Govt streamlining plan for councils triggers layoffs

Up to 2,000 local government lawyers’ jobs are in the balance – twice the anticipated number – following a wave of merger bids by county and district councils.

Twenty six applications have been made to merge the two tiers of government, meaning a consolidation of their legal teams and a spate of redundancies.

The applications follow a government white paper that gave county councils until 25 January to apply for unitary status (The Lawyer, 11 December 2006).

However, head of local government Ruth Kelly has restricted the number of county councils that will become unitaries to eight. This will limit the final number of lawyers made redundant, but could lead to a string of judicial reviews instead.

Kent County Council has not applied, but its director of law and governance Geoff Wilde said: “It’s the Government fettering its discretion that gives grounds for judicial review.

“If I was one of those ‘number nine’ authorities that had submitted a decent application but been refused [the right to unitary status], I’d certainly consider it an option.”

In addition to the 26 councils that have applied for unitary status, a further five have applied to be ‘pathfinder’ schemes, seeking to conduct experiments in joint working, decision-making and procurement between district and county tiers.

The Government intends to make its initial selections in late March, after which a 12-week consultation will begin.

Declan O’Dempsey, a barrister at Cloisters Chambers, said: “The criteria make a judicial review claim against exclusion at the first hurdle difficult, but not impossible. Broadly, a challenge will succeed if the exclusion [from the group chosen for unitary status] is irrational or if groups aren’t consulted who should be.”

The purpose of merging is to generate savings via economies of scale and cutting posts. The bids are expected to escalate the rivalry between county and district tiers prior to proposed mergers.