgium. We suspect that this highly mediatized crisis rather than the
proximity of the districts was driving the trust levels.
Our overall conclusion is that district politics is not a political arena of significance. During the
campaigns, districts are not subject of political contestation. Media, also local media, are mainly
concerned with city level politics. In the latest election, the clash between incumbent mayor Patrick
Janssens and the Flemish-nationalist leader Bart De Wever added national drama to the city election.
Arguably, it was henceforth even more difficult for district politicians to be seen and heard. District
elections are second-order elections, subordinated to the municipal level (P. Thijssen, 2007). The
same can be said for the provincial and the European elections. Note that we do not argue that there
is no policy relevance for provinces or the EU. We only argue that policy and political relevance
sometimes diverge, and that the main political battles are not fought over provinces or the EU.
Why do the districts not function as a genuine political (electoral) level? We propose four
explanations. First, districts may not have the right scale. We already discussed the mismatch of
administrative boundaries with the socio-economic fabric of the city. Furthermore, the substantial
difference in size between districts is remarkable. But maybe most importantly, citizens may not
perceive the scale to be significantly different from the scale of the city. The distance between a
citizen and its government is not a linear measurement of the number of inhabitants. A council of a
town of 50 000 is not necessarily 10 times closer to its citizens than one of a city of 500 000. Perhaps
citizens perceive both councils as distant. Possibly, there is a threshold beyond which it is no longer
possible to have genuine personal contact with inhabitants. It is almost a truism in governance
debates to deny the existence of optimal scales. We follow this argument, but we add that in multi-
level settings, differences of scales need to be meaningful for democratic representation to work.
Secondly, the quality and commitment of the political staff of the districts is variable. In fact, the
problem of political recruitment for municipal politics is also found at the district level. Recruitment is
a general problem in Belgian politics. Marc Hooghe (2004) for instance points to the impact of
declining membership of political youth organisations on recruitment. In a commentary in a
newspaper, Filip De Rynck a well-informed observer of local politics in Flanders - puts it more
forcefully. He argues that
local electoral debates seldom focus on who we actually elect to the local council. Local
councillors are irrelevant, unless they want to become mayor or alderman. So, what to do with
the local councils? Today already, parties have difficulties with the formation of qualitative
election lists. Count the number of sons and daughters. Look how many candidates earn an
income in or around the party. Check the number of civil servants on the lists. Parties are
turning ever-smaller circles within their own in-group” (De Rynck, 2012).
Hence, parties do not only have to find 55 candidates for the city lists. They also have to find some 200
candidates for complete district lists. Arguably, the strongest candidates will give priority to the city
council, since the main power in the city lies at the city level. The president of the Green party,
Wouter Van Besien, for instance decided to give up his position of president of the district in
Borgerhout and to run for the city council.
Thirdly, the city of Antwerp did not leave much room for district profiling. The former mayor Patrick
Janssens (2003-2012), with a career in advertising, did develop a stringent marketing policy. The policy
was successful: the radiant A of the logo and the city’s catchphrase “’t stad is van iedereen” (the city
belongs to everybody) are widely recognised. The current mayor Bart De Wever already announced
that he would not alter this centralist type of communication policy. The strong city marketing
however may have overruled efforts by districts to promote a district identity.
Fourth, one could even hypothesize that districts in Antwerp may in some case have a negative effect
on the perceived distance between citizens and politics, as due to the overlapping of competences
between city and districts, it is not always clear for citizens who is competent for what and the political
decision-making procedure might rather become less than more transparent. Moreover, higher
expectations about accessibility of local politicians may turn to frustration when a district councillor is
contacted about a problem, but can only refer to the city level to solve it (Sinardet, 2010).
We believe that the prospects for district politics to become a democratically significant political
arena and for district governments to become a democratic point of reference for citizens are meagre.
We doubt whether the institutional solution of creating a new tier of government within the city, was
the right answer to the alleged alienation of the citizen from politics. Similar observations have been
made in the Netherlands, where the districts (“deelraden”) are put into question in the cities of
Amsterdam and Rotterdam as we speak. But what is the alternative?
Alternatives for districts
The Antwerp districts do not appear to be able to fulfil the promise of a stronger connection of politics
and citizens. In our view, the reason lies mainly in the fact that districts are an institutional and static
answer to the cultural and dynamic phenomenon of political alienation. Yet, there are alternatives.
Cities have the opportunity to engage in citizen participation. Rather than electing another council,
citizens and local associations could become involved within neighbourhoods, but also with large
projects of city development, with initiatives for specific groups, or with cultural or sports
manifestations. Direct participation in policy and politics is hence a complement to representative
democracy and not a substitute (Peter Thijssen, Van Dooren, Lancksweerdt, & Dierickx, 2010).
There is an expanding literature and policy practice on citizen participation that we could cover here
by no means. We instead focus on the case of Ghent – with 247000 inhabitants sizeably smaller than
Antwerp, but still a well-sized city in Belgium.
Flemish legislation allows for intra-municipal decentralisation in cities with more than 100 000
inhabitants - read Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. Neither Ghent nor Bruges decided to install districts,
while Antwerp did. Yet, the gap between politics and citizens does not seem to be wider in Ghent. On
the contrary, trust levels of citizens in the city government are significantly higher. The Flemish city
monitor ( shows that 45,5% of the citizens of Ghent and 40,5% of the citizens
of Bruges say to trust the city government1, compared to only 24% of the citizens of Antwerpi. The
electoral success of the incumbent city governments in Bruges and Ghent in the 2012 elections seems
to reinforce this image of a trusted city government.
The new mayors of Ghent and Bruges, Daniel Termont and Renaat Landuyt, attribute this success
amongst others to their presence in neighbourhoods and streets. In an interview in the news
magazine Knack (31.10.2012), Termont also points to the difference in the style with the former mayor
of Antwerp, which is said to have been more managerial. Yet, both politicians also cast doubts on the
transferability of the so-called method Termont. The scale of Antwerp is different, which makes it
more difficult for a politician to visit every street, attend a significant number of parties and receptions,
and follow up on every complaint that reaches the major. Moreover, besides scale, personalities are
different and not always up to the task of making the same personal investments successfully.
