'It is pure rock and hard place stuff'
- 20 June 2013
- From the section Wales politics
Steve Thomas, the man who leads and speaks for local government in Wales, is an expert at speaking the language of "quantum funding under pressure" and how "the interface between services needs to accelerate."
But he's also a man who knows how to speak the language of blunt. Today he'll be at conference and at it full pelt. He'll be in the company of local government leaders who fear that the Chancellor's spending review next week, and its impact on the Welsh Government's budget - and eventually theirs - is "the public expenditure equivalent of the nightmare before Christmas".
If George Osborne does cut Whitehall departmental budgets to the extent he's expected to, then the direct impact on the Welsh Government's share of public expenditure will be hit hard. Some things the Chancellor can cut without it directly affecting the block grant given to devolved governments, but it's been clear that for some time now that ministers in Cardiff have been preparing for the sort of cuts in Westminster that travel straight down the M4 and hit them hard.
If the Welsh budget is cut, what do they do?
They won't want to cut health, or education, or the sorts of things that are starting to get Carwyn Jones into just a little bit of trouble in the chamber. For years they've protected local government in Wales in a way that must be the envy of local authorities in England. There, councils have taken massive hits, the sort that has led to MPs being warned that some smaller councils - one just over the Severn Bridge - are facing financial collapse.
In Wales, local authorities know the Welsh Government has chosen to protect them. Their budget has gone up gone up 47% since 2003. It's going down now of course. The amount your local authority spends on you on average has fallen by 8.4% in real terms since it reached a peak in 2009/10.
No, we haven't had it half as bad as they've had it in England, says Mr Thomas. But on the other hands, we haven't done anything like as well as health. The amount spent on health has gone up 75% since 2003, he says. So if health is fighting to keep what they have, we're making the case for keeping what we have too.
He knows they won't manage it. But he also warns that if "England style cuts" are made to local authorities in Wales - "a game changer" is how he describes such a move - then just about everything that isn't a statutory service is in danger of being caught in what he again describes as "carnage".
"In England, in the first year of the cuts process in 2010-11, libraries were closed en masse, we saw leisure centres closed, we saw huge staff reductions across English local government - in total I think there's been around 230,000 job losses. That carnage continues".
Education and social services will have to be protected, have to be delivered. But libraries, leisure centres, transport, trading standards, environmental health? They're not in the same league.
So what then?
I'm leaving this job in ten days' time. The talk about the need for root and branch reform of Wales' twenty two local authorities has been around for all of that time, and some time before. Will that be what Paul Williams, the man now in charge of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery will recommend?
Or will he hear the argument that says Wales' 22 local authorities are, rather appropriately, in a Catch 22 position? In other words, Wales can't afford the set up it has now but can't at this point afford to re-draw the map completely and create a different set up because that's complex and always costs money.
So again, what then?
That's where Steve Thomas' "interface between services" and the "need to accelerate" comes in.
The big one? Health and social care. If the Health Minister is going to succeed in his aim of stopping quite so many people getting to hospital in the first place, and getting those who are hospitalised out again quicker, he's going to need a social care system that's working better than ever. He's going to need a health and social care system that's working in tandem, not - Steve Thomas talking blunt again - "rubbing against each other".
There are, we hear regularly now, examples of good practice. But no-one who'll be at the Welsh Local Government Association conference this morning, waiting to hear from the new Local Government minister, Lesley Griffiths, will believe for one second that that is enough.
But we're back with our old problem. We can't afford to be where we are. We can't either, warns the WLGA, afford fundamental change at a time when everyone working in Wales' local authorities needs to be finding and making big cuts.
"You want to reorganise when public expenditure is going northwards, not southwards" says Steve Thomas. "If you can't ask people to take on service transformation AND merge with one or two neighbouring authorities. We've got to keep the ball on the pitch".
But a shake up? Yes. You won't, he says, find many voices in Welsh local government now who don't accept that it's high time for one of those. They just wish central government would get on with it.
This year's conference is being live tweeted - and as we all know, Twitter demands the language of blunt. The hashtag? #readyforashakeup
And you don't get much blunter than that.