Lambeth lawyers gear up for Big Society revolution

Legal department reacts to cuts head-on with mutualisation plans

Labour-controlled London Borough of Lambeth is embracing the coalition Government’s ’Big Society’ agenda by localising public services as local government spending is slashed in half over the next four years.

Lambeth is to publish consultation findings on how it can adopt a “mixed-market approach to service delivery”, according to a recent council white paper. The scheme, known as the ’cooperative council’, would involve ­alternative organisational models, such as the ­mutualised arrangement preferred by John Lewis and neighbourhood management ventures.

“The implications of the cuts are still working their way through the system,” said Lambeth legal and democratic services director Mark Hynes. “With the ’cooperative council’ there’ll be a lot of initiatives that require legal input, even if it’s [just] ­governance arrangements around legal structures.”

In addition to the ­proposals for alternative organisational structures, the legal team has identified 4,000 potential clients in the third sector that it wants to target as part of a revenue-raising exercise and is in discussion with Southwark and Lewisham to share services.

“The aspiration is to try to open up the services we [currently] provide to the council to the wider community,” said Hynes. “We’re more in tune with their business than the high street firms. [But] we accept there may be some issues around Law Society rules, insurance, conflicts of interest and state aid, so nothing’s simple.”

Matt Leach, associate director at the Conservative-leaning think tank ResPublica, was supportive. “Models that locate ownership ­within the community are going to play a big part in how ­services develop as the Big Society moves from being a narrative to becoming a reality,” he said. “Historically people saw lawyers as agents of state protection and ­control. They sought to ­protect the state against the threats of review and [against] people challenging maladministration.

“Over time we’ll see [lawyers] having to think differently about what their job role is and how they can make things happen as opposed to focusing on managing risk.”

However, one senior head of legal told The Lawyer: “[It’s] another costly ­gimmick, I fear. The only benefits would be if it saved money.”