Hence, it seems that citizens need a strong city government that is recognisable and reachable. Yet,
we cannot expect from all politicians to follow the method Termont. Fortuitously, participation does
not have to rest entirely on the shoulders of the mayor. In the last decade, Flemish cities engaged
significantly in various projects for citizen participation (De Rynck e.a., 2009). Ghent in particular
pioneered with area-based participation in 25 neighbourhoods of approximately 18000 inhabitants
(Verheirstraeten, 2004). The neighbourhoods are defined based on Spatial Structure plan for Ghent
(RSV Ghent). The city appointed 17 neighbourhood-directors and communicators to support
participation in the neighbourhoods, but also to coordinate city policies of sectorial departments
within the neighbourhoods. Within the organisational structure, the office for area-based policies was
situated directly under the secretary of the city. This position close to city power is important in
relations with sectorial departments. In this way, the neighbourhood directors are a direct linking pin
between the highest echelons of the city and the neighbourhoods. In addition to area-based
participation, specific trajectories are followed when larger projects are planned. Examples are the
redevelopment of the railway station and of the old harbour docks.
Antwerp similarly developed area-based neighbourhood policies. Yet, the history is different. In the
1990s, the office for urban neighbourhood consultation (stedelijk wijkoverleg) was active in a
selection of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In 2001, together with the districts, the office had to
expand its activities to cover the whole territory. For that purpose, the city was divided into 37
neighbourhoods. The borders of the neighbourhoods respected the borders of the districts, even if the
sociological structure of a neighbourhood was crossing district borders. Here too, the role of the
districts and the city was never clear-cut. The office for neighbourhood consultation remained at the
city level, but much of its activities were decentralised to districts. Although the office initially drafted
neighbourhood action programmes for 23 neighbourhoods, it quickly had to re-orient its activities
towards project-based communication because politicians did not agree with plans being proposed
outside of their reach. Unlike Ghent, it seems that Antwerp never wholeheartedly believed in area-
based participation in neighbourhoods. At a public lecture in 2003, the coordinator of the office for
neighbourhood consultation compared his situation with the position of the American soldiers in
Iraq: “we are attacked from all sides, by the city, by the districts and by the administration. Moreover,
resistance is stronger than anticipated and we are not greeted by citizens as liberators” (quoted in:
(Van Ostaaijen, 2003)).
The model of Ghent is to have strong neighbourhoods (of some 18000 inhabitants) within a strong
city. Antwerp also invested with success in a strong city government, but the vision on participation
and internal organisation is more diffuse. Some lessons can be drawn from the case of Ghent. First, it
shows that strong and genuine participation can be an important complement to representative
democracy. Citizens can be involved in politics in a different way. Secondly, if the outcomes of
participation have to be translated to policies, it helps to be close to power. The area-based
consultation office in Ghent is close to power. The Antwerp districts can only give an advice to power.
Thirdly, urban neighbourhoods should be defined by how people use the city, based on spatial
structure, and not based on administrative boundaries. Fourthly, unlike district structure, area-based
participation is less institutional and more flexible. Citywide projects as well as projects that
encompass different neighbourhoods can be straightforwardly added to the tasks of the participation
Caution is needed when drawing lessons for Brussels from Antwerp, as the context is partially
different. Brussels has for instance a larger scale and a more complex political landscape, due in part
to language politics. However, if anything, it is probably the reinforcement and professionalization of
the government at the level of the city of Antwerp what Brussels should consider. Every six years, a
visitation committee of experts evaluates the policies of the 13 cities that receive money from the City
Fund. In 2005, the committee concludes that Antwerp “has absorbed the crises of het past, and has
come out more strongly. In different circumstances, the organisation is getting its act together. The
pace is faster than expected and slower than hoped for. Old cultures are disappearing, a new culture is
emerging (De Rynck & Tops, 2005, p. 59)”. In 2011, in a report titled ‘a convincing and convinced city
government’, the commission claims “to be impressed” by the performance of the city of Antwerp
(Visiatiecommissie stedenfonds 2011, z.d.-a, p. 30). The city of Ghent transformed in a similar way. In
2005, the visitation committee concludes that “the city is able to capitalise on the stable and strong
leadership, of a professional and committed approach. (De Rynck & Tops, 2005, p. 59)” In 2011, the
committee reconfirms this conclusion (Visiatiecommissie stedenfonds 2011, z.d.-b). Remarkably, the
reports of both the 2005 and 2011 committees hardly mention the districts, which seems to
corroborate our reading of the districts as relative weak players.
If we translate this to Brussels, the proper level for a strong city government is not so much the
municipality of Brussels but the Brussels regional government. It therefore seems evident that
strengthening of city governance at the level of the region of Brussels should be considered. Keeping
in mind that the nineteen municipalities in Brussels have far more competences than the nine
districts in Antwerp they can be considered as an obstacle towards more global, integrated
governance for the Brussels region, which is the minimum scale that corresponds to the sociological
city. However, it must be said that in such a scenario of increased competences, the Brussels regional
government should probably be reformed as well to permit stronger city governance.
Although we do not judge that districts have been a great success in the Antwerp context, in the
different Brussels context it would be a step forward to reform the current 19 Brussels municipalities in
the direction of the Antwerp district model, by transferring a number of competences to the Brussels
region. This would imply an important strengthening of the city government, while not entirely
dismissing the local dimensions that for different reasons still seems crucial to Brussels politics at the
Next to this, Brussels should also simultaneously look at the participatory approaches that connect
citizens with policy and politics beyond elections. Instead of working in districts, Ghent chose to
organise participation in neighbourhoods using city staff with direct access to power in the city. The
aim should be to combine the best of both worlds; political decisiveness through representation and
accountability at a level that is relevant for policies (i.e. the sociological city), and involvement of
citizens at a level that is relevant for citizens as users of the city (i.e. the neighbourhood).
On a final note, an analysis of city governance in Brussels must also look at the broader picture and
more specifically at which institutional (or other) response to give to the interaction and integration
between Brussels and its hinterland. This is of course also the case for other urban regions in Belgium,
such as Antwerp. However, while Antwerp is entirely situated within the Flemish region (which is
competent for some important matters touching cities, such as mobility, labour market policy,
education, …), Brussels forms a region of its own and the greater metropolitan erea of Brussels thus
encompasses three regions (and consequently also three regional public transport companies, three
employment agencies, three agencies for foreign trade and investments, and so on). Therefore, when
looking at Brussels, one gets the impression that it deals with a more generalised mismatch between
the competences of its governance levels and the socio-demographical reality: while a number of the
competences of the municipalities should probably better be exercised at the current level of the
regional government, a number of the latter’s competences should probably be exercised at the level
of a metropolitan region that goes beyond the current 19 municipalities. This being said, it is in our
view not necessary to wait for a more metropolitan approach to reinforce city governance. A strong
city government as a nexus for policy making can also be a prerequisite for good cooperation within a
metropolitan region.
