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Welsh local government has been turned on its head in recent months. But throughout the upheaval, Steve Thomas has ...
Welsh local government has been turned on its head in recent months. But throughout the upheaval, Steve Thomas has remained a stabilising force, says Kerry Lorimer

Steve Thomas is a man for whom 'ordinary bloke' is the most understated, and yet complimentary, of epithets.

When Mr Thomas was named director of the Welsh Local Government Association in March, his appointment was one of the most widely and genuinely welcomed in local government.

Political leaders and fellow officers alike pay tribute in equal measure to his talent, intellect and unequivocally down-to-earth nature.

One, speaking prior to his appointment, wryly observed he might just be too much of an ordinary bloke to stand a chance of impressing the selection panel in an organisation as peculiar as the WLGA.

Nevertheless, the panel was unfazed, and made the appointment it knew would shape the future of Welsh government at a time, three months before the elections, when no one could have predicted how Welsh local government was going to look.

The shakeout, when it came, was immense. Labour domination came to an abrupt end, the faces who had become synonymous with Welsh local government were swept away, either by the electorate or by the Welsh Assembly's controversial scheme of golden handshakes for long-serving members.

Mr Thomas was left with an organisation turned on its head, its political control splintered in a way it had never been before and, perhaps most crucially, no obvious contender to step into the well-worn shoes of former leader Sir Harry Jones (Lab), who stepped down in June.

A senior figure at the Local Government Association, observing events from the relative calm of London, said Sir Harry must be 'turning in his retirement'.

The predictable tug of war between the association's political groups saw the emergence of the new-look consensual WLGA, with Flintshire leader Alex Aldridge (Lab) at its helm.

Sitting in the sunshine at a brasserie in Cardiff Bay,

Mr Thomas pays tribute to the 'massive contribution' made by Sir Harry and the rest of the old guard, but is briskly optimistic about the new blood coming through.

'There are advantages to the 'big bang' approach,' he says. 'I am impressed by the diversity of the new leaders. They'll bring a fresh perspective.'

But is there a risk that the leadership of the association could be weakened just as the assembly's powers are set to expand?

And will the WLGA to be able to fight the corner of local government more forcefully?

Mr Thomas says that although fragmentation is a danger in any federal organisation, the risk is minimised by the small size of the WLGA.

'The relative intimacy makes consensus easier,' he says. 'The key message stressed by all political groups is the need to speak with a unified voice for Welsh local government.'

He is also keen to see the development of a more mature relationship with ministers, getting away from the 'piffle' that has characterised discussions between central and local government in the past.

He would particularly like to see an enhanced role for the Partnership Council, the advisory body set up

to promote joint working between the assembly and local government. In Mr Thomas' opinion, the council

has become too narrow in its focus and needs to be re-energised.

But there's no question of ministers getting an easy ride: 'We're still within spear-throwing distance, and we'll throw spears when we need to,' he says.

One of the opportunities Mr Thomas believes is ripe for the grasping is the assembly's recent move to integrate the three biggest quangos in Wales into the civil service.

'What the assembly has done is excellent and long overdue, [but] we will be screaming loudly that Welsh local government should have a slice of the action,' he says.

'The assembly mustn't be like a kid in an exam, with its arm wrapped protectively round its test paper.

'Devolution doesn't stop at Cardiff Bay. [The assembly] needs to think about what dimensions of each quango could be delivered nationally, regionally and locally.'

Local government, for example, could take on responsibility for the regeneration work currently done

by the Welsh Development Agency, he says.

Another major change on the horizon is the association's transformed relationship with London, which is expected to result in Welsh councils paying their subscriptions to Cardiff while retaining associate membership of the LGA.

The move is in response to the increasing policy divergence between Wales and England since the onset of devolution.

Mr Thomas likens the WLGA to a lapsed member of a gym who has no use for most of the facilities but takes a dip in the pool every now and then.

Severing the link entirely would be 'crass', he says, given that responsibility for a rump of non-devolved matters remains in London.

