The European Water Movement asked associations and collectives, who acted for the return of public management of their local water services, to describe the citizens' participation mechanisms in service management (implemented, being implemented or desired mecanisms), and to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In this article,the association Eau Secours 34 presents the case of Montpellier.
Until 2016, France had about 34 000 water and sanitation services. Territorial reforms passed in 2014 and 2015, will divide them by 10. With 3500 to 4000 significantly larger services, serving from 15 000 to hundreds of thousands of users, the question of citizens' participation will become even more fundamental since users will further away from decision centers. Therefore, there is a risk of citizens' participation dilution in a context that will also be characterized by the implementation of the Directive on the award of concession contracts.
A return to public management of water services in Montpellier
In Montpellier, water management was delegated to Veolia for 25 years and the contract ended in 2015.
Following the municipal elections of 2014, the new president of Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole (31 municipalities) decided on the one hand to stop the tender for a new private management contract launched by his predecessor, and also to return to public management of water services.
This decision was taken in a very specific local political context. The collective created by Eau Secours 34 organized a petition and citizens' referenda demanding the return to public management of water and sanitation services. But the collective also strongly applied pressure on candidates during the municipal elections and this pressure was decisive in returning to public management (see in French, renversement de situation). It never happens like that in France. In Paris, the return to public management of water services was decided by the mayor without consulting Parisians who were not really interested in the subject.
Eau Secours 34 has always considered that public management does not necessarily guarantee a good social, ecological and democratic management of water services. Therefore, the battle of Eau Secours 34 for a return to public management was associated with further demands including effective citizens' participation in the management of the service.
As soon as the decision to return to public management was taken, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole created a Comité de suivi de la mise en place de la régie publique. The committee's task was to give advisory opinions to the president of Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole. Eau Secours 34 had two representatives in this committee of 35 people (elected officials, associations and union representatives, qualified people). The committee proposed the creation of a régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale and an observatoire de l'eau, as Eau Secours 34 wished. And the president of Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole followed these opinions, as he had promised. This committee disappeared on January 1, 2016 at the start of the régie but the observatoire de l'eau must replace it.
Citizens' participation in the management of local water and sanitation services in France
To understand the citizens' participation mechanisms that can be implemented in Montpellier, we must briefly describe the French institutional framework of public management of local water and sanitation services, with particular emphasis on governance.
In France, local water and sanitation services are SPIC (services publics industriels et commerciaux). SPIC are the equivalent of SGEI (Services of General Economic Interest) defined at the EU level.
The local authority (municipality, urban community, metropolis...) chooses between public or private management for SPIC under its jurisdiction. The law allows 3 modes of public management for local water and sanitation services:
1- Régie à autonomie financière
The Régie à Autonomie financière is an EPIC (établissement public industriel et commercial). The deliberative assembly of the local government (municipal council, agglomeration council or metropolitan council) governs the régie (vote on budget, public procurement, price of water...). The president of the deliberative assembly (mayor or president of the agglomeration or metropolis) is the legal representative of the régie. The public management may have an operating board that can be consulted by the deliberative assembly before the vote thereof. Members of the operating board are appointed by the president of the deliberative assembly. Members of the operating board are mostly elected officials from the deliberative assembly but there may also be members from civil society (representatives of users' and environmental associations, qualified people).
2 - Régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale
The Régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale is an EPIC (établissement public industriel et commercial). The Board of the régie governs on (vote on budget, public procurement, price of water...). The director of the régie (a public official) is its legal representative. Members of the Board are appointed by the president of the deliberative assembly. Elected officials of the deliberative assembly form the majority of the Board but there may also be members from civil society (users’, environmental, and employees’ representatives, qualified people...). The Board chairman is always an elected official.
It is extremely rare that representatives of civil society sit on the operating board or board of the régie. Known examples can be counted on one hand.
3- Société Publique Locale
The Société Publique Locale (SPL) is a 100% public-owned company. There must be at least 2 local authorities as shareholders. This is the Board that governs the SPL (vote on budget, markets, price of water...). Markets are not necessarily public; they are most often over-the-counter markets. The Board chairman is the legal representative of the SPL. Board members are elected officials of the local authorities shareholders. The chairman of the SPL is an elected official on the Board. There may be observers from civil society on the Board, but these observers (also called censors) are not entitled to vote.
It therefore appears that the régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale is the best solution from the point of view of citizens' participation.
The local authority can also rely on, without legal obligation, several committees to manage its public water and sanitation services. These committees issue advisory opinions that the deliberative assembly of the local authority can choose to follow or not.
The commission eau et assainissement is consulted on all issues regarding water and sanitation services but also more broadly for everything related to water policy. It is composed of elected officials only.
The commission de contrôle des services publics locaux (CCSPL) issues an annual opinion on the price and quality of local public services. It is composed of elected officials and representatives of users’ associations designated by the local authority. There are less than a thousand of them in France.
