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Swedish Local Authorities - a background

The local authorities and the county councils are responsible for providning a major part of all public services in Sweden. All Sweden's municipalities implement Agenda 21 at a local level.

In 2008 there are 290 municipalities and 20 county councils in Sweden.

A long tradition
Sweden has a long tradition of local self-government. It took shape in the 19th century and was regulated in the 1862 Local Government Ordinances, that in principle, made every rural parish and every city a municipality. This was also when the county councils were formed. At that time there were 2 498 municipalities and 25 county councils. By the 1950s modern industrial society had created new conditions for municipal boundaries. Municipal units with both a larger geographical area and a larger population were needed to enable the municipalities to perform their tasks. More and more people were moving to the cities. In 1952 an initial boundary reform more than halved the number of municipalities. A second boundary reform carried out in the period 1962-74 reduced the number of municipalities from 1037 to 278. Since then the number of municipalities has increased slightly due to the partition of some municipalities.

Independent bodies
Since 1974 local self-government is laid down in the Constitution (the Instrument of Government). Local self-government means that local authorities must be independent bodies, free to make their own decisions within certain limits. Local authorities have the right to levy taxes to carry out their tasks. This taxation right is also set out in the Constitution and forms part of local self-government. In 2007 local authority income amounted to close on SEK 600 billion, or about one-sixth of GDP. Tax revenues accounted for about 68 % of this sum, central government grants for 16 % and other income, such as fees and rents, for the remaining 16 %.

Local self-government is bound up with democracy and opportunities for people to influence local authority decisions or bring local politicians to account. The democratic system in Sweden includes some elements of direct democracy such as advisory referendums, citizens' proposals to local assemblies and user management boards.

The Local Government Act
The present Local Government Act came into force on 1 January 1992. The Act regulates everything from municipal and county council boundaries to the conditions for work in the assembly and committees. Under the Local Government Act municipalities and county councils may attend to matters of general concern. These are matters that are related to the geographical area of the municipality or county council or to its members. A local authority may not normally undertake activities that the state or another municipality or county council is responsible for.

As in other Nordic countries, Swedish municpalities are in practice always responsible for primary health care, care institutions, kindergartens, primary and lower secondary education, many social services, some cultural services and technical services such as water, sewerage, waste disposal and local roads. A unique feature in the Nordic context is that Swedish municipalities are also responsible for upper secondary education. Another is that all Swedish municipalities have provide advice to consumers and that all employ at least one energy advisor. Some of the larger towns also have staff to advise people specifically on sustainable mobility, which is also less common in other Nordic countries.

Like Danish municipalities, but unlike those in other Nordic countries, Swedish municipalities are mainly responsible for environmental control of enterprises. Swedish and Danish municipalities are considerably larger than in other Nordic countries, which is reflected in the fact that they are also reponsible for some other specialised services that are regional or national responsibilities in other Nordic countries.

As in Norway, Sweden and Finland, many but not all Swedish municiaplities are sole or joint owners of energy utlities, supplying electricity and/or district heat.

In 2003, the Government appointed a committee of inquiry with the task of reviewing the division of responsibility between the state, the municipalities and the county councils, as well as their geographical structure. (Terms of reference 2003:10 Review of the structure and division of responsibilities in the system of public administration). The tasks of the committee included identifying and analysing changes in society that may lead to a need to change the division of responsibilities. In 2006, the committee presented a proposal to reduce the number of regional authorities from the current 20 to between 6 and 9. It did not propose any change in the number of municipalities. The central government has so far not followed up on this recommendation.

[Last updated: 27.08.2008]