Indeed, he predicts the relationship between the WLGA and the LGA will be deepened as both sides will have a contractual understanding of what each requires of the other.

Although the decision remains with each council and he cannot guarantee that all councils will choose to pay their subscriptions directly to Cardiff, Mr Thomas predicts the 'vast majority' of them will.

'I don't know of anyone saying any different,' he says. 'But if they do, the system is flexible enough to take that on board.'

One of the most visible differences to emerge between local government in the two countries is attitudes to performance monitoring. The Welsh have eschewed rankings and categories for the Wales Programme for Improvement, which places the responsibility for improvement firmly on councils themselves.

On the surface, WPI may seem to provide a handy get-out clause for struggling councils, as they escape the public castigation of a 'poor' rating. Concerns have also been raised that Welsh councils might fall behind their English counterparts because they avoid the rigours of the comprehensive performance assessment.

Mr Thomas dismisses any suggestion that Welsh councils have beenlet off lightly. He cites the case of Blaenau Gwent CBC, where well-documented difficulties with social services and corporate governance have led to the introduction of an improvement team drawn from the assembly, the WLGA and a number of inspectorates.

'If you take the case of Blaenau Gwent, the risk assessment they did was far more rigorous than anything I've seen from regulators,' he insists.

CPA, in contrast, is an 'abomination', the ranking of councils into arbitrary categories is 'rubbish - angels dancing on the head of a pin'.

'WPI is more sophisticated, it's about changing hearts and minds at the ranch,' he says.

This characteristic candour is one of the main differences between Mr Thomas and his predecessor, Sandy Blair, a contrast that is reflected between Mr Aldridge and the famously media-shy Sir Harry.

'He won't be easily bullied,' says one Welsh leader. 'He's wise enough to listen to people, he likes people to challenge him, but he's very much his own man.'

His frankness also bodes well for the public profile of the WLGA, whose media relations in the past are summed up by Mr Thomas as 'WLGA welcomes sunny day in Cardiff'.

'I am more outspoken than Sandy,' he says.

The gap is also generational. 'Sandy is Shostakovich and I'm The Strokes,' is how Mr Thomas describes it. That is reflected in his passion for modern art and the American cities.

There is mutual admiration between Mr Thomas and Mr Aldridge, as well as a shared history in Wales's traditional industries. While Mr Aldridge is a retired steelworker, Mr Thomas started his career 2,000 feet underground as a miner.

At school he admits to being a 'waste of space' - 'though as a result I'm a very good pool player'.

Mr Thomas says his atypical background gives him a more diverse outlook and a more accurate view of the different experiences people have within Welsh communities.

'I am not an admirer of people who come out of school, become a local government officer and that's all they do for the rest of their lives,' he says.

Looking ahead, Mr Thomas plans to build a 'more inclusive and participative' WLGA, drawing on the full range of Welsh councillors. Part of that translates into the overhaul of the 79-member WLGA council from a scene of dry constitutional discussions to a forum for genuine debate.

His personal target is to trumpet excellence within Welsh local government - 'something we've been bloody rubbish at' - mooting a scheme he describes as 'beacons without the bureaucracy'.

On the way from lunch back to his office, he is stopped for directions, and obliges, in impressive detail.

'But watch out for the clampers, they're bloody everywhere,' he warns.

And then it is back to work, getting to grips with the turmoil that is Welsh local government, a feat that is in itself nothing less than extraordinary.

Steve thomas: A potted CV

-- After a spell as a coal miner Mr Thomas became a 'world expert in cutting size 7 tongues' at a shoe factory, and then the 'world's worst painterand decorator', electrocuting himself as he sanded a roof.

-- At 23, he went to back to college, studying A-levels under now secretary of state for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy, before gaining a first in history and politics at Cardiff University.

-- His career in local government began as a policy officer

at Islwyn BC, overseeing the period of reorganisation that saw four councils merge into the current Caerphilly CBC, where he became head of policy.

-- In 2000 he joined the Welsh Local Government Association as head of corporate affairs, becoming head of strategic policy a year later. He was named the association's director earlier this year.

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