An ongoing theme in the planning reforms of 2004 is a recognition of the place-shaping role that local authorities play in their communities, a role particularly highlighted in the ‘Planning for a Sustainable Future’ white paper.
The white paper envisages a stronger role for local authorities in leading their communities, shaping their areas and bringing communities together. It is also envisaged that there be the increased ability for authorities to innovate and respond to local needs.
However, despite these increased responsibilities, as has been recognised in the recent report by the Audit Commission entitled ‘Seeing the light: Innovation in Local Public Services’ (May 2007), it is clear from Government announcements on public spending that, in most areas within their ambit, local authorities will be expected to deliver against rising expectations within, at most, slow-growing resources.
As part of fulfilling their role as place-shapers in a climate of static resources, one of the challenges for local authorities is to think of ways to work in partnership with other public bodies as well as the private sector. In the face of the increasing expectation of local authorities to deliver an improved service to their communities as effectively and cheaply as possible, how can authorities innovate through partnerships?
A clear example of the difficulties some authorities can face in delivering an improved service to the community while being more efficient is in the context of in-house legal services. In order to cope with the pressure of huge workloads coupled with inadequate staffing resources, authorities are often forced to outsource their legal work to external law firms at a high cost to the local authority.
This has also been exacerbated in recent times by the pressure to improve turnaround times in the completion of Section 106 agreements prepared and negotiated with developers, who are required to enter into obligations with authorities as part of the planning process.
However, a partnership between local authorities that has provided huge benefits is the shared planning legal service with the London Boroughs of Hackney and Hounslow, pioneered by the London Borough of Camden Legal Services’ planning and licensing team (PLT).
Since 2002 the PLT has delivered large elements of the planning legal service to the planning department of the London Borough of Hackney, undertaking the majority of its legal agreements under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (including all major applications), planning inquiries and planning enforcement cases. Whereas previously Hackney outsourced its planning legal work to external firms, the work is now carried out by both its in-house legal team and the PLT.
This flexible inter-borough working tailored to local authority needs has proved to be a better and cheaper way of working and has resulted in a huge range of benefits for all three boroughs, including financial benefits, knowledgesharing and pooling of staffing resources. It has also ensured that staff have had the confidence and skills necessary to handle large and complex matters that would normally be outsourced to a firm of external solicitors.
The most obvious of these is the financial benefit to the boroughs. While these arrangements have generated income for Camden, most of the cost is offset by fees recovered for the external boroughs; for example, in 2005-06 PLT reimbursed £198,000 in Section 106 agreement fees for Hackney, which nearly offset the total cost to Hackney of the service.
The consistently high levels of the Planning Delivery Grant (PDG), which the PLT’s clients at both Camden and Hackney receive, also reflect the success of the shared service. A PDG is central government funding for the planning service linked to performance, and in successive years (2004 and 2005) Camden and Hackney received the highest levels from the PDG in the country. A key component is tied to delivery of major development Section 106 agreements within deadlines.
This has meant that the PLT has played a key role in Hackney’s planning department achieving significant improvement in its own service levels. The recent Audit Commission comprehensive performance assessment review formally recognised this improvement with ‘fair’ and ‘improving’ ratings, and this has had practical regenerative benefits for the borough.
However, the rewards have had far broader-reaching benefits than the purely financial. One of the key benefits has included the sharing of knowledge information and experience to facilitate benchmarking and standard approaches, both with planning clients and Hackney and Hounslow’s in-house legal staff.
Overcoming staff issues
A commonly experienced hurdle encountered by some authorities is the ability to recruit and retain experienced staff, with demand for good local government lawyers often greater than the supply. These difficulties have serious implications for some authorities’ ability to provide improved services, particularly while the demand for quality legal services continues to grow.
Therefore, rather than competing with Hackney and Hounslow for finite staffing resources, the service provides access to a quality shared service at a fraction of private practice rates, freeing up in-house resources and ensuring that all three boroughs have access to good-quality solicitors.
As a result the PLT has also been able to build a strong team with a pool of skills, knowledge and resources, which has put it in excellent stead to handle complex redevelopments and has ensured that staff possess the skills necessary to draft and negotiate major and complex developments.
For example, since 2002 the PLT has worked with Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) on the redevelopment of King’s Cross, representing the largest single regeneration opportunity for the borough over the next 15-20 years. Given the scale of the development it was necessary to engage the services of an external firm. However, the PLT developed a unique legal negotiating team to work with DWS in order to settle the Section 106 agreement with the developer and its solicitors. This was an innovative arrangement – usually where local authorities engage private solicitors, the council lawyer role is a watching brief or else is limited to narrow and specific areas.
The two PLT lawyers worked in partnership with DWS, coordinating instructions from internal clients and other stakeholders and drafting large sections of the agreement. Besides its legal expertise, the PLT brought knowledge of council policies and political issues, extensive experience it has gained working on large council section agreements for all three boroughs and good relationships with council officers in service departments.
Breaking new ground
The Dalston Lane proposals are similar to King’s Cross in terms of profile, scale and regeneration potential, creating sustainable development on a derelict brownfield site – approximately 350,000sq ft above the East London Line station within the existing cutting at Dalston Junction, together with an adjoining site, incorporating a transport interchange, along with 550 additional dwellings (many of them affordable) and commercial accommodation.
Hackney’s negotiating team on the Section 106 agreement consisted of planning officers and one PLT solicitor (with no private practice involvement). Two extremely complex multi-party legal agreements had to be negotiated for the separate components of the development within very tight timescales.
The white paper’s aims will only be achieved if local councils grasp the opportunity to think and act differently, influencing and harnessing the capacity of partners. The innovation and development of in-house legal teams by pooling knowledge skills and resources across different authorities is a cost-effective and efficient alternative for authorities, rather than outsourcing legal work to external firms. This is just one way that authorities can seek to change the traditional ways of working to meet the challenges set by central government.
Breellen Warry is a lawyer at the London Borough of Camden. She was assisted by principal lawyer Aidan Brookes