First Minister reaches out to opponents over council shake-up plans

Kirsty Williams, Leanne Wood, Andrew RT Davies Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

The political parties in the Assembly are making their first tentative steps towards reaching agreement on plans for a council shake-up, although they seem to be as far apart as ever.

You can remind yourself of the details of the major changes to the way our public services are organised that the Williams Commission recommended by clicking here. The most eye-catching recommendation is that the current 22 local councils should merge to form 10,11 or 12 new authorities.

The First Minister has said any reorganisation would need a cross-party consensus behind it which is partly acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge and partly recognition that, without a majority in the Senedd chamber, he needs the support of at least one of the other parties to get any proposals through.

There's some urgency to this too because the Williams Commission urged politicians to reach agreement at least on the way forward by Easter.

I reported last week that the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats weren't in a mood to provide that support and explained why. You can read that here.

Now I understand that olive branches have been extended and the First Minister's office has been in touch to arrange meetings between Carwyn Jones and the opposition leaders next week.

However the suspicions I mentioned last week remain. During a debate in the Assembly on Tuesday, Carwyn Jones was repeatedly criticised for not making the Welsh Government's position clear.

He told AMs not to expect a Welsh Government position until members of the Labour party in Wales have been consulted. That means March.

Sources within all three opposition parties continue to express frustration at that refusal. One Plaid Cymru figure told me they would have hoped for a statement by now on a report commissioned by the Welsh Government or at the latest in the next few weeks.

There's no real sign yet of any of the opposition parties joining forces to increase their bargaining power as Kirsty Williams and Leanne Wood did last October ahead of the draft budget although I understand they have taken initial soundings about what they could agree on.

What they can agree on is that they both want to see the introduction of proportional representation into council elections so we may yet see that emerge as a deal-maker or breaker.

However, even in the unlikely event of Carwyn Jones agreeing to that, he'd have an uphill struggle persuading members of his party, large numbers of whom are deeply opposed to any such move.

And that's another problem. A number of Labour AMs have expressed serious reservations about the costs and difficulties of reorganising councils as have several MPs, most notably the former Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy. And we haven't even mentioned Labour councillors.

There's a lot of talking to do before Easter.