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Visiatiecommissie stedenfonds 2011. (z.d.-a). Antwerpen: overtuigd en overtuigend stadsbestuur (p.
35). Brussel: Thuis in de Stad.
Visiatiecommissie stedenfonds 2011. (z.d.-b). Gent: zelfbewuste en leergierige stad (p. 34). Brussel:
Thuis in de Stad.
Is small beautiful after all?
Reply to Wouter Van Doornen
& Dave Sinardet
Stefan Sottiaux, KULeuven
“Small is beautiful? Lessons from a decade of decentralisation in Antwerp”, is the promising title of
Wouter Van Doornen and Dave Sinardet’s interesting and thought-provoking lead peace. Although I
agree with much of what the authors have to say regarding Brussels, I do have some reservations with
respect to their evaluation of the Antwerp experience.
Let me first say something about Antwerp and from there move on to Brussels. In the first part of their
contribution, Van Doornen and Sinardet assess both the governance effectiveness and the
democratic relevance of the internal decentralisation in Antwerp, and their conclusion is quite
straightforward: the Antwerp district-level would neither contribute to effective government nor
would it succeed in bringing politics closer to the citizen and in strengthening local democracy. Both
authors concede that there is not much empirical research on both matters and base their arguments
mainly on “indirect observations”. For instance, as regards effectiveness, they refer to coordination
problems, the lack of homogeneous competences, boundary problems and spill over effects. These
issues reflect the standard arguments against the territorial decentralisation or devolution of
competences, and some of them are no doubt valid. However, one should not lose sight of the fact
that there is also a whole range of arguments in favour of decentralising or devolving powers. It
strengthens democracy by increasing the opportunity for citizen involvement in the democratic
process. It allows for policy innovation and experimentation and it makes government more
responsive. And, last but not least, it is a bar against the concentration and possible abuse of power at
one governmental level.
In this last respect, I believe that Van Doornen and Sinardet are perhaps a bit too quick in dismissing
the potential political and democratic relevance of the districts in Antwerp. To be sure, I agree with
the authors that the districts so far have not functioned as a significant political arena that brought
politics much closer to the citizen. There is less media attention for the district-level, the district
politicians are less known and their quality is not always outstanding. However, I would argue that this
can, at least partly, be explained by the fact that the district-level has – comparatively speaking – been
politicised quite recently. The first district elections were held in 2000. What is more, in the two last
elections (2006 and 2012), traditional municipal politics was overshadowed all together by a
presidential-type campaign between two opponents with a nation-wide impact.
The presidential nature of the Antwerp city government-elections might be a separate and additional
reason for not abolishing the district level. In fact, as a result of the presidential-type campaign the
mayor and the majority party receive a very strong mandate, allowing them to dominate political
decision-making at city-level for a six years term. Against this background, there may be value in a
separate and autonomous political level as a check on a too powerful city government. To conclude, I
would argue that although more is to be done to increase the democratic relevance of the districts,
they may have added value in a big city as Antwerp.
This brings me to Brussels. Here I agree with what Van Doornen and Sinardet (and other observers
such as Deschouwer, Buelens and, more recently, Vuye) suggest. A first observation is that the scale of
Brussels is even larger than that of Antwerp. It is rightly argued that a city with the magnitude of
Brussels (with more than 1 million inhabitants) requires at least two tiers of government to make
responsive government possible. If not Antwerp, cities as Berlin and Vienna are the case in point here.
Although one might disagree about the relationship between the two levels and the way competences
are best divided between them, it is clear that the central city-government should be competent for
those domains where there is a clear need for coordination (for instance security, public transport,
traffic circulation, housing) and the district or municipal-government should function as a level close
to the citizen and sensitive to the local context (competences may include the support of local
organisations, sport and cultural facilities, the civil registry, and advice on all issues relevant to the
If we look to Brussels, there are at least two ways to achieve this optimal two-level structure. The first is
the most radical one and would involve the merging of the current nineteen municipalities and their
subsequent decentralisation in nineteen or more districts. Constitutionally, this would at least require
two legislative acts by the Parliament of the Region of Brussels and a subsequent decision by the
newly formed city of Brussels. It should be kept in mind that this would require a political consensus
between the French and Dutch speaking representatives in the Regional Parliament of Brussels, as
there are a number of special majority requirements with regard to this type of legislation. For the
time being, this is political fiction.
There is, institutionally speaking, a far less cumbersome route. Contrary to Antwerp, and in spite of
the many initiatives and studies in the past, the communities of Brussels were never integrated into
one big city. As a result, the current institutional make-up of Brussels reflects the ideal of a two-level
structure, with the nineteen communities at the basis and the Brussels regional and community
Government at the top. However, as most observers would agree, this two-level structure is far from
being an optimal one. I agree with Van Doornen, Sinardet that the city government capacity at the
level of the Brussels region or community should be strengthened, and that the distribution of
competences between the nineteen municipalities and the central level should be reconsidered so as
to allow more effective government and to tackle the financial problems of the communities and the
inequalities between them.
Not only from a political/psychological but also from an institutional perspective, the second option
would be a much ‘lighter’ one. When they act in the field of their own competences, the central
bodies in Brussels are constitutionally empowered to qualify – that is to limit – the competences of
the municipalities and to take up powers currently exercised at municipal level. Such an action would
only be subject to a subsidiarity check by the Constitutional Court. To be sure, there is a limited
number of constitutionally entrenched competences for the municipalities. The most important one
concerns the organisation of the local police force. Reorganising and further centralising the police
would thus require an intervention by the federal Parliament. But all in all, much is possible within the
current legal framework. One example of a de facto limitation of the autonomy of the 19
municipalities was the adoption by the government of Brussels of a uniform staff and financial
regulation for the employees of the municipalities.
The central institutions in Brussels are not only competent to qualify and limit the autonomy of the
municipalities, the Region of Brussels is also competent to legislate on the organisation, the
composition and the functioning of the municipal institutions. As result of the devolution of local
government to the regions, it is possible that a municipality might come to mean something different
in one region than in another region. The current 19 Brussels municipalities might thus be reformed
in the direction of the Antwerp districts. Of course, here too there are many political hurdles that must
be overcome. Given the overrepresentation of the Dutch-speaking community in the central
institutions in Brussels, strengthening these institutions at the expense of the municipalities will be
seen as a Flemish victory. Hence, the necessary reorganisation of municipal politics in Brussels is part
of the wider debate about the future of the Belgian federation.
