The Brent Housing Partnership (BHP) was set up in October 2002 as an arms-length management organisation (AMLO) to oversee council properties in the Brent area. The company is wholly owned by Brent Council, but runs as a separate organisation and today has more than 13,000 properties in its stable.
In August, Ashish Vyas took on the task of overseeing all of the housing partnership’s legal matters following a seven-year spell as a litigation lawyer.
“I think, after focussing on litigation for so long, I got slightly jaded,” says an honest Vyas, who was the principal litigation lawyer for fellow local authority the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham.
“While I enjoyed my time there, I became frustrated at the lack of variety of the casework,” he explains. “Litigation work for a local authority can be rather routine and repetitive by its very nature.”
And so, when Samantha Werder, the former sole in-house lawyer at BHP left in April to return to her native Australia, Vyas “jumped at the chance” to take her place.
After three months on the job, Vyas has no regrets. “One moment I can find myself dealing with public liability issues and the next I’m looking at some unusual information requests under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Vyas admits the partnership’s legal capability – of just himself – relies heavily on a healthy annual legal budget of £500,000 to procure outside assistance. As such, only certain legal work, such as matters relating to the Freedom of Information Act and adhering to public authority guidelines, are catered for in-house, while larger scale matters, such as litigation, are always outsourced.
But while Vyas may be a one-man band, he uses this to his advantage. With BHP wholly owned by Brent Council, he has the ability to outsource a substantial amount of work to the council’s separate 12-lawyer legal services team, including matters ranging from acquisitions to conveyancing, possession litigation and debt recovery matters.
“Brent Council is BHP’s first choice for any litigation,” Vyas explains. “We use it for all the usual run-of-the-mill local authority-type litigation,” he adds, citing dilapidation cases and possession matters as typical work passed onto the Brent Council team.
“The bulk of our legal expenditure actually ends up with Brent Council,” admits Vyas, who explains that the legal services team charges BHP an hourly rate that is “a lot lower” than that of private practice firms.
When the matter is out of the scope of the Brent Council legal team, Vyas uses DLA Piper, which has had a longstanding relationship with BHP and is also the only external firm that BHP works with.
Vyas typically sends Anthony Collins all contractual or property-related litigations and the firm is currently involved in an ongoing litigation case for the partnership which stemmed from Freedom of Information issues.
Litigations and enquiries aside, what Vyas is most excited about is the Housing Green Paper that was published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in July. The green paper is essentially a plan to ensure the construction of three million homes across the country by 2020 and the introduction of a new funding scheme called the Housing and Planning Delivery Grant.
BHP is one of 10 councils that were given the green light to bid to build homes under the delivery grant. “This plan is a huge thing – it involves bidding for projects, acquiring land, awarding contracts, looking at titles,” Vyas explains. “I think the scope here is unlimited and it will definitely put pressure on our existing legal structure.”
Although Vyas has no plans to conduct any formal reviews of his legal function, or even establish a formal panel of law firms, he does not rule out the possibility of expanding the department. “Of course, with the amount of work that will be coming through, it would be more cost effective to keep as much as we can in-house.”
Work generated through the green paper is already beginning to stream in. “The Green Paper has already outlined what we have to do and the next phase involves acquisitions of land. I can already foresee planning and development issues arising,” says Vyas.
This next phase also involves securing partnerships with other authorities and, in some cases, private entities to carry out and oversee projects.
“This concept of partnering to make acquisitions and embarking on projects is completely new,” explains Vyas, adding that the first of BHP’s partnerships is with the London Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, which is also operated under an AMLO model and shares the same managing director, Helen Evans.
With legal matters related to partnerships, land acquisitions and property development all about to fall upon Vyas’s shoulders, he says these are exciting times.
“I’m looking forward to being involved in the entire process – from consultation to completion,” he says. “I want to be part of anything that has a commercial edge. If I’m able to deal with it, I will.”
Name: Ashish Vyas
Brent Housing Partnership
Head of project services/head of standards and procurement Mick Buttle
External legal spend:
Main law firms:
Anthony Collins and the legal services team at Brent Council
Ashish Vyas’s CV
Education: LLB (Hons) University of Westminster; LPC, De Montfort University
1996-98: Trainee, Srikanth & Co
1998-2000: Assistant solicitor, Chase Roberts
2000-07: Acting principal litigation lawyer, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham
August 2007-present: In-house solicitor, Brent Housing Partnership