Good cop bad cop for councils

We have had the good cop bad cop combination: enter the middle-ground cop.

Okay it doesn't have the same ring to it but that is how the current Local Government Secretary Alun Davies is portraying himself with the latest proposals for re-organisation.

He follows in the footsteps of Leighton Andrews who tried to force through changes without success, and Mark Drakeford who tried to woo the councils with regional working, which was also rejected by town halls (more on this later).

So Alun Davies continues the tradition of local government secretaries by trying to change the face of the Welsh public sector.

The opening gambit is that this is the start of the conversation, even though he has been spending lots of face-time with council leaders across Wales in recent months.

Long grass

Mr Davies was at pains to stress he is not hung up on the numbers, or indeed any element of the process itself.

Hence a range of options are being floated that include voluntary mergers happening relatively quickly, a longer and phased process and an all-in-one change that could bring the number down to as few as ten.

One of the time-frames for change is 2026. In the context of some of the deadlines facing the Brexit process at the moment, this feels like long grass territory.

Many of the combinations will be familiar from a few years ago. They will also be familiar to many from more than twenty years ago by recreating the old counties like Dyfed and West Glamorgan.

Crucially, Alun Davies says he will not force through changes that go against the overwhelming view of local authorities across Wales.

Out of blocks

On that basis, the statement from the Welsh Local Government Association, which does not give an inch, would appear to leave the plans dead in the water before they have got out of the blocks.

The question is whether he has a back up plan if council leaders dig their heels in hard and early.

We should get more of an idea on Friday when he addresses leaders for the first time since announcing the plans.

I am told a number of voluntary mergers may be on the cards if enough extra money is laid on the table by the Welsh Government but there is no appetite to bring the numbers down to anything like 10.

If the Alun Davies plan does not get any kind of traction then it will make the third attempt at change look ill-advised at best, and naïve at worst.

Pressure

But there are dangers for local government as well in all of this. In rejecting this after also turning down the previous options, they risk the accusation that they are not interested in reform.

This is where the pressure point will come from Cardiff Bay.

There is a clear sense from the Welsh Government that it is unacceptable for councils to simply reject what is on offer and not provide any alternative solutions to the financial problems they face.

At a point in time when their finances are under severe pressure, ministers will argue they are at least trying to address the problem.

And this is where déjà vu kicks in, councils will respond by saying re-organisation costs money which they can ill-afford to divert from services.

Puzzling

There is one central claim that is puzzling. Alun Davies repeats the mantra that literally no-one believes the current structure is one that works.

Well if that is the case, why is it that change has proven to be so difficult?

On a strictly theoretical basis, he is right. If everyone had a blank sheet of paper they would not come up with the current structure.

But that is not the same as then interpreting that as an admission that things need to change right now.

A final point: one senior figure in local government told me the rejection of the Mark Drakeford regional working model is not strictly true.

The feeling is a huge amount of work has gone into this approach and this is the direction they want to pursue, rather than dusting off the old merger plans.

This will be one of the messages put to Alun Davies when he walks into the lion's den on Friday to address the council leaders at Cardiff City Hall.