Ch. Deschouwer en J. Buelens, “Het statuut van de Brusselse gemeenten: denkpistes voor een
mogelijke hervorming”, in E. Witte, A. Alen, H. Dumont en R. Ergec (eds.), Het statuut van Brussel,
Bruxelles et son statut, Brussel, Larcier, 1999, 439-463.
W. Van Doornen en D. Sinardet, “Small is beautiful? Lessons from a decade of decentralisation in
Antwerp”, 2013.
H. Vuye, “Brussel: enkele modellen en hun (on)mogelijke gevolgen. Pleidooi voor een
asymmetrische benadering”, in Patricia Popelier, Dave Sinardet, Jan Velaers en Bea Cantillon (eds.),
België, quo vadis?, Antwerpen, Intersentia, 2012, 175-205.
E. Witte, A. Alen, H. Dumont en R. Ergec (eds.), Het statuut van Brussel, Bruxelles et son statut,
Brussel, Larcier, 1999.
Size matters” – comments from Berlin
Maik Martin
When Wouter Van Doren and Dave Sinardet so lucidly ask whether (very ?) “small is beautiful“ in
terms of urban governance, I am tempted to argue that „size matters“ - certainly when one takes a
closer look at Berlin's structure of governance.
A conclusion – right at the beginning
If you ask any Berliner these days about what he or she thinks about having a two-tier system of
governance for Berlin, few would call Berlins's general set-up of a city state made up of districts
(Bezirke) with their own administration into question. While some might call for greater powers to be
vested in the districts, others are likely to prefer an (even) stronger city government vis-à-vis the district
administrations. Yet, few Berliners, if any, would advocate abolition of the lower tier of Berlin's
administration. It has been around since Berlin, as we now know it, came into being and it is here to
stay. Tinkering at the edges: yes, perhaps – moving to a single tier system or towards a loose, informal
local tier of administration: certainly not. The districts form part of many a Berliner's identity and most
would wonder, how on Earth a place the size and heterogeneity of Berlin could be run if not on the
basis of a formalized multilevel system of governance.
So in this little comment I endeavour to highlight some of the features of the Berlin system and its
development, which I hope may help understanding the difference in experience between Antwerp
and Berlin with a formal two tier system of governance.
Berlin and Antwerp: a different starting point
Berlin's sheer size, its history as well as its constitutional position in Germany's federal system
contribute significantly to the difference in experience between Antwerp and Berlin in relation to
multilevel governance. To put it briefly: Berlin's starting point is a radically different one from
Antwerp's on several accounts:
First, Berlin's population now stands at about 3.5 million. Each of the city's merged twelve districts
now roughly counts 300.000 inhabitants – the size of a reasonably sizeable city of their own. Thus, it is
stating the obvious to claim that a conurbation of the size and population of Berlin's inevitably needs a
multilevel governance structure to deal with high-level political issues as well as the more mundane
trials and tribulations of the day-to-day running of the city in a satisfactory way. In a multi-million city
it is a strong lower tier of governance that is likely to deliver citizen-responsive administration, it
appears to be the message from Berlin.
Second, and to me as a public lawyer essential in distinguishing Berlins's experience of internal
multilevel governance from that of Antwerp's, is Berlin's constitutional status as both a Land of the
Federal Republic of Germany and a commune1. This constitutional peculiarity Berlin shares in
Germany only with significantly smaller Hamburg and, looking beyond the borders, with Vienna. It
necessitates that in Berlin legislature and executive have to deal with both the politically more highly
charged Land as well as typically municipal issues. A formal two-tier governance structure can easily
be regarded as a somewhat natural solution to dealing with these two different sets of issues
adequately and in different, democratically legitimised fora. Yet, when taking a closer look at Berlin's
system of governance it becomes readily apparent that the division of labour (and of competences
and powers) between the city tier of government and the district tier does not necessarily follow the
typical distinction between Land and municipal matters: while the former set of matters is, as a rule,
firmly reserved to the city tier, it is, by and large, only the latter matters which are distributed between
the city and the district tier according to their relative significance and local context.
A third and perhaps the most crucial reason for Berlin's largely positive experience with formalised
multilevel governance is the city's strong two-tier government tradition since the formation of Greater
Berlin in 1920. When Greater Berlin was formed by Act of the Prussian Parliament it was an
amalgamation or merger of several fiercely proud cities and numerous communes of wildly varying
size. Retention of a each city's or commune's identity and of more than just a mere residue of powers
and competences was part and parcel of the creation of a better governed urban area of Greater
Berlin. Since 1920 (except for the years of the Third Reich) a two-tier system of government has
become a time-honoured part of the city fabric, strengthened by the constitutional status of a Land
upon the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. It is thus unsurprising that there have not been
any serious attempts at returning to a single-tier system in (West-)Berlin since then. Quite the
contrary, relatively recent reforms to the distribution of competences between the city and the
districts2 and a merger of the traditionally 23 districts to twelve districts3 have only increased the
political powers of the districts vis-à-vis the city tier. While debates about a sensible (re-)allocation of
competences between the city and the district levels are a political inevitability in any multilevel
governance system, the basic principle of multilevel governance model in Berlin is unlikely to be
called into question in the foreseeable future.
If I should offer an outlook on the potential development of Berlin's system of governance it is most
likely the question of putting a third tier of democratic participation at a very local level on a more
formal footing which may gain prominence. What now are relatively informal means of participation
and debate below the formal (whole) district level (e.g. at residents' meetings for larger parts of a
district or just local neighbourhoods called by the district bodies) which have found their way into the
statute book in the 1990s, may become, over time, more powerful vehicles for involving the local
populace in the running of their districts.
A quick glance at Berlin's organs of government
Before embarking on a functional description of Berlin's two tier system of governance focused at the
distribution of powers and competences between the tiers, let me provide you with a quick overview
of the main organs of government which are also explained in the chart annexed to this paper.
At the city /Land tier, the Berlin House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin) forms the
legislative branch of government, composed of at least 130 members who are elected on the basis of
proportionate representation for five-year terms. They enjoy full legislative competence for all matters
not reserved to the Federal Parliament under the Grundgesetz. The House of Representatives elects
the Governing Mayor (Regierender Bürgermeister), Berlin's Land premier, who appoints up to eight
ministers (Senatoren) who with him or her form the city/Land government (Senat von Berlin). Each
minister heads up his or her own government department (Senatsverwaltung).
