Kenya Hirose and Junya Hashimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
The Reconstruction Agency will be inaugurated Friday, about 11 months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, as the nation’s main office for post-disaster reconstruction.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his administration plan on gaining significant momentum in rebuilding areas hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami by establishing a system capable of responding swiftly to local government requests in disaster-hit areas.
However, the new agency will have to tackle various hurdles, such as bureaucratic sectionalism and gaps in communication between the central government and local governments of disaster-hit areas, to meet the Noda administration’s expectations.
“I hope the new agency will be the sole institution to respond to our requests [to prevent local government officials from having to visit various ministries], and give constructive responses as soon as possible,” Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said at a press conference Monday.
Tatsuo Hirano, state minister for disaster management and reconstruction, is scheduled to assume the post of full-time reconstruction minister at the agency on Friday.
“The Reconstruction Agency will be a good consultant and eager ‘sales representative’ to meet demands of local governments [hit by the March 11 disaster],” Hirano told reporters Sunday in Myoko, Niigata Prefecture.
“Government officials well versed in systems related to post-disaster reconstruction will be posted at the agency’s local bureaus and offices,” he added.
Currently, local government officials need to visit different ministries and the Cabinet Office to deliver their requests to the central government. One of the main reasons behind establishing the Reconstruction Agency is to streamline the process by designating one agency to receive and respond to all requests.
The agency’s two main tools in promoting post-disaster reconstruction will be special reconstruction zones and subsidies for disaster-hit local governments.
The government will allow tax exemptions and ease regulations within the special zones to help industries rebuild and create employment.
On Jan. 27, the Miyagi prefectural government, along with 34 local governments within the prefecture, became the first to submit an application to establish a special zone exempting companies who reestablish business in coastal areas hit by the disaster from corporate tax for five years.
Later in the month, the Iwate prefectural government submitted an application to establish a special medical and health care zone. If approved, government regulations, including the minimum number of doctors and nurses stationed at medical institutions, will be relaxed to cope with the shortage of medical staff. On Monday, the prefectural government also applied to establish another special zone which will exempt companies in the area from certain taxes or reduce the tax rate.
The Aomori prefectural government, along with four municipalities, has also applied for a similar special zone. Companies who establish business in certain areas of the special zone would be able to choose from several preferential measures, including a five-year corporate tax exemption.
On Tuesday, Hirano announced the government will approve Miyagi Prefecture’s special zone application, as well as Iwate Prefecture’s special medical and health care zone on Thursday. However, observers expect resistance from ministries that are concerned the special zones will erode their vested interests and rights. In this regard, the Reconstruction Agency’s ability to continuously approve special zones will be put to the test.
The government has secured about 1.8 trillion yen for post-disaster reconstruction subsidies in the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2011 and the fiscal 2012 budget. The funds will be provided to “urgent projects vital to the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas” such as social infrastructure development and relocating residential areas to higher ground. The subsidies will fully cover the costs for each project.
Seventy-eight municipalities from seven prefectures have applied for 389.9 billion yen worth of subsidies as of Jan. 31, the government’s first application deadline.
If procedures go smoothly, the central government plans to notify municipalities of the amount of subsidies they can expect to receive by the end of this month.
Limited options for local govts
Several problems have already surfaced over the special zones for reconstruction and subsidies for local governments.
Government officials in charge of subsidies for reconstruction have been touring local governments hit by the March 11 disaster to explain how to apply for the subsidies.
During such tours, there have been a number of cases in which gaps between the expectations of local governments concerning subsidies and the intent of the central government became apparent.
In mid-January, an official of a town located in the coastal area of Miyagi Prefecture told a central government official visiting the city that the city hoped to use subsidies to reinforce public facilities against earthquakes.
“Projects must be related to reconstructing the city from the March 11 disaster. Anti-seismic measures should be conducted by the city under a long-term plan,” the central government official responded.
After hearing the central government official’s explanations of the subsidies, a senior town official said, “We thought the central government would grant subsidies on a wide range of projects, but the reality seems to be different.”
The central government has provided cities, towns and villages with dozens of model cases it is considering approving for special zones, such as relaxing regulations on fishing rights so private companies can enter the aquaculture industry more easily. The government has also provided the local governments with examples of about 40 possible projects it would subsidize for post-disaster reconstruction, such as projects to restore infrastructure destroyed by the disaster.
A central government official said the purpose of providing such examples is to approve local governments’ applications concerning special zones and subsidies for reconstruction as smoothly and as soon as possible.
However, some local government officials do not hide their frustration. “It’s difficult to conduct reconstruction projects that respond to specific needs of citizens,” one local government official said. “Options given to us by the central government are limited.”
The central government has treated local governments in coastal areas preferentially in accepting applications for subsidies on post-disaster reconstruction as it is more urgent for those cities to begin reconstruction projects. The central government asked municipalities located inland to submit their applications for the second round with a deadline of March 31, or later rounds. Due to this request, four municipalities in Iwate Prefecture and five municipalities in Miyagi Prefecture had to delay their applications for subsidies.
Municipalities in coastal areas are experiencing difficulties obtaining consent from residents to move residential areas to higher ground. Observers have pointed out that delays in moving residential areas are likely to delay the whole reconstruction process in such cities, which may make special zones and subsidies ineffective.
Another point at issue is whether negotiations between the agency and other government offices would go smoothly.
If the Reconstruction Agency and a particular ministry disagree over implementing reconstruction projects, the reconstruction minister can recommend the ministry change its opinion. However, such recommendations are not legally binding.
Some observers doubt whether the Reconstruction Agency could exercise strong leadership to overcome sectionalism of ministries to carry out reconstruction projects.
Reconstruction projects administered by the central government will be carried out by government offices related to the projects. A municipal government official said: “In the end, we may have to visit particular central government offices for requests and appeals. I’m afraid that the Reconstruction Agency would be a fifth wheel.”
Reconstruction Agency’s responsibilities
–To draft policies aimed at rebuilding areas hit by the March 11 disaster and develop laws necessary to implement them.
–To manage a special account for post-disaster reconstruction and allocate funds to other government organizations. The agency will also allocate post-disaster subsidies to municipalities.
–To supervise reconstruction projects of other government organizations. The reconstruction minister will have the administrative authority to advise other government offices on post-disaster reconstruction.
–To help municipalities draw up plans for post-disaster reconstruction.
–To approve applications for special reconstruction zones.
(Feb. 8, 2012)