Quaint concepts such as accountability, devolution, democracy and local decision making will give way to corporatist, technocratic, big is beautiful constructs in which government ministers and civil servants in London and Cardiff will have rather more say in who really runs local government than voters do.
In what looks set to be a beautifully crafted exercise in smoke and mirrors, voters will be left with directly elected councils and the municipal trimmings that go with them while power over just about everything except rubbish collections will be handed to new quangos.
Welcome to 'Central and South West Wales', which is not a railway station, but the provisional name for this new local government mammoth.
Before we peer into the crystal ball, let's consider how we got here.
Hardly had the dust settled on Carwyn Jones's latest reshuffle than up popped Leighton Andrews on Twitter plugging one of his courses at Cardiff University. For a modest fee, new members of Carwyn's cabinet can pop along to learn how to be a minister between 2 and 4 every Thursday.
Or perhaps that should be how not to be a minister, because in his relatively brief cabinet career, Leighton managed to get himself sacked from education in 2013 before returning a year later to reform local government, only to see his proposals shot down by a coalition of outraged local government fat cats. Voters in the Rhondda, that safest of safe Labour bets, then decided to give him the boot.
For roughly 400 years Wales managed to get by with 13 counties until Edward Heath reduced the number to 8 with a tier of district councils beneath them. 20 years later John Major's unhappy government decided to shuffle the pack again giving us the 22 unitary authorities we have today. At the time the Tories claimed the new structure would remove overlap, save huge amounts of money and be much more efficient. Labour argued that the change would see a devastating loss of local government jobs.
Needless to say, they were both wrong, and the Tories ended up creating a whole string of Labour fiefdoms destined to enjoy eternal one-party rule with all the opportunities for patronage and access to the gravy train that goes with it.
Leighton's plan was set out in a white paper, the key points of which were:
- Merging smaller councils to reduce the total from 22 to 10 or 12.
- A reduction in full time Cabinet roles.
- A consulation on whether there should be term limits on chief executives.
- A legal duty on Council leaders to ensure diversity amongst elected members and senior council staff.
- Term limits on councillors and leaders, with no-one allowed to hold posts as a councillor and AM at the same time.
- A review of the remuneration of councillors, Leaders and Cabinet members, to bring costs down.
Tact and diplomacy were never Leighton's strongest points, and the pale and the stale choked on their Prosecco. Labour local government types, previously so strongly opposed to the John Major reforms, prepared to defend their fiefdoms, and they were joined in the trenches by the likes of Pam Palmer in Carmarthenshire, horrified by the idea that anyone should try to end her divine right to rule by limiting the amount of time that people like her and Meryl Gravell could take home a senior salary while letting Mark James get on with actually leading the show.
Leighton's spectacular defeat in the Rhondda meant that the showdown never happened, and his proposals were given a quiet burial.
So it was back to the drawing board for the government, which decided that regional working was the way forward.
Education and planning
The government is expected to bring forward new proposals for regional local government next year, but the process has already started, quietly and through the back door, with the establishment of regional education consortia. In Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Pembrokeshire and Powys ERW (Education Through Regional Working) has taken on functions and responsibilities which previously lay with elected county councils, complete with its own chief executive and cadre of officers.
It is unlikely that more than a generous one voter in every 100 will have heard of ERW, which is just as well because it is completely unaccountable to them, and ERW has its counterparts in other parts of the country, all charged with delivering an "agreed regional strategy and business plan to support school improvement."
Any body which serves six masters, such as ERW, is in reality accountable to none of them, and concerns have been expressed at how a homogenizing body which covers such a hugely diverse area in which English predominates can meet the needs of Welsh medium education.
In planning the legislative and legal framework is already in place which will see powers transferred away from elected councils to two new bodies over which voters have next to no control.
The Swansea Bay City Region, or "City Deal" as it is now usually referred to, will be run by an Economic Strategy Board and a Joint Committee.
The ESB, which will be responsible for strategy, will be made up of business and public sector types (a very wide term which extends all the way from councils to the health boards and the fat cats of academe). Only a minority of its members is likely ever to have been elected by you or me.
The chair of the ESB will be "a private sector business person" appointed by the UK Government, the Welsh Government and members of the Joint Committee, which will be made up of representatives of the four participating local authorities.
The UK Government, currently in the shape of Alun Cairns working alongside London-based civil servants, will have a veto and effective control over who runs the show. So much for devolution, democracy and local accountability.
In planning matters, these new authorities will be responsible for drawing up a new "Strategic Development Plan" (SDP) which will somehow, nobody is entirely sure how, exist alongside the "Local Development Plans" drawn up by existing councils. And both of these elements will be subordinated to something called the "National Development Framework".
In essence, then, the City Deal ESB with its unelected head will decide what is "strategic", and anything which is strategic will be removed from the LDPs. In practice, LDPs will be left with little more than dealing with Mrs Williams' new conservatory and a couple of new bungalows in Cwmsgwt.
Planning approval for "strategic" matters will still have to go through a sort of quasi judicial process, but this will be carried out by an appointed panel. Appointed by whom is not yet clear, but at a rough guess we are talking about proteges of the council leaders on the Joint Committee, and it is more likely that pigs will sprout wings than that these appointees would ever be so unwise as to vote down something deemed to be strategic.
What we are about to get therefore is a whole new planning ecosystem of frameworks and development plans drawn up and overseen by different bodies in different places, with control over the most important bits lying somewhere between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall.
'Central and South West Wales'
If the City Deal sounds like a labyrinth, it is, and it is a labyrinth which will be subsumed into an ever bigger labyrinth of regional quango-ization under the government's plans for regional "local" government.
The City Deal agreement, signed by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders (Swansea, Camarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire) goes rather further than just dealing with matters relating to the Swansea Bay City Region project, and outlines what will be the fate of local democracy in Wales, where we will get three super-regions: the North, Cardiff and the South-East and The Rest.
The Rest, or Central and South West Wales, will take in everything from Margam to Machynlleth and Manorbier to Meifod, including both Ceredigion and Powys, and it will be run by a "Joint Governance Committee" that will take over many of the functions currently carried out by elected councils, including, the agreement helpfully suggests, "economic development, transport, land
use planning, education improvement and social services".
Councillors and Assembly Members may be scratching their heads at this point, trying to recollect when they debated and agreed to any of this, but their turn will come next year when they will be asked to give their seal of approval to a fait accompli signed off by Mrs May, Carwyn and the four council leaders, who, as we have seen, have also handed a large degree control over what happens in this part of the world back to London.
The most that we in the west can hope for is that Adam Price's idea for Arfor, a new integrated local authority covering the west of this country, finally starts to gain a bit more traction.