Since the 2001, Berlin's 23 districts merged to twelve districts which are purely administrative tiers
without a legislative functions in the formal sense. Each district is run by the district board
(Bezirksamt) comprising the district mayor (Bezirksbürgermeister) and four district councillors
(Bezirksstadträte) which are voted into office by the district assembly
(Bezirksverordnetenversammlung). These are made up of 55 members elected on the basis of party
lists on the basis of proportionate representation for five-year terms – with elections being held on the
same day as the elections to the Berlin House of Representatives. All district mayors regularly meet in
the council of district mayors (Rat der Bürgermeister) which has primarily advisory competences vis-
à-vis the city government on matters dealt with at city level but which affect the districts.
The distribution of competences and powers between the city and district tiers in Berlin
Let us now take a closer look at the division of labour between the two tiers of Berlin's system of
government and start with the basic principle which has been strengthened by changes to Berlin's
Constitution and the General Competences Act in the 1990s: a clear-cut allocation of meaningful
and unencroachable responsibilities to both the city and district tier. Art 67 of the 1995 Constitution of
Berlin and the provisions of the General Competences Act (Allgemeines Zuständigkeitsgesetz)
fleshing out the constitutional rule, in principle do not allow for any sharing of competences between
the city and district tiers in the administration of Berlin but lay down rules for a clear delineation of
administrative competences and responsibilities between the city and the districts.
Under the 1995 Constitution a set of enumerated specific competences are reserved to the Land/city
tier on account of their nature and particular significance for a well-ordered public life. The most
obvious one of these competences are what are termed “leadership functions” in the Constitution:
powers to deal with what would be considered Land matters as opposed to municipal ones in the
other German Länder, ie quintessentially highly politically charged matters encompassing dealing
with the Federal Government or the governments of the other Länder. Beyond these “leadership
functions”, the police, justice and tax collection are areas of the administration of Berlin the
Constitution reserves to the city tier.
Outside these reserved areas of city competences, the 1995 Constitution crucially lays down a default
rule according to which administrative competences that have not been expressly allocated to the city
tier by Acts of the Berlin House of Representatives rest with the districts. Just to name a few, matters of
considerable important such as local planning, licensing and maintenance of subordinate streets are
currently the preserve of the districts.
However, the city legislature is does not enjoy an unfettered discretion to “zone up” competences to
the city tier which, under the default rule, would lie with the districts far from it. Since the 1998
constitutional amendment the Constitution enshrines a condition which has to be met for a
competence to be “zoned up” to the city tier: a power or competence can only be allocated to the city
tier by statute where the task in issue necessarily must be dealt with „in immediate governmental
responsibility“. By reference to this test, numerous competences have been “zoned up” such as traffic
control, maintenance of main thoroughfares and planning for the Federal Government and
Parliament buildings. While granting the city legislature a certain margin of appreciation in
determining whether the test for “zoning up” a competence actually has been met, Berlin's
Constitutional Court ensures proper adherence to the constitutional rule on the allocation of powers
and competences. In areas where formal competences do not lie with the districts, the districts
nonetheless enjoy an untrammeled advisory competence allowing them to address the city
government and other public bodies on issues of local relevance.
Where competences and powers are exercised at district tier, the city government generally only
maintains a supervisory regime aimed at ensuring that the districts act within the four corners of the
law. Where essential interests of the city as a whole are at risk of significant harm by acts or omissions
on the part of a district the city government may even intervene where the district has acted lawfully.
However, such supervisory intervention of the city tier in the lawful exercise of powers by a district is,
in practice, a somewhat rare occurrence as the city government customarily exercises its supervisory
powers with considerable restraint and respect for the districts' primary sphere of action.
Rather interestingly, the constitutional rules on the allocation and delineation of administrative
competences only apply to the Land of Berlin as a body corporate but not to bodies corporate
established by the Land of Berlin but distinct from it. There is therefore no legal bar preventing the
city government and legislature from setting up agencies as bodies corporate in public law and
entrusting them with specific tasks and powers which would otherwise be reserved to the districts. On
this basis a handful of agencies have been created which are tasked with matters considered to require
city-wide coordination and where economies of scale are essential. These agencies, while notionally
independent, are controlled by the city government and deal with public transport, waste collection,
water provision and running of the municipal baths. It appears worth to note that through this
mechanism the provision of essential city-wide services for a well-run community has been taken out
of any struggles for powers and competences between the city tier and the districts.
Reflection of the division of labour between the two tiers in the institutional make-up of district
There are certain distinctive features in the composition and general make-up of the Berlin district
bodies which, with some justification, can be said to bear out or reflect the division of powers and
competences between the city and district tiers sketched out above. As the districts' main
competences can be categorised as typically municipal in character loosely in the sense of
addressing primarily local, less party-politically charged issues -, these features pursue a common aim:
limiting the party-politicisation at the district tier of administration and thus reducing political
competition competition of the districts with the city tier.
The first and foremost feature of the district bodies furthering this rationale is the constitutional
enshrined principle of proportionate representation on the 5-strong district boards of the political
parties in the district assemblies. Under the current constitutional dispensation only the head of the
district board, the district mayor, may be elected by the district assembly on the basis of an agreement
between two or more parties which are not the largest faction on the assembly, thus allowing the
assembly to bypass the mayoral candidate of the largest party in the assembly. The other four
councillors on the district board, however, are elected on the basis of quota allocated to the parties in
the assembly using the D'Hondt calculation. Thus, while district boards may comprise more than one
councillor from the same party (depending on that party's showing in the district assembly elections)
or no member of smaller parties at all, proportionate representation of assembly parties on the district
board ensures that there is not really a proper 'opposition' in the classic meaning of the term between
parties in the district assemblies; coalitions and oppositions tend to be formed in relation to individual
issues on which the vote of the assembly is sought. This has, by and large, helped to render the day-to-
day running of the Berlin districts less confrontational in the party-political sense than would be the
case were the district boards composed exclusively of representatives of the largest party in the
assembly or a coalition of some of the assembly parties. This characteristic sets the district boards
firmly apart in terms of composition from the city government (Senat) which consists of the
Governing Mayor elected by absolute majority of the Berlin House of Representatives and members
of his or her party (and of a coalition partner where the Mayor's party does not command an absolute
majority in the House) appointed by the Mayor.
The merits of this method of rendering district politics less partisan or confrontational are not
unquestioned, however. It was only in the late 2000s that plans were abandoned to replace the
proportionate model for the composition of the district boards by what came to be called the model
of the “political district board”. Under this model, formation of the district boards would have
resembled the formation of the city government: the district mayor and all four district councillors
being voted in by simple absolute majority vote in the assembly without, in effect by the largest party
in the district assembly where it holds an absolute majority in the assembly or by a coalition of parties.
