One of the most striking features of the Spanish local system is the varied size of municipalities and particularly the high number of very small governmental units. Indeed, 50 per cent of municipalities have less than 500 inhabitants and 1,360 have less than 100 inhabitants. However, big cities like Madrid (3.2 million inhabitants), Barcelona (1.6), Seville (0.8), ten other cities with more than 300,000 and an additional 50 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are also part of this diverse landscape. Some authors have referred to the Spanish local system as the ‘local galaxy’ (Botella, 1992) and they are right. The galaxy comprises big stars, medium planets and thousands of tiny asteroids.
Such a picture indicates that Spain has been absent from the trend of territorial consolidation reforms that started in the 1950s in Scandinavian countries and have continued through the present day. Just between 2008 and 2017, municipal territorial amalgamation has occurred in 15 European countries (Swianiewicz, 2018). Making local governments perform more functions, thereby generating economies of scale and reducing problems of free-riding, which have been the intended goals behind such reforms (Swianiewicz, 2010).
In Spain, consolidation reforms have barely been present in the national political conversation. Only few proposals have been considered but never adopted. The most recent has been in the local government reform of 2013, where an attempt to merge municipalities was included in a first draft of the relevant statute (Navarro and Pano, 2019), but it was omitted from the final version, thus illustrating how territorial organization reforms are among the most politically difficult (Swianiewicz, 2018). On the contrary, historical inertia has defined the (non)evolution of the local map. For provinces, the number of territorial boundaries are exactly the same as they were almost two centuries ago. For municipalities, their number and territorial limits are very similar to what we could find a century ago. In 1813, there were about 12,000 villages, while the census of 1900 gave a figure of 9,214. Today the number of municipalities (1,824) is indeed lower, but not so much lower as to represent a substantial change in the local map.
The choice of no change in combination with a rigid legal system regulating local government has had its consequences, which we attempt to analyse in the present chapter.