The year in preview

Simon Randall takes a look at what is in store for councils and their legal advisers in 1998 and beyond. Simon Randall is head of Lawrence Graham's local government services department.

This year promises to bring some fundamental changes to local councils, their activities and their scope to act. These changes will to be on a scale not seen for many years.

The principal reason lies in the change of government. The past 25 years or so has seen a steady erosion of the powers and responsibilities of local government. This has given rise to widespread suspicion, cynicism and lack of respect towards councils.

The new government, while insisting on the principle that local people receive competent and cost-effective services, has opened up the possibility of full partnership between national and local government, using voluntary and community groups and the private sector at local level.

Councils, as the only local bodies with democratic authority, should be able to regain the respect of the local electorate and recover their rightful status and public support.

The advent of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will demand radical restructuring of local authorities. In addition, the emergence of the Regional Development Agencies will see a burgeoning of bodies which will demand legal services.

The Regional Development Agencies Bill anticipates changes that are destined to reshape the nature and functions of local authorities, which means that council lawyers have a busy and challenging few years to come.

At present the Government is in 'listening mode' and it should respond to the ideas and strategies put forward by legal experts serving the needs of local authorities. In fact, it is essential that this two-way exchange should take place and the lines of communication remain open while fundamental changes are being planned and implemented.

The changes promised should give local authorities greater power and freedom to act on behalf of local communities. The power of community initiatives cannot be underestimated the key to future success will lie in the quality of the partnerships built up between councils and other business and developmental bodies.

These partnerships will involve a wide range of parties, the key players being the local councils as co-ordinators, plus individuals and communities and a variety of interested groups private, charitable or otherwise. Councils will be empowered to achieve a number of major developments that up to now have been restricted by legislative issues. These could change with local authorities being given a power of general competence. The Government is also encouraging consumers to have a greater involvement in council operations, particularly in the areas of housing, education and caring for the elderly.

As far as local authority housing is concerned, the most pressing need is to reverse the years of under-investment by refurbishing and regenerating the stock. This can be partially achieved using government grants and the recent housing capital receipts initiative which has released cash for housing improvements. But a significant impact will only be made by using private finance. At present the means to allow housing to develop in this way are restricted by the definition of the term 'public expenditure'. With clarification and development of this concept will come the scope for many new and important methods of regeneration.

Currently, the only way in which local authorities can access private finance to improve the housing stock is by transferring such housing to a third party, usually a registered social landlord, where the council has only a minor say in any decision making.

Many in local government think that councils will retain control over much of their housing stocks by creating a new public sector borrowing requirement-friendly entity that will allow them to borrow and thus fulfil redevelopment plans for the 21st century without stock transfer.

Whatever happens, housing work will increase significantly over the coming months and years. Property developments of all kinds will feature strongly with the emphasis on urban, inner-city or town centre regeneration. Regeneration initiatives will have an impact on existing and planned housing, shopping and leisure developments.

Councils have become increasingly skilled in attracting funds from the National Lottery to fund public sector activities. Schemes of this kind cover a wide range of cultural and leisure activities, as well as government-inspired education schemes. Here again there will be opportunities for the legal profession.

Finally, we cannot overlook the private finance initiative (PFI). This will affect schools, social services and many other areas with the coming year seeing a broad range of schemes being put in place. PFI is here to stay, and the Government's recent move to broaden its scope and encourage its development will in turn affect local authorities and the fast-growing number of legal experts that serve their needs.