Spain is a nation state composed of autonomous communities – the regions. The system is not unusual in Europe – Switzerland, Belgium and even Germany operate in the same way. It’s large-scale devolution, and to some extent the UK does this too, with Wales and Scotland being part of the UK and governed by Westminster and British national laws, but with their own parliaments and varying levels of regional autonomy. In all these cases, autonomous regions legislate on regional matters, and can even legislate in areas of national concern where there are regional variations – healthcare, for example. This is how it works in Spain.


All the regions have their own governments and parliaments, and their own regional laws, all whilst being part of the country of Spain and its national government and legislation on defence, tax, internal security, immigration, foreign policy, and so on. There are 17 autonomous regions in Spain – eg Catalonia, Andalusia, Valencia, the Basque Country: 15 of them are on the mainland, and the other two are the island groups, the Balearics and the Canaries. (There are also two autonomous cities in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, but these don’t have legislative power).


Most of the regions are broken down into provinces, and the provinces are further broken down into municipalities, what we’d call council areas. So for example, Andalusia comprises eight provinces, and each of these is broken down into several municipalities. Similarly, the Canaries as an autonomous region are broken down into two provinces, eastern and western. The eastern province comprises Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, and the western one Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro.

Provinces throughout Spain have capital cities, and here the eastern provincial capital is Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and the western is Santa Cruz de Tenerife. These serve to streamline and coordinate work for legal purposes, for example, with main court hearings from all over the province taking place there, or tourism affairs like standards control and illegalities being overseen at provincial level. Many things, however, are specific to the islands themselves, and because the Canaries are so spread out over seven islands which are quite different in many respects, we have an additional layer of government – an insular one – that is unique in Spain. We have island Cabildos, which give each island its own governing board or committee.


So, in terms of structure, we have various levels. National – Spanish, regional – Canarian, provincial – east or west, and insular – for our purposes, Tenerife. If we just take tourism as an example, we can see that some issues are dealt with at each and every one of these levels! Main policy and general marketing might be conducted nationally, but the regions themselves are in competition with each other for travellers who, in their minds, are going to “Spain”, and as such, the regional governments legislate their own particular tourism policies. Within the regions, the provinces will have particular ideas about how policy is applied in their part of the region, and the island Cabildos will construct different identities and plans to get tourists who’ve chosen the Canaries over Malaga, for example, to choose one island instead of another.

There are other issues dealt with in this tree-structure manner as well as tourism. Roads, for example, will be the responsibility of the national government (Spain) if we’re considering general policy or traffic policing or major road network funding, but development and maintenance of individual major link roads, eg motorways, will be the responsibility of regional governments. At lower level, the Cabildos are responsible for main trunk roads on their own particular islands, and beyond that, smaller local roads are the preserve of the municipal authorities, what we’d call local councils. These are the Ayuntamientos.


These municipalities are where we come into it. They are the level of government with which we are most familiar. We know them off by heart – Adeje, Arona, Guía de Isora, Santiago del Teide, Fasnia, Arico … the list goes on. Most of them have a county town, and this normally shares its name with the municipality itself, so for example Adeje (town) is the county town of Adeje (municipality), or Arona town in Arona municipality. The municipalities themselves have their own local priorities, plans and issues, and it is these that have the most direct impact on our lives as foreigners abroad.


So when people ask why “they” are spending money on a motorway extension when they should be finishing surfacing the road into a local town, or finishing the south hospital, they misunderstand the nature of the different levels of responsibility. Motorways are organized and funded by region, main roads by Cabildo, or secondary roads by Ayuntamiento, hospitals are the responsibility of Cabildo and Government – and, in any case, the health department, rather than transport!

It would be easy to say, and many do say, that this just betrays administrative incompetence and chaos, that what’s needed here is joined-up government. And to some extent, that is sometimes true. BUT it is easy to forget, when surrounded by the unfamiliar and unclear, that a stranger looking at the UK’s system of national, regional and local government would be equally bewildered, and equally exasperated, at Westminster, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, County Councils, Regional Authorities, Metropolitan Districts, Borough Councils, Local Councils, Town Councils, Parish Councils …

It is what it is. And we owe it to ourselves, let alone our new home, to try to understand it and live within its framework. Hopefully the above has helped clarify some part of the way in which Spain is politically constructed and governed, and the systems that it has in place for the country to function.

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