This is an article on local government reorganisation published on the Institute of Welsh Affairs website
The Welsh Government is on a mission: they have commited themselves to reshuffling the local council pack as painlessly as possible and they want to enlist our support to do it.
They are doing so without any further devolution of power to those new super-councils and without changing the basis on which they are elected. Form and structure are taking precedence over accountability, transparency, and effectiveness.
If the outcome of elections does reflect the way people voted then the opposite is true. Councils are more representative, scrutiny is more effective and there is much greater accountability and transparency. As a result services are better.
The Welsh Government will publish its own estimate in due course. But what is important here is how long it will take to recover the cost through savings, if there are substantial savings.
In a time of austerity every penny counts if we are to preserve services. A big up-front outlay of cash, which cannot be recovered fairly quickly will make things worse.
And what about the cost to taxpayers, who have already seen their council tax bills soar? The Williams Commission report contains some good news and some bad news for ordinary families.
They say that in the event of straightforward mergers, there will need to be an equalisation of council tax bills across the new local authority area. That means that without an extra penny being spent and before the new councils set their budgets, many families will find themselves paying more, whilst others will be better off.
Thus in terms of the proposed merger of Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot, council tax payers in the latter council will pay 4.4% less, whiilst Bridgend familes will face a 4.8% increase.
Council taxpayers in Anglesey will face a 6.9% hike as the price of becoming part of a new Gwynedd Council; Conwy taxpayers will pay 6.1% more; in Pembrokeshire council tax bills will soar by 9%; Newport by 6.5%; whilst the price for residents of Caerphilly of a merger with Blaenau Gwent will be 10.1% extra on their bills.
Will there be a dampening mechanism to protect taxpayers? If so how long will it last? How will it be paid for? Will the cost of that mechanism be top-sliced from existing council budgets or will the Welsh Government find new money to pay for it?
There are many many more questions to be answered. The Local Government Minister made a statement to the Welsh Local Government Association conference a few weeks ago in which she said that the council elections in 2017 will go-ahead on the current boundaries.
However she also promised incentives for those councils that wanted to voluntarily merge. Their councillors will have an extra year in office, a six year term before facing the electorate on new ward boundaries in 2018. The catch is that there will be less of them, so some will see their career in local government come to an end without a ballot being cast.
Furthernore it is intended to realign the local council elections across Wales so despite volunteer councillors having a longer term in office up to 2018, this will be balanced by a subsequent shorter term. Some incentive.
We are still waiting for details of when the newly merged councils will face their first elections on new boundaries, whether councillors will serve for a four or five year term, how many councillors will serve on each of the new authorities, whether there will be shadow councils, and whether the intention is to keep local government elections and Welsh Assembly elections separate.
From the point of view of services, the fundamental question is how the Welsh Government intend to address the very complex formula that is currently used to distribute funds to councils. That has the potential to add significant complexity to the whole process of mergers.
Finally, what about community councils? There are over 700 of these bodies, some substantial in size and budget, delivering local services, others representing a few hundred people. In my view there needs to be some rationalisation of these bodies so that if they wish and if it is desirable, they can pick up the slack created by the much bigger county councils and take on local service delivery at community level.
When the First Minister makes his statement on Tuesday, he will do so knowing that these and many more questions will remain unanswered for some time to come. If we are to resolve them however, then he needs to adopt a far more consensual approach and work more closely with others.There is political agreement that there are too many councils and that something needs to be done about it. It is at that point that consensus breaks down. Compromise is possible but only if the Welsh Government is prepared to make concessions and to listen to others. This week will be the first test as to how far they are willing to go in bringing others with them on this agenda.