Stephen McNamara: Bristol City Council

Bristol City Council head of legal Stephen McNamara is a staunch defender of his city and his council. Jon Parker reports

Working for Bristol City Council is never going to make his fortune, says head of legal and democratic services Stephen McNamara, but he knows which side his bread is buttered.

“We don’t earn six-figure sums, but we enjoy a high quality of life,” he says. “My people work eight or nine hours a day serving an organisation whose only purpose is to make the city better, followed by a walk home in the sunshine.

“We’d rather do that than work 12 or 14 hours at Machismo & Machismo’s London offices, followed by a very slow dance round the M25 in a very fast car.”

Like most Bristolians, McNamara is matter-of-factly proud of the city he lives in. He says it is not a love of money that keeps good lawyers there, “it’s a love of Bristol”.

The city is the business hub of the South West, as well as being the region’s cultural capital, boasting two major universities and a wealth of arts, architecture and heritage for its 400,000-odd inhabitants to feel good about.

In charge of a team of 41 lawyers, McNamara tries to do as much work in-house as possible, and is scornful of big-name firms for offering bad value and for their macho long-hours culture.

And he is quick to head off the counter-attack made by the likes of Machismo & Machismo. “The council is a complex monster,” he says, “which struggles against the burden of all the inevitable prejudices – incompetence, bureaucracy, ineptitude and laziness. But, actually, the main inhibitor to efficiency is an awkward item known as democracy – a complication that few private firms need consider.”

Instead of spending on external firms, McNamara says, the council handles all but the most specialist work in-house, from straightforward prosecutions through to child protection, planning work, conveyancing, anti-social behaviour orders and contracts.

“We have 9,000 open cases,” he says, “some of which are simple or of low value, while some go to the House of Lords [and] others are worth over £100m.”

Under McNamara himself, the team is led by three principals: Geraldine Gee in charge of litigation; Nancy Rollason in charge of corporate and community, including social security, education and contracts; and a third, currently vacant, handling commercial and environment – the council has property interests in 40 per cent of Bristol.

The city also works with neighbouring local authorities Bath & North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire on transport issues, and was a designated ‘pathfinder’ city, chosen by the Government to experiment with the Building Schools for the Future project – a rare occasion when the team used outside help, opting for regional giant Bevan Brittan.

Burges Salmon and Veale Wasbrough, both South West firms, have been used for property and projects, and Stephenson Harwood was used in the sale of the city’s 49 per cent stake in Bristol Airport to Ferrovial in December 1997.

Although two-fisted in his defence of his team and of the council, McNamara admits that “a large political organisation can be very testing”.

“We have dedicated councillors who came into politics to make a difference,” he says. “They have vision, they know what they want to achieve and they’re in a hurry to get the good things done. But legislation runs right through everything we do, like the gristle in meat. We all have to chew our way through it and it takes time.”

McNamara says that the situation requires “a kind of hyper-diplomacy”, and that the council’s solicitors have to perfect a difficult balance between challenging their clients and simply issuing instructions.

“It’s important that our councillors make their own decisions based on advice, rather than putting their name to decisions effectively made for them,” he explains.

But frustrating as the process is, McNamara says the commitment of the organisation and the talent and dedication of good staff means that “when things finally get done, they get done properly”.

“Our successes are huge, tangible outcomes that are worth celebrating,” he says. “Ten years ago our harbour area was a rusting row of boat sheds. Now it’s a £500m development of houses, shops, museums, galleries, cinemas, restaurants and bars.

“Little do the locals know as they sip their Long Island Iced Teas that the whole development was built on a solid foundation of council red tape. They should invent a cocktail for us – the Faceless Bureaucrat – in honour of a good job well done.”

Stephen McNamara
Head of legal and democratic services
Bristol City Council

Organisation Bristol City Council
Sector Local government
Turnover £800m
External legal spend Up to £500,000
Employees 20,000
Legal capability 70 fee-earners, 41 solicitors
Head of legal and democratic services Stephen McNamara
Reporting to Director of central support services Carew Reynell
Main law firms Bevan Brittan, Burges Salmon, Veale Wasbrough
Stephen McNamara’s CV Education: 1976 – studied Philosophy at London University; 1981-83 – CPE and Finals at Trent Polytechnic
Work history: 1983 – joined Walsall legal aid firm Geffens as a trainee; 1985 – promoted to solicitor; 1988 – joined Nottinghamshire County Council as a solicitor; 1992 – promoted to senior solicitor; 1996 – joined Bristol City Council as principal solicitor; 1998 – appointed head of legal and democratic services