The plans to introduce the model of the “political district board” were hotly debated and but
eventually shelved for fear of wreaking havoc in the district assemblies.
A second important constitutional rule aimed at retaining a (healthy?) level of de(party)politicisation
of district administration requires elections to Berlin's twelve district assemblies to be held always at
the same time and place as those to the Berlin House of Representatives. There are therefore no
'stand-alone' local elections in Berlin. While this also has the beneficial effect of maintaining
reasonably high voter turn-out for the district assembly election, the main rationale of holding parallel
elections - crudely put - appears to be to deflect attention from the district elections, thus taking
district issues out of the limelight in terms of election campaigning. Election campaigning certainly
there is for the district assembly elections, yet centre stage is taken by the parties' campaigns for the
House of Representatives which dominate the political discourse in the run-up to election day.
Unsurprisingly, district politicians therefore boast a significantly lower political profile than their
counterparts at city level. This lower profile of district assembly elections corresponds to the
somewhat limited competences district assemblies enjoy vis-à-vis the district boards: the assemblies
are considered non-parliamentary bodies which, alongside the district boards, form part of the
executive rather than the legislative branch of government and therefore enjoy rather limited
There are currently no plans to abandon these tried and trusted means of emphasising the district
tier's role of a tier of administration rather the government where more mundane matters frequently
are best dealt with merits-based on the basis of a political consensus. This tends to set-district politics
apart from way things are dealt with at the city tier where, all too often, party politics in its pure form
hamper the search for merits-based solutions to problems Berlin is faced with as a city and a Land.
! !
$6$=40 $6$=40
Decentralisation in Vienna
Harald Bürger4
Austria is a federal state consisting of nine regions (Länder). Vienna is one of these regions and the
capital of Austria. Austria has a strictly symmetric federalism, all regions have the same rights and
obligations. The only reason for Vienna having an own chapter in the federal constitution is its special
situation Vienna is primarily a municipality, which fulfils also the role of a region. As municipality
Vienna is one of the 15 cities in Austria having its own charter, meaning that the city fulfils also the role
of an administrative district (Bezirk). These administrative districts are the constitutionally guaranteed
units for the general administration in first instance, their competences comprise regional and federal
tasks. Regions in Austria are divided into several districts, the whole territory of Vienna is just one
administrative district. For Vienna this implies that the institutions fulfil a double role – the mayor of
the city is also the regional governor, the city council is also the regional parliament, the city senate the
regional government etc. For the administration the situation is the same the city administration
acts also as regional administration. 5
To summarise the situation in Vienna is characterized by the fact that Vienna fulfils different roles in
own structure it is a region, a municipality in the special form of a chartered city and an
administrative district in one. One of the characteristic features is the strong role of the mayor.
The Internal Structure of Vienna in Districts
Vienna internally is separated into 23 districts (Gemeindebezirke). These districts should not be
confounded with administrative districts (Bezirke) in the other Austrian regions. The Vienna City
Statutes6 in Art 3 enumerate the districts with their number and official name.
Most of the districts have their roots in formerly separate municipalities. Historically Vienna was just
the first district. During the nineteenth and twentieth century waves of integration of surrounding
municipalities (Eingemeindungen) led to Vienna in today’s geographical shape. These former
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independent municipalities became part of Vienna. They kept their own bodies, but their nature was
changed from municipal to district bodies.7
The districts differ greatly in size and population. The surface area of the districts ranges from around
1 to 100 square kilometres, the spread of population is between 17.000 and 180.000 inhabitants.8
District bodies are the district council, the district chairperson and the district council committees.9
Elections to the district councils take always place together with the municipal elections for all the 23
districts.10 It is an equal, general, direct, secret and personal proportional election system.11 Citizens of
other EU-member states have the right to vote and be elected (active and passive voting right).12 The
number of members is proportional to the number of inhabitants. Every district council has at least 40
and at most sixty members.13 District council members may not be members of the municipal council
at the same time.14 The election period is five years.15 The district council elects a district council chair
and two alternates.16
The district chairperson and his two alternates are elected by the district council.17 Being district
chairperson is a full time job, which does not allow the engagement in a paid employment during
her/his term of office.18 The strongest political party has the right to nominate its candidate, for her/his
election the support of her/his political group is sufficient (“Fraktionswahl”). The two alternates stem
from the strongest and the party which came in at the elections as second strongest party. The
chairpersons are not obliged to be members of the district council, but if they are they may also be
elected as chair of the district council, combining this function with the chairperson function of the
The three district council committees deal with financial affairs, building regulation, and
environment. They have ten to fifteen members, all parties of the district council are proportionally
Districts do not have their own administration or departments. Every district has an own small
secretariat, which supports the work of the different bodies with writing protocols, sending out
invitations to the meetings etc. The number of staff employed is minor, it ranges from 4 – 8.
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)'"$5$&(-+'"-'"(0$"B-/(%-&(" ),($%")"B-//+53$4$'("+,"(0$"B-/(%-&("&+2'&-5"U1"(0$"42'-&-9)5" &+2'&-5"7">+'/(-(2(-+'"<%("ccf!g;"A0$"B-/(%-&("&+2'&-5"-/"(0$'"
<%(" @Hf@gfUg" AQNO" )'B" X-%$&(-3$"=IWEHWN>" )%$" '+(" 3-+5)($B" )/" (0$" )''$P" +," (0-/" X-%$&(-3$" B$,-'$/" S?$.-%:$" -'" B$%" a()B(" ^-$'T" )/" i?)/-&" 5+&)5"
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N5$&($B" Q2'&(-+')%-$/" 7" ^-$'$%" ?$.k*$*$/$(." !==8" hh" @c" 7" FI" f)3)-5)U5$" +'5-'$V" 0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R
6-$'W%$&0(/3+%/&0%-,($'W0(45W3!!HHHHH;0(4"R"D$%4)'g" )'B" K-$'')" N4+524$'(/" <&(" ,+%" ?+B-$/" +," (0$" \$*-+'" )'B" _2'-&-9)5-(1" +," K-$'')" 7"
^-$'$%" ?$.k*$*$/$(." !==b")3)-5)U5$" +'5-'$V" 0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R6-$'W%$&0(/3+%/&0%-,($'W0(45W3!@HHHHH;0(4" R" D$%4)'g;"
!=">+'/(-(2(-+'"hh" cc)")'B" ccU;"Q+%" +(0$%"),,)-%/" '+(",)55-'*"6-(0-'"(0$"/&+9$" +,"&+49$($'&$" +,"+'$" +,"(0$" (0%$$"&+44-(($$/" &+44-//-+'/"4)1" U$"
Districts do not have an own legal personality, but since 1973 an on-going process of decentralisation20
has led to a growing importance of them. The main political idea from the start on has been to bring
the political life nearer to the citizens, having in mind that there are elected representative bodies on
the district level. This has been complemented by implementing the districts in a growing number of
decisions taken by the administration. Legally changes of the Vienna Constitution set the new
framework.21 Additionally decrees issued by the mayor may extend the information and consultation
Competences of the Districts
In general districts have their own responsibilities and also budgetary means to fulfil them. Their
competences may be structured in
a) own competences
b) participation
c) consultation
d) information
Overall around 140 tasks can be identified, having their legal base in the Vienna Constitution and
three decrees issued by the mayor.23
The competences are divided between the different district bodies. The district council and the
district chairperson are responsible for most of the competences, the committees deal – as is obvious
from their respective name – with the budget, the building regulation and environmental matters.
