What will 1997 bring? Well, a general election for sure, but it may also bring a Labour government and a whole new set of challenges for beleaguered local authority lawyers.
Certainly, local authority lawyers have had a rough ride of late. Compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) has been presenting a little local difficulty with, for example, local authority lawyers having to re-apply for their jobs.
But it seems that this difficulty has not been enough, and in November 1996 the Department of the Environment (DoE) issued its consultation proposals on professional services and other CCT with the aim of exposing more work to competition. And while the local government associations and others have been lobbying hard to improve the proposals, with the election imminent the Government has been pushing the pace and has said it will lay the relevant statutory orders before Parliament some time this month.
But what effect will the general election have on CCT? If John Major's government is returned a further hardening of the regime is likely. However, Tony Blair and friends would not offer free time travel back to the world pre-CCT.
Labour spokespersons have indicated that the financial belt will remain tight and quality and value-for-money pressures will remain rigorous. And while Labour is committed to abolishing CCT in favour of a statutory duty to secure best value, it has indicated that this will take some time.
No one yet knows just what a best value regime would look like. While this might import concepts of “value management” and “benchmarking”, equally the Law Society's Practice Management Standards Certification Scheme, due to be launched this year, could provide a useful model for local authority lawyers. The current draft scheme (unlike its predecessors) is flexible enough to be used effectively in both public and private sectors.
Relations between central and local government are another issue. Here there is plenty of ground to recover. For example, the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) has described the May 1996 DoE consultation proposals on CCT as representing “a new low point” in this area.
But while one Government minister recently indicated that he respects the integrity of local government people and the indispensable part they play in democracy, at the same time he revived the old Woody Allen quote: “And the lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep.”
Labour talks of “a more grown-up relationship” where local decisions will be left to local decision-makers subject to national standards, the Liberal Democrats want to empower people through local democracy.
But where will all this leave local authority lawyers – arguably the oil in the democratic machine? For local authorities (which need to have statutory authority for all their actions) cannot move too far without a lawyer to light the way. And this is particularly so in these litigious and challenging times.
Nevertheless, the tide has turned in recent years away from local authority lawyers who once ruled the municipal roost. There is a perception that lawyers are too pernickety and cannot see the the wood for the trees.
We have to show forcefully that this is not so: local authority lawyers are multi-skilled operators who can combine a strong strategic vision with depth and breadth of knowledge and experience.
There will be opportunities to improve the legislative framework brought in by whichever government emerges. For example, the White Paper response to the Hunt Report proposes an assessment of “whether a more general power of local competence is practicable and advisable”. Local authority lawyers are in a position to help draft legislation in this and other areas so as to combine loosening ultra vires shackles with proper regard for probity and financial prudence.
So 1997 is set to be a year of change. But whether or not it will be a change for the better will in part depend on how it is tackled and on the visible value local authority lawyers can add for their local authority clients.