The art of the possible

If there was any lingering doubt, not any more.

The publication of the Welsh Government's latest plan to re-organise councils confirms once and for all that the local authority lobby saw off its enemies and won the battle.

Most notably, they included the former Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews, the man who wrote a scathing report on current arrangements, Sir Paul Williams and for a time at least, the First Minister Carwyn Jones.

The existing 22 will survive. The big condition is that they will be forced to work together although they will have a say on who and how that happens.

On economic development, new joint committees will represent neighbouring authorities in north, and mid Wales as well as the south-west, clustering around Swansea, and in the south-east around Cardiff.

No great shakes

There are no great shakes here. This model is already partially up and running in the form of the city regions.

There had been a plan for them to come together in a different way, along existing health board boundaries, for social services and school improvements.

But in a document that has "flexibility" peppered throughout, it will be up to the the councils to decide which combinations will work best.

Local authorities already work together extensively on a voluntary basis. In his report three years ago on the Welsh public sector, Sir Paul Williams portrayed those relationships as wasteful and confusing.

The hope this time is that introducing more structure to the joint working arrangements also introduces more clarity.

Landscape

Budgets will be pooled in the new committees and the decisions will be taken jointly.

It is an obvious but important point but the councillors on the new bodies go back to their original council HQs to be scrutinised (rapped on the knuckles or given a pat on the back) but crucially not to seek agreement on which way they should vote.

This may be evolution rather than revolution but make no mistake, the landscape is changing. The big calls will no longer be made by autonomous local authorities, but on a regional basis.

Accountability

There are two related problems around accountability and confusion.

Take a classic council issue that is often the most controversial: planning.

Specific applications and the formulation of local development plans (crucial documents that set out where developers are allowed to build) will be decided by a committee representing more than one local authority.

In difficult decisions, it is very easy to imagine a scenario where one area feels it is getting a raw deal compared to another council area which may be comparatively untouched by new housing.

One local community will feel aggrieved and yet when residents go to their county hall to complain to their local councillors, they will find that those members were only partially responsible for the decision.

In fact, most on the regional committee will probably come from other councils which those residents will have no say over.

And then there is complexity. This will lead to a dizzying array of formal relationships which can only make it more difficult for the public, frankly already confused by devolution, to get their heads around.

That is the downside. The upside of this plan is that it is do-able and likely to become reality. As the former leader of Bridgend Council Jeff Jones says, it is the art of the possible.

And as a journalist who has spent a significant chunk of time over the past three years reporting on a merger plan that has not seen the light of day, there is a lot to be said for that.

One final thought. Some say formal relationships could end up with council mergers in the long run. The thinking is if they work effectively then the inevitable question is to come together.

But if councils are co-operating with different neighbours on different services, which would be the case under this plan, then it is difficult to see that happening.

In other words, unless some voluntary mergers get out of the blocks early, it would appear that the 22 really are here to stay.

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