Mirza Ahmed: Birmingham City Council

Mirza Ahmed leads the charge at the UK’s largest local authority, Birmingham City Council. By Jon Parker

Heading the legal team at the largest local authority in the UK takes a lot of confidence. Fortunately, Birmingham City Council’s Mirza Ahmed has plenty.

“We’ve succeeded, so the idea of challenges is relative,” he says.

Field marshal of an in-house army that rivals that of a middle-sized firm, Ahmed commands 80 lawyers plus another 50 fee-earners. The team is split into five divisions: adults and children, led by Jane Robson; democratic services, led by non-lawyer Margaret Yates; litigation, the largest with 90 staff, headed by David Tatlow; public law and property, headed by John Wynn; and support services, headed by non-lawyers Nirdesh Sandhu and Graham Pitman. The team has around 9,000 open cases and an external spend of £2-£5m a year.

Following a panel review concluded in July 2004, the council retains 21 firms, split into 14 sub-groups: adults’ services, children’s services, civil litigation, criminal litigation, employment, education, housing, highways, leisure, licensing, major property development, PFI, planning and general public law.

Heavyweights such as DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary (education, highways, major property development and PFI), Eversheds (PFI) and Hammonds (housing, leisure, general public law and major property development) sit alongside regional players such as Wragge & Co (housing, leisure and gambling and general public law) and local firms such as Anthony Collins Solicitors (children’s services) and Challinors Lyon Clark (civil litigation and criminal litigation).

As well as hourly rates and transactional costs, Ahmed says firms are assessed on the basis of experience and reputation, as well as by marks of “internal quality”, such as ISO 9001, Lexcel and Investors in People certificates – all of which the team itself possesses.

But with a team as large as his, Ahmed says he spends very little time handling legal issues. “At my level you have enough lawyers to get on with the legal work, so mine is more of a strategic role. I’m involved in corporate governance, and dealing directly with the elected members,” he says.

As well as advising councillors on the legal practicalities of governance, Ahmed’s role as monitoring officer also includes advising on other legal matters.

“In terms of ethical governance, at the end of the day we’re all public servants and must act appropriately, and part of my role is to make sure that [the councillors] comply with their responsibilities,” he says.

Further to this end, Ahmed sits on the Standards Board for England, a non-governmental body that deals with complaints against councillors for breaches of the national Code of Conduct for members.

The lion’s share of the city’s 9,000-odd cases a year falls into 10 case types, equating to around £8m of the city’s £9m internal legal budget. Top of the list are care orders, public law and property and housing claims, followed by employment tribunals, deed selection and personal injury claims, with general litigation, planning and injunctions at the lower end.

Next year heralds only “more of the same”, says Ahmed, although he adds that the city is “getting a lot of good press and that’s encouraging investment”.

Investment has led to projects that will be underway in the coming months, including the Eastside Joint Venture, the city centre’s largest joint venture agreement to date, which includes the creation of a technology area, a ’learning and leisure space’ and a city park. The project is expected to create 3,000 jobs.

Other projects include agreements with the National Exhibition Centre and MGM Mirage to build a regional casino; the establishment of a ’business improvement district’ covering the Broad Street area; the regeneration of 1.8 hectares of land close to the Bull Ring shopping centre; and the replacement of a £90m repair and maintenance contract for one half of the city’s housing estate.

For the longer term, Ahmed says the city has to ensure that this investment is not focused on the city centre at the expense of the suburbs.

“We want what’s best for the city, not just its centre,” he concludes.

Mirza Ahmed
Head of Legal
Birmingham City Council

Organisation Birmingham City Council
Sector Local government
Turnover £3bn
Employees 56,000
Legal capability 80 lawyers, 50 fee-earners
External legal spend £2m-£5m
Chief legal officer and monitoring officer Mirza Ahmed
Reporting to Chief executive Stephen Hughes
Main law firms Anthony Collins Solicitors, Bond Pearce, Browne Jacobson, Dickinson Dees, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Eversheds, Hammonds, Martineau Johnson, Mills & Reeve, Pinsent Masons, Trowers & Hamlins, Wragge & Co
Mirza Ahmed’s CV Education: 1980-83 – gained joint honours law and politics at Keele University; 1984 – called to the bar, Gray’s Inn; 1990-92 – gained MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University; 1996-98 – gained LLM at the University of Leicester Work history: 1985 – became assistant solicitor, Ipswich Borough Council; 1989 – became principal solicitor at Bolton Metropolitan council; 1993 – promoted to head of legal services at Bolton; 1998 – promoted to head of assistant director in charge of the legal department at Bolton; 2000 – joined Birmingham City Council as chief legal officer and monitoring officer