Richard Mellor: Richmond upon Thames Council

The borough may be genteel and green, but PFI, planning, pubs and planes keep Richmond upon Thames Council’s legal team pretty active, says Jon Parker

Richmond upon Thames Borough Council’s head of legal Richard Mellor is the first to admit that his “is not your typical London borough”. Not many, for example, have a budget allocation for the protection of deer.

Environmental issues are a significant issue for the council’s legal team. The borough not only includes Richmond Park, but also an above-average number of period buildings, an abundance of other green space and a scenic stretch of the Thames.

As Mellor diplomatically puts it, the borough has an “ongoing debate with the Greater London Authority (GLA) about planning, [in which] we don’t always agree”. Richmond has resisted pressure from the GLA to allow housing developments it considers unsuitable. And, while “redevelopment doesn’t happen very often”, Mellor says, “when it does happen, it’s usually very controversial”.

Schools admissions are another important issue for the legal team. Richmond is a “long, thin borough”, as Mellor puts it, and most of its schools sit near the borders of other boroughs, with a large number of children being admitted from outside. The team is kept busy providing advice to schools and handling a steady stream of admission and exclusion appeals. Separately, it is working with the Department for Education and Skills to secure £20m of funding for the rebuilding of one of its secondary schools.

Some of the borough’s primary schools were built as part of a 25-year PFI with the now-defunct Jarvis. “Luckily, we’d finished the construction stage,” Mellor comments.

Despite the Jarvis experience, Mellor says that PFI remains a good option, arguing that such initiatives are an essential means of obtaining funding for capital investments. The council plans to use PFI to finance the building of both a new secondary school in the coming months and the borough’s first school sixth-form, with further education having taken place until now at the tertiary college.

Mellor’s team is also kept busy with litigation over night flights to the nearby Heathrow Airport. “We keep a close eye on what the Department of Transport tries to impose,” Mellor says.

Another key area is enforcement. Despite its genteel reputation, Richmond has the mixed blessing of a higher-than-average number of pubs, creating a significant challenge in terms of both licensing applications and drink-related crime. Twickenham Rugby Stadium also lies within its borders.

The introduction of 24-hour drinking last year heightened the challenge, with a deluge of late-licence applications, plus seven appeals. The team is also involved in underage drinking prosecutions and advises the borough’s Asbo panel.

It is not just young people who present legal challenges. Richmond also has a large elderly population. The council is legally appointed as ‘receiver’ to those in need of care who have no relative or friend to support them. As a result, the legal team is engaged in a number of disputes as to whether it is the health trust or the local authority that should pay for care. The issue has been complicated by the Government’s recent restructuring of health trusts and primary care trusts.

After the Freedom of Information Act became law last year, the council received 222 requests for information, including one from a man who wanted to know the number of reported UFO sightings in the borough (none, since you ask). Like all authorities, the council is entitled to refuse requests expected to cost more than £450 worth of hours to process. Nevertheless, Mellor says, there are still abuses of the service in the form of persistent requests around a theme.

The borough cannot afford to waste money despite its affluent image. Indeed, Mellor is at pains to highlight that the legal team is by no means lavishly funded. Hackney’s legal spend, for instance, is exactly double Richmond’s £1.5m, while Kensington & Chelsea spends £4.5m and Lambeth £5m.

In fact, Mellor observes, Richmond has by far the lowest government funding per head among the London boroughs, and 50 per cent of its spending comes directly from council tax.

Mellor says the in-house option is always used if it represents better value, while external firms are employed according to the size of the project. “You never know what’s going to happen in this job,” Mellor says. “Which is one of the reasons I love it,” he adds.

This unpredictability means the balance of in-house and external spending shifts dramatically from year to year. During the 2004-05 financial year, the council spent £1.3m on in-house expertise and £175,000 on external advice. In other years, Mellor says, “this has been very, very different”.

The team uses a range of firms. CMS Cameron McKenna is used for disputes over care homes, while both Devonshires and Project Partnerships have assisted on PFI projects. It has used Landmark Chambers for planning disputes and it turns to specialist Cambridge-based “one-man band” Richard Buxton for environmental work.

The extensive chain of command and numerous departments to be consulted mean that communication is a particular challenge for firms not used to working for local authorities. Mellor singles out Sharpe Pritchard by contrast, which the council is using for adjudication and litigation and which he praises for its “strong local authority focus”.

Organisation: Richmond upon Thames Borough Council
Sector: Local government
Turnover: £190m
Legal spend: £1.5m
Employees: 4,800 (including teachers)
Legal capability: 12 lawyers, 18 support staff
Head of legal services: Richard Mellor
Reporting to: Director of finance and corporate services Mark Maidment
External lawyers: Berwin Leighton Paisner, CMS Cameron McKenna, Devonshires, 11 King’s Bench Walk, Landmark Chambers, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, Richard Buxton, Sharpe Pritchard, The Projects Partnership
Richard Mellor
Head of legal services
Richmond upon Thames Borough Council