Peterborough City Council’s decison to slash its panel to only one firm is keeping the legal team busy – as is its crackdown on yob culture.

In many ways, Peterborough City Council can be seen as a microcosm of central government. The council shares an obsession with IT and e-government and it is doing its best to squeeze as much benefit as possible from the private sector. What’s more, it has had to dispense with a maverick Tory councillor and spends a great deal of its time trying to deal with ‘yob culture’.

In 1998, Peterborough City Council became a unitary authority combining the functions of district council and county council. This means that the legal team does a great deal more work in education and social services than previously. The council now runs the whole spectrum of local authority services, including education, social services, highways and trading standards.

Legal head Mark Hynes has been a council man since leaving Eversheds in 1992, four years after qualifying. He worked for six years at Warwickshire County Council as the planning officer before moving to Peterborough as head of legal in 2001.

The past fortnight, which saw the sacking of council leader Neville Sanders, has highlighted the problems associated with working in a politically charged environment, although Hynes says that this was in evidence from day one. “We’re a political organisation and we have 57 members who need their egos stroked. When I first stepped foot in a council chambers meeting it was almost like going into the House of Commons at its worst,” says Hynes.

Former Conservative council leader Sanders sparked a constitutional crisis when he decided to label the Irish “lazy bastards” in an Irish newspaper, adding that Northern Ireland “could f??? off and run its own affairs”.

It was a new situation for Hynes and for everybody involved. Sanders was the first leader to be suspended by the Conservative party and the Standards Board of England and Wales is investigating the allegations of misconduct. Hynes was closely involved with dismissing Sanders from the council, making sure that the council’s constitution was followed to the letter. “It’s a distraction,” understates Hynes. A new leader, Ben Franklin, has now been appointed, hopefully bringing an end to a sorry episode.

But it is not from the Tory party that Hynes gains inspiration. Peterborough’s legal head displays a New Labour-esque zeal for IT and quality standards. “The Government has established e-government targets. By 2005, all functions capable of electronic delivery must be delivered electronically,” says Hynes, who has secured external funding to the tune of £100,000, all of which is ear marked for IT systems.

Hynes is also proud that the team has gained the Law Society’s practice management quality standard Lexcel accreditation, in addition to ISO 9001 and Investors in People accreditations.

The legal team operates as an autonomous business unit within the authority. “In the same way as private practitioners have targets for their fee-earners, we do exactly the same for our in-house clients at the council,” says Hynes.

The legal department is split into two teams. A barrister heads the social services, employment and commercial team. As the employer of around 5,500 staff including teachers, social workers, bus drivers, bin men, librarians and more, employment is a big issue for the team.

The environment, housing and litigation team deals with trading standards cases, planning permission and public protection prosecution. One of the priorities of the team is to handle anti-social behaviour orders (ABOs). “It seems that Peterborough is blighted, like many other cities, by a yob culture,” says Hynes.

One of the council’s main corporate priorities is to seek as many ABOs as possible. They are a stepping stone on the way to criminal prosecution aimed primarily at school children. They may ban offenders from the city centre or dictate who they associate with to regulate behaviour. “We have more problems than most councils with them being defended,” says Hynes, which keeps the team busy trying to gather evidence from people, who are often intimidated.

Hynes says: “The biggest thing we’re involved with currently is the externalisation of our corporate services.” This affects around 500 staff in the corporate services department, which includes property, HR, IT and finance and accountancy. Hynes is being assisted by Nabarro Nathanson on the multimillion pound project.

This is the first time that Hynes has worked with Nabarros, after the firm won a beauty contest for the work. But that was just the precursor to the mother of all beauty contests – as revealed in The Lawyer last week, Hynes is seeking one firm to cover all his legal needs. “I have decided that we need to rationalise [our law firms]. I think we can get a better deal for the authority if we have one preferred partner,” says Hynes.

The council instructs a number of firms at present, including Nabarros, Eversheds, Trowers & Hamlins and a number of local Peterborough firms. Hynes is now near the end of the partnering tender process and will announce the identity of the council’s legal partner in early August. “We’ve got a huge amount of work that we need the expertise of a large public sector player for,” says Hynes.

Other projects include the large-scale voluntary transfer of 11,000 council houses to private ownership, which Trowers & Hamlins is assisting with, a £70m education PFI and the eight-year regeneration of Peterborough city centre. “You’re not going to get a niche practice doing this. We need a large practice with credibility,” states Hynes.

“You almost take as a given the expertise they bring. It’s the softer benefits, such as the opportunities for reciprocal secondments and the developing of precedents for our IT systems, which can bring benefits for both sides,” he adds.

Hynes will be no pushover as a client. As monitoring officer, he forms a third of the local government Holy Trinity, which also includes the chief executive and the section 151 officer (or treasurer). The council cannot fire any member of the Holy Trinity, with only Secretary of State John Prescott able to wield the axe.

The monitoring officer is the council’s watchdog, ensuring that no dodgy dealings take place. The statutory protection means that the monitoring officer can not be intimidated by council members. “It’s basically a policeman’s role,” says Hynes. “The monitoring officer is the custodian of the constitution and the shining white knight.” He may be the shining white knight, but he is about to become the grim reaper for most of the firms on his legal panel.
Mark Hynes
Head of Legal
Peterborough City Council
Organisation: Peterborough City Council
Sector: Public sector
Employees: Approximately 5,500
Legal capability: 40
Annual legal spend: £1.8m
Solicitor to the council and monitoring officer: Mark Hynes
Reporting to: Chief executive Gillian Beasley
Main law firms: Eversheds, Nabarro Nathanson and Trowers & Hamlins