A commission de contrôle financier, whose existence is provided for by the Code Général des Collectivités Territoriales, could undertake an annual financial check of the management of services that have been delegated to the private. Consisting of elected officials, it can also accommodate qualified people. Today there are in fact less than 5 over 30,000 services, which show little willingness by local authorities to carry out effective control of private delegates.
The observatoire de l’eau is an extra-municipal committee (in the case of Paris) or extra-metropolitan committee (in the case of Montpellier). There is no obligation to have this type of committee and they barely exist. The law is not very accurate about it. In Paris, the observatoire de l’eau consists of 4 colleges (elected officials, association representatives, employees representatives, qualified people). It has a secretariat constituted by the water and sanitation administrative service of the municipality that is responsible for logistics. It has an annual budget made available by the municipality of Paris, in the amount of EUR 10 000, mainly dedicated to a website. The chairman of the observatoire is from the college of qualified people. The observatoire de l’eau may be consulted by the local authority for questions regarding its water policy; but it goes far beyond water and sanitation services: for example, urban rainwater and flood risks management, preservation of water resources... An observatoire de l’eau can also take up a question that seems important and submit its conclusions to the local authority. It is also distinguished from other committees as it allows the introduction of some direct democracy: its meetings are public and users can participate in certain debates without necessarily being members of the observatoire. This is why Eau Secours 34 is very interested by the observatoire de l'eau.
Citizens' participation in the management of water services in Montpellier
Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole chose the régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale as the mode of management for its local public water service.
The Board of the régie des eaux de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole consists of 20 members: 14 elected officials, 4 associations representatives, including 1 for Eau Secours 34, 1 employees’ representative and 1 qualified person. The chairman of the Board is the mayor of Grabels, which supported the collective created by Eau Secours 34. The qualified person who is vice chairman of the Board was part of the collective. Absenteeism of elected officials is very high. But the composition of the Board is such that elected officials are always the majority when a quorum is reached, as in Paris.
The commission eau et assainissement consists solely of elected officials of Montpellier and its current chairman is the mayor of Grabels, chairman of the Board.
There has never been a commission de contrôle financier in Montpellier.
The new commission consultative des services publics locaux includes a dozen representatives of associations. Despite its regular requests, Eau Secours 34 has never been part of the CCSPL; we suspect a blockage by the administrative direction of water and sanitation in the metropolis with which we have always had a difficult relationship.
An observatoire de l'eau will be created in Montpellier early 2017. Most of its members will likely be the same as the members of the comité de suivi de la mise en place de la régie publique. Therefore, Eau Secours 34 is hopeful to have at least one representative in the future observatoire.
In short, citizens' participation in the management of water services for Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole will be exerted through 3 mechanisms allowed by French law: Board of the régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale, commission consultative des services publics locaux and the observatoire de l'eau.
Limits of citizens' participation in French legislation
The Water Framework Directive demands that there is citizens' participation in the development and implementation of water policy but it is not very accurate and is non-binding in its form. Participation involves consultation and optional participation in decision making. There is no indication of how the citizens (ie civil society) should be represented in the bodies of consultation and decision. The transposition into French legislation of citizens' participation as defined in the European Directive was made a minima, limiting the de facto scope of citizens' participation mechanisms in the management of local water and sanitation services.
It is the local authority that decides who represents civil society in the Board of the régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale, commission consultative des services publics locaux and the observatoire de l'eau, as well as the weight of the so-called civil society among stakeholders. It is also the local authority which most often decides on which subjects civil society must be consulted and on which issues they can participate in decision making.
The possibility of having representatives of users' and environmental associations on the Board of the régie à autonomie financière et personnalité morale, is an important step forward in terms of citizens' participation. But we must keep in mind that:
- it is the local authority that chooses the representatives of associations and does it more often depending on its links with these associations (most of these associations depend on subsidies they receive from the local authority) and not according to their "competence" or their representativeness;
- the number of association representatives on the Board is usually very low compared to number of elected officials;
- certain decisions concerning the management are made by the local authority without a vote of the Board (for example, decisions arising from the adoption by the local authority of its Master Plan for Drinking Water (schéma directeur de l’eau potable).
Note that most of the decisions taken by the régie after votes of its Board, are "administrative" decisions without real social, economic or environmental issues (eg, authorization to sign a public procurement for buying equipment, given to the director of the régie). "administrative" decisions are adopted unanimously without any need to debate, unlike votes for annual budget, price of water, investment for renovation and maintenance of infrastructure.
An observatoire de l'eau can partly compensate for the limitations of citizens' participation set out above. But this requires that the local authority plays the game, by consulting it regularly and leaving it some autonomy. This has not always been the case in Paris, at the time when Anne Le Strat was chairwoman of the régie Eau de Paris. This is one of the reasons for the resignation of Henry Coing, first chairman of the observatoire parisien de l'eau, which occurred in 2016 under the chairmanship of the newly elected official in charge of Eau de Paris after the departure of Anne Le Strat. The current Parisian situation does not seem to be improving. What will happen to Montpellier? We do not know, but Eau Secours 34 will be very vigilant on the operation of the observatoire de l'eau that Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole will create.
Contact: eau34 @ orange.fr