Focus: Unitary authorities: No county for old men

The launch of nine new unitary authorities has put the cosy world of the council lawyer on a collision course with the new, super-sized legal teams

When the nine new unitary authorities were launched last month, hundreds of lawyers were thrust together in the biggest shake-up of local government for 30 years.

For solicitors in Cheshire, ­Bedfordshire (which, along with ­Wiltshire, has two unitary authorities), Cornwall, Northumberland, Durham, and Shropshire it was a momentous day.

Unitary authorities merge a region’s local authorities into one super-authority. As a result, since 1 April lawyers in these groups have become part of legal practices three or four times larger than they had been the previous day.

For some, who might have spent an entire career working with the same small team, it was a ­daunting prospect.

The move has also caused shockwaves in the private legal sector. Panel places are under threat and lucrative new contracts up for grabs.

Back in local government, change tends to come more slowly. As The Lawyer has revealed over recent weeks, although some councils were well prepared for the transition, ­others have been conspicuously tardy adapting to life under the new regime. Less than two months after the launch date, there is already a marked divide emerging between these two groups.

How the west was run

Cornwall in particular has emerged as a frontrunner among the nine new authorities. Head of legal Richard Williams has been in place since last year and now runs a team of 110 lawyers from six district authorities and the county council.

Inspired by Kent County Council head of legal Geoff Wild, Williams is planning to sell legal services to other public bodies, in effect creating the largest law firm in Cornwall.

“The unitary authority switch has given us the opportunity to look again at how we provide legal services,” Williams says. “It’s a very exciting and challenging time.”

In contrast, Durham Council’s legal team has been left in limbo by the unitary changeover.

It is the only council of the nine not to have appointed a permanent head of legal. Indeed, it has only just begun to advertise for a permanent replacement for interim legal chief Linda Walker, who took up the ­position from her role at Durham County Council. What is clear is that the in-house team is stuck in first gear until the post is filled.

Council bosses rejected Walker’s plan for a Kent-style model, which would have allowed the 30-strong legal team to generate revenue in a similar way to a private sector firm. For now, all of the lawyers remain in their geographically diverse local offices. And as for external legal providers, a panel review is not expected until next year.

Outwardly, then, very little has changed at Durham. According to other senior council lawyers, ­authorities such as Durham have missed a trick.
“Anybody coming into this job without a clear plan of action of when and how is on a hiding to nothing,” argues one head of legal. “They’ve got to hit the ground ­running. The budgets from central government are going to be stringently cut. They are going to have to make do with a lot less. Anybody who isn’t ready is going to flounder.”

It seems that a fair bit of floundering is already going on. One new unitary authority had yet to work out how to transfer telephone calls to the legal department when The Lawyer called last week.

Behind these extremes the remaining authorities, all of which have appointed heads of legal (see box), are gradually adjusting to the new regime. But progress has been painfully slow.

Merger mayhem

Part of the problem is culture shock. This can be a major hurdle when law firms merge, but even more so in the risk-adverse public sector, where lawyers often spend their whole careers at a single council.

Added to this is the traditional enmity between the different branches of local government.

“The county doesn’t trust the ­district and the districts don’t like each other,” says one council lawyer. “It all comes back to the petty ­differences.”

There is also the issue of where the new legal team will be based. Will solicitors stay in their existing offices or move into a single location?

The two new authorities in ­Bedfordshire provide an illustration of how difficult the process can be.

Although the new teams are ­running smoothly – indeed solicitors there say not much has changed in their day-to-day working lives – the county council legal team had to be split in two. Fifteen of the 30 or so county lawyers joined the new Bedford Borough, with the remainder moving to the Central Bedfordshire Authority.

“The county council was a very effective team and they didn’t ­welcome the split. But it was a fact of life – people have been getting on with the job and adjusting to the new arrangements,” says Central Bedfordshire head of legal services John Atkinson.

Despite the difficulties, the majority of council lawyers should ­welcome consolidation.

For one, the efficiency argument is compelling, as Kent’s Geoff Wild argues. “You’ve got to look at the reality of driving out efficiency,” he says. “The only point of doing this is saving money.”

The question is: how can the vital savings be made? Given that the amount of legal work carried out by the in-house teams will not change, job cuts are unlikely.

“The difficult thing with legal work is that it doesn’t reduce just because you have brought people together,” says a lawyer at one ­unitary authority. “Twenty cases is still twenty cases.”

The other option is bringing more work in-house. With larger and more diverse teams, councils should be able to reduce the number of times they are forced to call on ­external law firms. And with larger contracts on offer, it should be ­possible to drive down call-out rates.

The result of this is that the new unitary legal teams are more likely to be hiring than firing.

Central Bedfordshire, for example, is taking on five extra lawyers in the coming months, mostly in ­children’s services.

Atkinson says that recruitment, a perennial problem in the public ­sector, was particularly difficult in the run-up to 1 April. “In the period leading up to the reorganisation it was difficult to appoint lawyers on a permanent basis,” he says. “There are a number of significant posts which have yet to be filled.”

But unification should help attract talented lawyers to councils, as they will be joining larger teams with a greater variety of instructions and a more defined career progression.

Change is going to come

Converting to a unitary authority could be a milestone in the modernisation of local government law, a ­sector that has traditionally been reluctant to embrace change.

But the message from senior in-house lawyers is that you do not have to merge entire organisations to see the benefits of unification.

Take Birmingham City Council’s Mirza Ahmed. He recently threw his external panel open to 17 other authorities in the Midlands in a bid to reduce rates.
And in Lincolnshire, six councils have gone a step further and merged their in-house legal teams.

As Kent’s Wild says: “You can ­create one of these mega-teams ­without going through all the pain of local government restructuring. The model is a winner. The sum of the parts is far greater than the parts themselves.”

The new unitary authority legal chiefs

Cheshire East: Chris Chapman (formerly of Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council)
Cheshire West and Chester: Simon Goacher (formerly of Wirral ­Borough Council)
Bedford Borough: Michael Gough (formerly of Bedfordshire Borough Council)
Central Bedfordshire: Barbara Morris ­(formerly of mid-­Bedfordshire ­District Council)
Cornwall: Richard Williams (formerly of Cornwall County Council)
Northumberland: Peter Watts (formerly of Northumberland County Council)
Durham Council: Linda Walker, interim head ­(formerly of Durham County ­ Council)
Shropshire: Claire Porter (formerly of ­Shropshire County ­Council)
Wiltshire: Ian Gibbons (formerly of Wiltshire County Council)