Own competences are defined in Art 103 Vienna City Statutes. The districts also have the budgetary
means to fulfil this tasks. The list contains inter alia the maintenance of public schools, day care
facilities for children, planning, building and maintenance of streets and public lightning as well as
canals and parks, measures to improve road safety, cultural affairs limited to the district etc.
Participation as defined in Art 103k Vienna City Statutes is a stronger from of consultation, the
relevant district body has the legal right to issue an opinion within three weeks. The body, which is
finally deciding does not has to take the opinion into account but must give reasons when doing so.24
Consultation is weaker, the district bodies have again the right to issue an opinion, but the deciding
body may not give reasons when it does not follow the opinion.25
@!"a$$" (0$" )4$'B4$'(/" (+" (0$" >+'/(-(2(-+'" +," K-$'')J" K-$'')" L)6" D).$(($" !=bE" D).$(($" '24U$%" !HJ" !=Eb" D).$(($" '24U$%" @IJ" !==b" D).$(($"
@@M3$%)55" (0%$$" \$*25)(-+'/" +," (0$" _)1+%" +," K-$'')" U)/$B"B-%$&(51" +'" (0$" >+'/(-(2(-+'J" (6+" +'" h" !HI)f!g" )U+2(" (0$" &+'/25()(-+'"+," (0$" B-/(%-&("
&+2'&-5"+%" (0$"B-/(%-&(" &0)-%9$%/+'" )'B"+'$" +'" h"!HI)f@g" )U+2("(0$"-',+%4)(-+'" +,"(0$" B-/(%-&(" &0)-%9$%/+';"A0$" %$*25)(-+'/")%$"92U5-/0$B" -'" (0$"
M'5-'$V" 0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R6-$'W%$&0(/3+%/&0%-,($'W0(45W3HH!!EHH;0(4J" 0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R
@F"Q+%" )" &+495$($" +3$%3-$6" /$$"0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(WU$.-%:$WB$.$'(%)5-/-$%2'*W.2/()$'B-*:$-($';0(45l4-(6"fD$%4)'g" 6-(0" 5-':/" (+" 5-/(/" +," (0$"
@I"_)(($%/",)55-'*"2'B$%" 9)%(-&-9)(-+'"&)'" U$",+2'B" -'"(0$" >+'/(-(2(-+'"h"!HF*" ,+%"(0$" B-/(%-&("&+2'&-5" f$*"2%U)'"95)''-'*gJ"<%("!HF0",+%" (0$"B-/(%-&("
&0)-%9$%/+'" f$*" ,+%" -495$4$'(-'*" (0$" A%)B$J" >+44$%&$" )'B" d'B2/(%1" \$*25)(-+'" <&(gJ" )'B" <%(" !HFm" ,+%" (0$" B-/(%-&(" &+2'&-5" &+44-(($$" ,+%"
Both participation and consultation are complemented by an obligation of the deciding body to
inform the district bodies.
Lastly the district chairperson is informed about relevant matters and itself has to inform the district
council at its next meeting about these tasks.26
In case of differing views between the deciding body and district bodies no matter what competence
is affected § 31 of the Rules of Procedure for the City Council Office27 provide for a devolution to the
responsible executive city councillor or the chief executive director. If they cannot find an agreement
with the district bodies the mayor decides in the end.
The Budget of the Districts
The necessary budgetary means come from the municipal budget. Districts do not have their own
revenues. Legally their financial means are part of the municipal budget28 and the district has only the
right to decide about its use, the districts only administer means out of the municipal budget within a
certain frame.29
The district budgets comprise not a fixed amount of money or a percentage of the overall municipal
budget, in fact a fictive part of the taxes is allocated to them.30 There is a two-step approach.
In a first step the overall budgetary means for all districts together are calculated. They depend on two
different taxes – the municipal tax (Kommunalsteuer), a federally regulated tax mainly depending on
the sum of salaries in an enterprise and paid by the entrepreneur to the municipality, and the
employer tax, a regional Viennese tax. The amount is topped with 4 million a year and 8,5 million
a year for investments or the paying back of so called anticipated spending. Additional amounts are
foreseen for the planning and maintenance of main streets and the maintenance of canals. They are
proposed by the responsible executive city councillor, the final decision takes the municipal council.
In a second step the budget then is distributed between the 23 districts. Following a detailed
procedure first a general distribution key is used, taking for example into account the population, the
number of children visiting schools in the district, the density of the population, public traffic areas
etc. The second distribution key is related to the concrete tasks of a district, as for example the
numbers of public toilets, music schools or child day care facilities differ between the districts.
All 23 districts have for the year 2013 common financial means of 189 million . Due to the method of
calculating the means may change with the economic situation, as they are related to two taxes. The
first budgetary responsibilities where transferred to the districts with the beginning of 1988, a second
transfer followed with 1998, which nearly doubled the financial responsibilities of the districts.
