Gifty Edila: The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Kensington and Chelsea may be one of London’s richest boroughs, but its legal director still has plenty of social issues to wrestle with. By Joanne Harris

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (K&C) is one of London’s wealthiest areas. Home to the rich and famous, it also includes popular tourist attractions such as South Kensington’s museums, Harrods and the Notting Hill Carnival.

But like urban areas across the country, the borough also has pockets of deprivation and social problems. The task of K&C’s director of legal and administration Gifty Edila is to juggle the needs of its ordinary residents with large-scale initiatives designed to keep pulling the visitors in.

K&C has a legal staff of 48 working in three principal areas of law: land law is the biggest, closely followed by litigation, with common law issues including education and employment completing the roster of work.

Edila commands a legal budget of around £4.5m, and reports to the council’s Cabinet member for corporate services.

Originally called to the bar, Edila joined K&C in 2001 after 13 years at East London borough Newham. During her time there she reformed elements of the council workings and, upon moving to K&C, began a similar process of modernisation. That kicked off with a review of the way in which the borough provides legal services. Edila then reorganised her team, giving people who had previously just been lawyers management roles. She also began encouraging the use of external solicitors in addition to the instruction of counsel.

Traditionally, K&C handled the vast majority of its work in-house, going to leading counsel for inquiries, large-scale planning work and other, more complicated issues. Silks commonly instructed include Land-mark Chambers’ Russell Harris QC and Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC, as well as Richard Clayton QC of 39 Essex Street.

The council has also instructed a number of firms for smaller issues, including local government specialist Sharpe Pritchard and Knightsbridge firm Pemberton Greenish. The latter has dealt with issues surrounding the small garden squares that fill the streets of K&C.

Recently, however, the borough’s planning team has been involved on much bigger projects requiring more legal support. The headline deal is the redevelopment of Exhibition Road. As Edila explains, the aim is to turn it into a Continental-style boulevard.

Traditionally, the borough would have simply recruited more staff to manage the project, but, says Edila, this would be squeezing the seams. So she persuaded the council that it was more efficient in the long run to turn to external advisers. Berwin Leighton Paisner picked up the mandate for Exhibition Road. DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and Herbert Smith are also currently engaged on K&C projects: the former has picked up the mandate for the redevelopment of Holland Park School, while the latter is advising on the development of Ellesmere, a new residential home.

“Going to external solicitors for those three projects is a new thing here,” says Edila, “but I’d say that about 80 per cent of work remains in-house.”

There is plenty of work to be done. The planning team is kept busy with public inquiry work over new developments – for example over the proposed development of a power station in Lots Road.

Then there is the introduction of the new Licensing Act. Initially, all premises looking to apply for licences under the act were supposed to have submitted applications to be processed by 6 August 2005. However, Edila says that only a quarter of the 1,200 premises eligible in the borough have done so. It is creating a summer holiday headache for her department.

“That’s proving to be quite a challenge for local authorities,” she says. She thought similar challenges would be posed by the Freedom of Information Act when that came into force in January, but in the event most of the work was created by journalists enquiring about issues such as food safety enforcement in some of the borough’s more exclusive restaurants.

The social services litigation team, meanwhile, is kept busy with routine enforcement work – housing, debt collection and so on. General litigation tends to be quieter, although Edila is currently trying to negotiate a satisfactory end to a dispute between residents in Earl’s Court and London Underground following improvement works to Earl’s Court Station.

“We’re trying to mediate between the two parties,” she explains. “That’s proving to be a little difficult.”

Edila is in the midst of final preparations for this year’s Notting Hill Carnival. But, she says, there is much less legal work involved in ‘Europe’s biggest street party’ now than when she joined K&C four years ago.

In 2001 the carnival was besieged by adverse publicity following murders during the festival in 2000, and organisation was harder than ever. The borough itself is not one of the organisers but nevertheless has a key role in granting permission for road closures, licensing and so on.

“The leader of the council was bending over backwards to salvage the carnival,” Edila insists. “Over the last two years, legal services’ role has become more routine enforcement.” Routine or not, Edila and her team will ensure that the show must go on.
Gifty Edila
Director of legal and administration
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Organisation The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Sector Local government
Premium capacity £4.5m
Legal capability 48
Director of legal and administration Gifty Edila
Reporting to Cabinet member for corporate services David Campion
Barristers Russell Harris QC, Christopher Lockhart-Mummery QC (both Landmark Chambers), Richard Clayton QC (39 Essex Street).