Disputes clog council routine

WESTMINSTER City Council's high-profile housing and planning disputes are threatening to undermine the autho rity's routine legal work, a report warns.

Senior lawyers have had their time taken up with "propriety" issues, such as the legal arguments surrounding the controversial designated sales policy on council property.

The City's legal department has been at the forefront of the council's argument with district auditor John Magill, who last year declared the policy illegal. The council argues its actions were cleared by counsel.

Another costly problem is the attempt to reclaim £7 million in outstanding charges from leaseholders on council property. Westminster was forced to seek advice on what its options would be if the recovery bid failed.

A third problem is the additional opinion sought on the legal position of planning decisions made on properties around Baker Street. Michael Barnes QC was consulted after a councillor suggested they may have been unlawful.

The strains on legal head Colin Wilson's department were outlined in a detailed report to the authority's financial management and personnel sub-committee last week.

It said: "There have been considerable demands on senior legal resources to provide advice in respect of a number of major propriety issues which have arisen during the course of the year.

"If this demand continues the level of senior legal resources available will need to be kept under review to ensure that normal services to departments and committees are not adversely affected."

The report also details how the department's staffing level has dropped from 76 in the 1993-94 financial year to 45 this year. Yet expenditure tripled over a 12-month period to nearly £220,000 in the year to April.

However, the report said the council is meeting its performance targets for legal services contracts and that the department will benefit from a new Quality Project Team aimed at boosting support services.

Cyril Dixon