National ‘Directive Authority’: Coordination between Central, Local Govts Essential during Disasters

Although the central and local governments are legally on an equal footing, local governments are limited as to how much they can deal on their own with emergency situations such as major disasters and the spread of infectious diseases.

To clarify the responsibility for implementing measures, it is necessary to strengthen preparations so the central government can initiate and engage in smooth coordination with local governments.

Deliberations have begun at the House of Representatives on a bill to revise the Local Autonomy Law to give the central government directive authority over local governments.

The key element of the bill is to establish a provision that would allow the central government to give necessary instructions to local governments, after a cabinet decision, in the event of a “situation that seriously affects the safety of the people,” something that the current law does not cover.

Under the comprehensive decentralization law that took effect in 2000, the relationship between the central and local governments was changed from “superior and subordinate” to “equal and cooperative partners.” Although the reform’s objective of letting local governments handle what they can on their own has spread far and wide, some of the implemented measures have had harmful effects.

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the central government took great pains to ascertain the number of infected persons nationwide. This is believed to have been impacted by the fact that public health centers, which count the number of infected people, are operated by prefectures, government ordinance-designated cities and other entities and therefore were not obliged to report the numbers to the central government.

Opposition parties and some local governments have criticized the revision bill on the grounds that it could distort the equal relationship between the central and local governments. However, these local governments showed some understanding when the central government added a clause to the revision bill stating that it would “seek opinions from local governments in advance.”

It is unlikely that the mere creation of a national directive authority will improve emergency responses, though.

Significant progress has not been made in the demolition of collapsed houses at public expense following the Noto Peninsula Earthquake. In addition to further collapses, there are concerns about deteriorating sanitary conditions, including a risk of the houses becoming a source of foul odors and harmful insects.

Various procedures are required for the publicly financed demolition of houses, including the confirmation of application documents. To proceed with this work, the central government has dispatched to municipalities in the Noto region officials from Kumamoto City and other municipalities who have extensive experience providing support after disasters. However, it appears that these officials have not been able to fully handle the work.

As a result of administrative reforms, the number of local government employees has decreased by nearly 500,000 over the past 30 years, which may have reduced the ability of local governments to respond to emergencies in certain ways. If the population continues to decline, there are fears that the functions of local governments will deteriorate even further.

The central government should urge local governments to cooperate with and support each other over a wide area in the event of an emergency. Local governments, for their part, need to closely communicate with the central government.

It is essential for the central and local governments to cooperate with each other, prioritizing the safety of residents rather than asserting their own authority.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 8, 2024)