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The Sound of ...

Betsan Powys | 13:46 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Call this a straw in the wind entry.

It's one of those where this might be something, could be nothing. I have a feeling it's the former but in the interests of "you read it here first" - and yes, a girl's got to score brownie points where she can in these days of non-stop referendum/election meetings - here goes.

The Assembly Government is in the process of passing its Local Government Measure. As currently published, it would give Ministers powers to direct councils to work more closely together to deliver more efficient and cost effective services. It stems principally from frustrations that the joint working agenda isn't being developed quickly enough by Wales' 22 local authorities.

However, my colleagues who are in Cardiff Bay today are sniffing the air and sensing that something's up. They tell me that Ministers are planning to introduce a number of late amendments to the Measure. And they are so substantial that it looks as though a two-thirds majority in plenary to suspend standing orders may be needed before they can be put forward. This could happen as early as tomorrow.

What are those amendments likely to be? Well, they're currently still being drafted but I gather they would give Ministers the powers to merge or amalgamate councils under certain circumstances.

This is of an order of magnitude greater than the powers currently in the Measure - and begs a number of questions. Here are two for starters:

Why are they being introduced so late in the process?
What's the intention behind them?

Labour have already ruled out any substantial reduction in the number of councils if it wins another four year term. When the suggestion of revamping the 22 authorities is put to them, Ministers always sigh at the predictability of the question and the mood music that follows is around collaboration in service delivery between councils - something the Measure in its current form makes plenty of provision for.

I don't think this is a precursor to any change of heart on this - for the powers to be introduced so late and in such a specific form, I think they're for a specific purpose. And that is, to paraphrase the Sound of Music, "how do you solve a problem like Mon Mam Cymru ... " I'm talking about Anglesey. It just doesn't scan.

The well sourced suggestions coming from both the Bay and from colleagues keeping a close eye on Anglesey, is that the patience of Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant and that of the WLGA has finally run out with the island's broken political system, and they're preparing something radical - most likely a merger with mainland neighbour Gwynedd. My colleague Vaughan Roderick asked Carl Sargeant some time ago whether such a merger was on the cards. Vaughan didn't get a nod or a wink but then the lack of outright rebuttal from a Minister who speaks his mind, was noticeable.

I may be wrong - but the political narrative and legislative logic is beginning to point inexorably in that direction.

From both sides of the bridge, watch this space.

**UPDATE**

The Assembly Government looks to be in all kinds of trouble on many fronts over this amendment. As I write, the Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant is in a somewhat earnest-looking meeting with the entire Plaid Cymru group in the Senedd.

The suggestion that's being whispered, is that even his own Business Minister Jane Hutt may not have been fully in the picture. The Liberal Democrats are outraged at the way this has been handled and will oppose any suspension of standing orders, and the Conservatives are - at best - willing to back it with severe reservations - at the moment.

The irony is that you can find few voices in the Senedd who don't believe that ministers should have the ultimate power to merge councils - but plenty of those who object to the shoehorning of such powers into a Measure that was designed for quite different purposes and the whole way this has been handled.

Therefore Mr Sargeant now faces a series of hurdles to get his way.

Firstly, and most pressingly, the Presiding Officer has ruled that his amendments as currently drafted fall outside the scope of the Measure. That is, it's constitutionally unacceptable to graft on merger powers to the Measure at this stage of its progress. In layman's terms, the Government's trying to get a quart into a pint pot.

To have any chance of getting the amendments through, he will need a two thirds majority in plenary tomorrow - it's fairly clear that this could be tough, hence tonight's meeting with Plaid Cymru and the fact he'll need votes from outside the Labour-Plaid coalition anyway.

Even then, since the draft amendments have been ruled out of order by the Assembly authorities, all this will do is get the committee looking at the Measure to consider the amendments. It doesn't magically bring them under the scope of the Measure.

So the government are now scrambling to find a means of including the changes they want to make into the legislation whilst keeping everyone on board. Again, watch this space.

Off to Scotland in the morning to interview their First Minister Alex Salmond but I'll be keeping in close touch with goings on in Cardiff Bay.

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