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After the Second World War, the Norwegian government started an ambitious reform process in order to reduce the number of municipalities in Norway. The reform work lasted for nearly twenty years, and the outcome was a reduction of municipalities from 747 to 454. In a short-term perspective, this was a drastic reduction. In a long-term perspective, however, this was not the case. The number of municipalities was still larger than in 1837, when the law that constituted local self-government was approved. In contrast to the reduction process after the Second World War, the increasing number of municipalities during the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was not initiated by the government, but by the municipalities themselves. It was the result of multiple local initiatives, albeit approved by the government.
In this article, I will examine the reduction process in the perspective of the former long-term splitting-up process, using some municipalities in the county of Nord-Trøndelag as examples. The article is part of an ongoing book project writing the history of the municipality Inderøy in the period 1800-2012. During this period, the municipality has gone through both several separations and mergers.
Shortly after World War II, Norwegian authorities launched a municipal reform, which was not only ambitious, but also came to be quite prolonged. The state wanted strong municipalities to provide effective first-line welfare service, and harboured an idea that many municipalities were either economically too weak to fulfil these functions or simply too small to uphold a professional service of their own.
The reform resulted in a reduction from 744 units in 1945 to 454 in 1975. This was fewer than anticipated, and in the following decades, several efforts have been made to initiate reforms that are more thorough. So far, they have been largely without results, mainly because the state has refrained from using its most effective tool from the postwar reforms: legislation to force unwilling municipalities into amalgamations.
The reforms took different forms in different parts of the country.
In coastal districts, which had undergone fundamental changes from sea to land transportation, borders were restructured according to the new communication patterns. The most thorough changes came in urbanising areas, where growing towns and cities were enlarged by amalgamating rural municipalities nearby around an urban centre.
The article discusses how arguments grounded in local identity; tradition and history have been used in debates on the Norwegian municipal geographical structure since the 1950s. Strong local identities have generally – both among supporters and opponents of reforms aiming at fewer and larger municipalities – been regarded as sources of legitimacy for the bodies of local self-government, and premises for well-functioning local democracy and municipal services. Still, there have been fundamental differences: The opponents of the reforms have tended to regard identities primarily as products of history. Thus, state-implemented structural reforms, especially those violating the will of local opinion, have represented a threat to local self-government. Supporters of such reforms, on the other hand, have emphasized that local identities are not constant. They change, among other things, as a result of new means and patterns of communication. Based on this logic, history, traditionalism and reluctance to accept structural reforms are seen as the real threats to local self-government. By changing the geographical boundaries, the hope is to establish municipalities with a higher degree of interdependence and a stronger commonality of interest. In recent years, the supporters of local government reforms also have argued that the municipalities might create, change or strengthen local identities more actively.
The article investigates a hitherto largely unexplored theme concerning how the cities of Norway were fundamentally altered by the reform of the country’s municipality system during the first few decades after the Second World War. The reform – in short known as the «Schei-committee» – is first and foremost remembered for the more or less coerced merger of many small, rural municipalities, bringing the total number of municipalities down from 747 to 454.
However, I argue that the reform’s most important and lasting effect was its dismantling of the privileged position held by towns and cities compared to rural municipalities. By the mid-1960s, the towns and cities had joined the counties («fylkeskommune») and most were merged with geographically large municipalities, and had as such lost their former economic and political advantages. The article looks into a key event in the political battle over the towns and cities’ future, which is when the city of Haugesund was merged with its neighboring municipality Skåre in 1958.
The Hardanger region today consists of seven municipalities, with around 25,000 inhabitants. This map is the result of the national municipal reform mainly brought forward in the first part of the 1960s. The article focuses on formal regions and regional identities, and shows how the county has been the regional level when writing about the reform process. In 1960, there were ten municipalities in Hardanger – twice as many as were established in 1837. The plans for the Hardanger municipalities expressed the modernization, rationalization and centralization of policy in post-war Norway. In this region, the plans especially stressed the need for new boundaries connected to communication on land. The discussion addresses whether the common regional identity made it easier to create new municipalities. It is further considered how the outcome changed for several of municipalities. These changes were mainly caused by other centrally planned modernization activities, e.g. new power plants and the power melting industry. Thus, a change in politics came about from the late 1960s, with more emphasis on communities and local democracy. The re-establishment of the municipality Eidfjord in 1977 is analyzed in light of this. Finally, it is discussed whether the reform influenced Hardanger as a regional identity, which to a certain extent was the case, through the changes in the southeastern part (Røldal) and western part near the Sunnhordland region.
A majority of Norwegian municipalities finance local historical research. This explains the large quantity of publications on this field of research. Still, this financing mechanism does not create any enthusiasm among Norwegian historians. A main problem seems to be that the studies are forced into geographical frames identical to the municipalities (or counties). Some historians also argue that this form of commissioned research suffers under undue influence from the municipalities. The historian is normally expected to write for the general public, and some might feel pressure to oversimplify, and even to base the research on local self-concepts and other rooted local ‘truths’. The article does not aim to answer whether the financing mechanism undermines the academic value of such works, but it discusses to what extent local history research could be regarded as a tool in municipal reputation management and place-branding strategies. It also discusses whether this financial source will dry up as a result of a forthcoming reform in the municipal geographical structure. Based on experience, one might expect the opposite: ‘Vanishing’ municipalities would like to document their history, and history will be used as a tool for ‘new’ municipalities in need of defining who they are and creating or strengthening local identity.