Local governments need to streamline administrative structure
10:33 JST, January 21, 2022
The year 2022 is expected to continue to pose challenges for Japan regarding the pandemic, foreign affairs, the economy and other issues. This is the eighth installment in a series of articles on how authoritative figures in various fields view such topics. The below is excerpted from remarks by Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun interview.
The biggest challenge for local governments is population decline. The population of the six prefectures in the Tohoku region is expected to decrease by as much as 30% from 8.6 million to 6.2 million over the 25 years to 2045. Even Miyagi Prefecture, which has the smallest percentage of decline among them, is estimated to lose about 500,000 people. This will have an enormous impact on the management of local governments and local economies, but few local governments seem to have a sense of urgency about the situation.
To cope with this problem, we need to increase the population by creating an environment where it is easy to have and raise children and increasing the number of foreign residents and others. It is also important to further streamline the administrative structure and ensure efficient organizational management. And it is also essential to have a system to raise the added value per prefectural citizen and maintain the tax revenue of local governments even if their population decreases.
Since the inauguration of the second administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the national government has been promoting the revitalization of local regions through the creation of the post of minister of state for regional revitalization, among other efforts, but the efforts cannot be considered successful as the population has been continuing to concentrate in the Tokyo metropolitan area. In the absence of a clear vision and strategy of the national government, local governments need to take the initiative.
Miyagi Prefecture has tried to revitalize local regions by encouraging the acceptance of foreign residents. It is not easy to implement measures to increase the birthrate.
In addition, after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, the prefecture created a special zone for post-disaster reconstruction of the fisheries industry, where private companies can own fishing rights, and also privatized Sendai Airport. This was because the prefecture believed that, in an era of declining population and tighter financial conditions, it is essential to have an administration that makes use of the private sector’s funds and vitality.
In April, the prefecture will introduce so-called concession contracts, under which, while retaining the ownership of facilities and lands, local governments sell the rights to operate them to private businesses. Under the system, we will sell the private sector the management rights for water, sewerage and industrial water systems as a whole. The amount of water usage is decreasing due to the declining population, while the cost of renewing water pipes is increasing. If this trend continues, water rates will inevitably rise. Although there is some criticism of our efforts to be the first in the nation to entrust the management of three waterworks projects to the private sector, I am confident that future generations will appreciate our efforts.
The national government should support the efforts of local governments to improve administrative efficiency. There are nine airports in the Tohoku region, but their reorganization and consolidation has been slow. If the national government takes the lead in this effort, we should be able to reduce costs considerably.
During World War II, the city of Sendai was hit by a massive air raid and the area around Sendai Station became a burnt field. Eimatsu Okazaki, then the mayor of Sendai, built a number of large arterial roads in the center of the city. Although that invited fierce opposition from residents who resisted their displacement due to the construction, the tree-lined roads now are the symbols of the city, making Sendai known as the “City of Trees.”
Politicians must be prepared to think about where the interests of all lie, and to anticipate the times ahead and work through them.
During the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games last summer, Miyagi Prefecture held soccer events with spectators, while many local governments held competitions without spectators. Although there was some criticism of and opposition to our move, we thought it would be unreasonable to hold Olympic events without spectators, since professional baseball games and J.League soccer games had been held with spectators in the prefecture at that time. Since the Olympics were meant to be a symbol of the recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, we decided to hold the competitions with spectators, regarding the Games as an opportunity to express our gratitude to the world for the support we have received.
Currently, local governments can provide a certain level of services to their residents without much effort thanks to the national tax money allocated to them. But local governments that have worked hard to increase their tax revenues can be subject to a reduction in this allocation. I think this one-size-fits-all system, which can be described as equal to a fault, has led to a certain lack of self-discipline on the part of local governments.
In the future, it is important for local governments to compete to differentiate their policies from each other. As we enter an era of severe population decline, I think it is time to seriously reconsider the ideal form of local government administration.
This interview was conducted by Koji Sobata.
Yoshihiro Murai was born in Osaka Prefecture in 1960, he graduated from the National Defense Academy. After working as a helicopter pilot for the aviation group of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northeastern Army and at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, he served as a member of the Miyagi prefectural assembly from 1995 to 2005, where he also served as a secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Miyagi chapter. Murai was first elected governor of Miyagi Prefecture in October 2005, and is currently serving his fifth term. He also heads the National Governors’ Association’s national campaign headquarters.
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