As the population in rural areas rapidly decreases, how to provide adequate public services, including social welfare and medical services, is becoming an important issue. The Local Government System Council, an advisory body for the prime minister, on June 25 made a proposal addressing the issue. The core idea is promoting cooperation among adjacent municipalities and prefectural governments taking over some of the duties of municipalities and providing public services on their behalf when necessary.
This approach seems unavoidable in view of Japan’s current situation. But if the central government imposes the idea on local governments, it will not work.
In translating the council’s idea into concrete terms, the central government must take utmost care so that local governments will actively promote cooperation among themselves. It should design a system that will ensure smooth cooperation among local governments as well as offer adequate financial support, including support for branch municipal offices born of mergers of municipalities that the central government pushed from 1999 to 2005 in an effort to enhance the efficiency of local government.
The merger policy has had side effects. In many areas where municipal offices were downgraded to branch offices, the quality of administrative services decreased and led to an exodus of residents or businesses in some cases. This experience increased resistance to the further merger of municipalities. Therefore, the council’s idea of boosting cooperation among existing municipalities makes more sense.
At present, adjacent municipalities often form cooperatives to fight fires and dispose of garbage. The council is calling for greater cooperation in such matters as the use of a computer system for resident registration and tax collection, and the provision of nursing care services for the aged.
In areas where it has become difficult to receive adequate medical services, the council envisages building hospitals in “center cities” with a population of 50,000 or more, and using bus services to link them with surrounding municipalities.
The traditional policy was that each municipality should have all necessary public facilities such as a garbage-disposal facility and a library. But under the council’s proposal, adjacent municipalities could form agreements that allow the shared use of such facilities.
At present, cooperation among municipalities is not going well. The council selected 61 “local hub base cities,” each having a population of 200,000 or more, and called for deepening cooperation between these cities and surrounding municipalities. The council also proposed that the prefectural government take over jobs from municipalities, especially in such areas as river and road maintenance and the contracting out of public works to businesses in cases when municipalities suffer from a shortage of experts who can oversee such projects.
Coping with the rapid depopulation of the countryside is a great challenge for Japan. Both the central and local governments must work together to come up with solutions that will enable local government to tackle various problems with ingenuity and initiative. One solution should focus on the creation of new jobs in rural areas, where land is cheap and plentiful, that will kick off a reverse exodus of young people.