@b"0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R6-$'W%$&0(/3+%/&0%-,($'W0(45W3HH!@IHH;0(4"fD$%4)'g;" A0$" \25$/" +," #%+&$B2%$" )%$" $')&($B" U1" (0$"
@E">+'/(-(2(-+'" h" EcfFg" )'B" fIg;" A0$" 42'-&-9)5" U2B*$(" -'&52B$/" )5/+" (0$" '$&$//)%1" ,-')'&-)5" 4$)'/" ,+%" (0$" %$*-+')5" )B4-'-/(%)(-+'J"(0$%$" -/" '+"
@="Q+%"(0$" B$()-5$B"%25$/" /$$">+'/(-(2(-+'"h" !HF",+%" (0$")B4-'-/(%)(-+'"+," (0$",-')'&-)5"4$)'/J"h"!HF)" )'B"h!HFU" ,+%"B%),(-'*"(0$" B-/(%-&("U2B*$(" )'B"
9)%(-&-9)(-+'"+," (0$" 92U5-&J" h" !HF&" 6-(0" *$'$%)5" %25$/J",+%"$P)495$"(0$" )'(-&-9)(-3$" /9$'B-'*J" h" !HFB" ,+%" (0$" 9%+3-/-+')5" U2B*$(J"h"!HF$" ,+%" (0$"
FH"\$*25)(-+'" +'" Q-')'&-)5" _$)'/" ,+%" (0$" X-/(%-&(/" 7" ?$.-%:/4-(($53$%+%B'2'*" M,,-&-)5" G+2%')5"!==b" '24U$%" I8" J" 5)/(" (-4$" )4$'B$B" 6-(0" M ,,-&-)5"
Graph 1: Financial means for all districts, million per year
Source: City of Vienna (
A detailed overview can be found in the annual budget of Vienna, which since 2006 comprises an
own annex covering decentralisation and financial means for the districts. The budgets since 1999 can
be accessed online.31
The division of financial means for 2013 on the districts shows the following graph:
F!"0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W,-')'.$'WU2B*$(W"fD$%4)'g;" A0$" )U+3$" 4$'(-+'$B" )''$P" ,+%" @H!FV"
Graph 2: Division of financial means on the 23 districts for the calendar year 2013
Source: City of Vienna (
Interlinking Municipal Administration and the Districts
As districts do not have an own administration interlinking it with the municipal administration
mainly the departments and the municipal district offices32 – is of prime importance. There is a small
unit in the chief executive office responsible for the overall coordination. This unit is today part of the
executive office of the mayor, under the responsibility of the director of decentralisation, a special
assignment. Other tasks include information and advice for the district chairpersons, preparation and
adapting of organisational decrees and organisational matters as well as helping to solve problems
either for the districts or the municipal departments in the area of decentralisation.
There is a coordinator for each district. It is a civil servant working in one of the municipal
departments. She/He is the first and direct contact person for the district chairperson and responsible
for the flow of information. She/he fulfils this role additionally to his normal function. His main task is
a coordination role when more than one department is affected.
In every department dealing with issues of decentralisation an expert, again a civil servant, is the
responsible contact person for one district. So for example in the department, which is inter alia
responsible for the maintenance of streets, one administrator is in charge of one of the districts. The
expert is responsible for the information flow and should enhance the cooperation between “her/his”
district and the department.
()/:/" )55+&)($B" (+" (0$4J" $*" -495$4$'()(-+'" +," (0$" A%)B$J" >+44$%&$" )'B" d'B2/(%1" \$*25)(-+'" <&(J" )B4-'-/(%)(-3$" &%-4-')5" 9%+&$$B-'*/" $(&;"
A0$%$")%$",+2%"42'-&-9)5" B-/(%-&("+,,-&$/"%$/9+'/-U5$",+%" (6+"B-/(%-&(/"$)&0V",+%" (0$"!/(")'B" (0$"E(0J"(0$" "I(0")'B"(0$" 8(0J"(0$"c(0")'B" (0$"b(0J")'B"(0$"
NP$&2(-3$" >-(1" >+2'&-55+%" )'B" (0$" >0-$," NP$&2(-3$" M,,-&$;" <'" +%*)'-/)(-+'" &0)%(" +," (0$" )B4-'-/(%)(-+'" -/" B+6'5+)B)U5$" -'" !I" 5)'*2)*$/V"
In reality coordination meetings take place at regular intervals, where the experts from the different
departments, the coordinator, often a representative of the director for decentralisation, and the
district represented by the district chairperson or a delegated alternate participate.
The citizen and the district
Aside the right to vote at the district every inhabitant can contact the district chairperson and the
members of the district council with his requests, proposals or complaints. All these petitions are dealt
with by the district or the responsible department of the city, the petitioner is informed about these
proceedings and the result.33
Citizens assemblies are the main possibility for information and discussion about matters of interest
for the district. The district council, a minority of at least a fifth of its members or 5 % of the
inhabitants of a district may convoke such a meeting. The assembly may also cover just parts of the
Districts frequently also do question citizens about matters of common interest. Two recent examples
can be found in the districts Währing and Hietzing, where Citizens could issue their opinion on the
introduction of obligatory parking tickets for inhabitants.35 Legally these surveys are not binding.
The article focussed on decentralisation in Vienna based on the constitution. It rests on two pillars
politically legitimated districts with exclusive competences and budgetary resources and a strong city
administration, where the departments are also in charge of the works in the districts. It is important to
underline that the Vienna administration has for a long time already been decentralised, with the
municipal district offices being the decentralised part of the administration, the departments and
other central offices the centralised part.36
For a full picture of the different forms of decentralisation in a wider sense, understood as
participation of actors below the city level, one has also to take into account other forms of
participation. Participative planning, ranging from regional plans covering the whole city to
Environmental Impact Assessments, the Local Agenda 21, which in Vienna is district based and
project oriented, the Vienna model of the “Gebietsbetreuung Stadterneuerung”, a district based
service for questions arising in connection with housing are examples. They have a strong district
based approach, working often in close cooperation with the districts themselves.
The question cannot be broken down to districts yes or no, the whole context is important. People
may engage more in the neighbourhood, but the districts with their organisational structure may act
Fc"a$$" \25$/" +'" (0$" " X-3-/-+'" +," A)/:/" ,+%" (0$" >-(1" >+2'&-5" M,,-&$7D$/&0o(/$-'($-52'*" ,k%" B$'" _)*-/(%)(" B$%" a()B(" ^-$'" fDN_gV"
0((9VWW666;6-$';*3;)(W%$&0(W5)'B$/%$&0(R6-$'W%$&0(/3+%/&0%-,($'W0(45W3HH!@cHH;0(4"fD$%4)'gJ"M,,-&-)5"G+2%')5"+," K-$'')"@H!H" '24U$%"8@<" )/"
as facilitators for this participation, at the same time being “sounding boards” for the politicians,
enabling them an early detection of problems and trends below the city level. The district then has the
means to feed these findings into the official process.
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  • T Bisschops
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  • M Beyen
  • L Duerloo
  • H Van Goethem
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