Return to the past

I speculated last night on Wales Today that the rejection by Leighton Andrews of the three proposed voluntary mergers could lead to a return to six, seven or eight councils in Wales.

Since then the Welsh Local Government Association pointed out to me that there were in fact 45 councils, rather than eight, as we should include the 37 district councils running things like leisure, housing and waste management. The eight counties ran education, transport and social care.

So the point is there would be big differences with the system that existed before the 1996 reorganisation even if the headline figure may be similar.

We don't actually know for sure how the Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews sees the future map of local government in Wales.

During First Minister's Questions, Carwyn Jones spoke about Williams still being the preferred map but it's difficult to see how that is the case after the voluntary mergers were rejected.

The decision that tells us the most is the rejection of the Conwy Denbighshire merger.

As few as six

The Williams commission recommended that the number should be reduced to 10,11 or 12 via a series of mergers. The Conwy Denbighshire was in all of them.

The inevitable consequence of rejecting it means the only feasible option left is to have two local authorities in north Wales.

The logical extension then is a model where the number across Wales would be in the single figures.

We know Leighton Andrews believes in scale when it comes to local government.

He has been more critical than most of the reorganisation that created 22 councils in the 1990s and last year spoke of "well known" figures in Welsh Labour wanting as few as six.

It would suggest the proposals were rejected because the new organisations would have been too small, although the official reason in a statement is that they wouldn't have reduced complexity or created enough coherence.

Deja vu

So where do we go from here?

Carwyn Jones is now seeking talks with the opposition party leaders at the assembly. You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu. In other words, we're in exactly the same position as this time last year.

He failed to get agreement then and it's difficult to see how he can get agreement now.

During yesterday's debate, an exasperated First Minister called on the other parties to be more constructive and come up with their own plans.

He was trying to take advantage of the lack of specific proposals from them but it was always going to be an easy one for the other parties to bat away, as they pointed out that the lead should come from those in government.

As was the case last year, the Welsh government's best chance of a deal is with Plaid.

The model of a small number of large authorities gives Plaid the chance of controlling an enlarged Gwynedd and a new body in south west Wales similar to the old Dyfed authority.

Lines on the map

But how we get to an agreement is anyone's guess at this stage. Carwyn Jones will be holding talks with the party leaders with a view to putting together a map in the summer.

In the meantime the voluntary route has been closed off. It is difficult to see any councils exploring the option if there's a chance it will be thrown out.

Lines in the map are all well and good but why does all of this matter?

After all Leighton Andrews sets out his views on leadership across the public sector next week, which he thinks is just as important an issue as structural change.

For many, reorganisation is about public confidence and the cost to the taxpayer.

There is a consensus that 22 is too many and those who have held that view have been boosted by various stories on chief executive pay and luxury cars in recent months.

As one Assembly Member put it to me, these stories have done more to speed up council reorganisation than anything the Williams commission came up with.

But I suspect the argument on council reorganisation will come down to the delivery of services.

In other words, while change may save money, and that is hotly disputed in local government circles, the way to win the debate will be to persuade people that larger organisations will provide better services to council taxpayers.