Internal affairs

Lynne Curry looks at the structural changes in local government and finds out where they leave the lawyers

On 1 April 1996 Ivor Davies, a local government lawyer for 33 years and head of legal services in one of the biggest counties in the country, will lose his job. So will the other 35 solicitors and legal executives who handle legal affairs for the county of Humberside.

Humberside, along with Avon and Cleveland, will have been in existence for just over 20 years before it ceases to exist. In its place will be four unitary authorities which replace not only the county council but also the nine district councils within its boundaries.

Although Hull will be based on the current Hull City Council, and North East Lincolnshire on Grimsby, the other two unitary authorities are amalgams of several districts, and none of them exist yet. They do not know how many lawyers they will need to cover their new responsibilities, so none of Davies's staff knows where they will be in mid-1996.

“At the moment there is no clarity at all,” Davies says, “and no indication from the existing districts that they will want to take on extra legal staff. It is doubtful that they will have the budgets to take on all my staff.”

In many parts of the country, local government lawyers are living with this uncertainty after the Local Government Commission made its penultimate recommendations in December. Five counties – Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire and Derbyshire – are still awaiting the final pronouncement, but are not expected to change from the current system of county and district councils.

Eight county councils, however, will disappear and their legal sections will disband if John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, approves the recommendations.

Parliamentary approval has to be gained in each case to abolish Avon, Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cleveland, Dorset, Hereford and Worcestershire and Humberside. This month the fates of Cleveland and Humberside were sealed.

Although three quarters of the 30 million people who live in the counties will see no change, several cities and towns are to be given control of all their affairs. These include York, Stoke-on-Trent, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, South-end, Brighton and Hove, Portsmouth, Southampton, Torbay and Plymouth. Their need for legal advice to cover their new functions – schools, social services, police, fire brigades, libraries, waste disposal and consumer protection – will increase.

But no-one can actually predict whether the end result of some authorities needing more lawyers and others needing less will be a higher total of in-house lawyers in local authorities.

The conundrum is compounded by the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering from October this year (authorities which have been reorganised have been given an 18-month extension).

News of reorganisation has split lawyers into two camps. Those in councils given more powers are looking forward to a high-octane life. Those in disappearing authorities face inevitable disruption. Rules governing the transfer of staff are likely to be produced by the Government, but there will be unavoidable duplication of skills in some areas. For example, while county councils have had exclusive control of childcare and education, both tiers have dealt with planning.

The changes are likely to be most straightforward where a larger authority has absorbed its district councils. This is the case in the Isle of Wight, where the new unitary authority – the first, beginning in April – is based on the county council. The legal staff from Medina and South Wight district councils will transfer.

Peter Nicholls, head of legal services in Leicester, which is to be a unitary council, is among the optimistic who predict that at the end of the shake-up, there will be more jobs in local authorities. He expects to recruit extra staff from Leicestershire County Council, which will continue to run the rest of the county but lose its biggest centre of population and the major call on its legal services (as well as the towns and villages which will revert to the old county of Oakham).

“We want to make sure we provide improved services from day one so we'll have to expand legal support,” Nicholls says. “My own view is that the public sector legal market is large and growing. I think for people interested in working for local authorities, the future holds lots of opportunities as long as they are prepared to be flexible.”