Cambridgeshire legal team latest authority to eye ABS spin-off

The legal team at Cambridgeshire County Council is considering setting up an ABS vehicle in a bid to cut the council’s legal expenditure.

The team, which merged its legal function with Northamptonshire County Council’s in 2010 (26 April 2010), has already prepared its ABS application as the council faces a reported £37m in budget cuts. 

However Cambridgeshire’s director of law Quentin Baker said the council is holding fire on submitting the application following a meeting with public sector chiefs and the SRA two weeks ago (25 March 2014).

The meeting was held to discuss the the processing of local authority ABS applications after councils complained that the process had been slow and bureaucratic.

“We’re effectively being judged like any other business, it’s like they’re trying to licence a bank,” said one source.

Buckinghamshire County Council (BCC) head of legal Anne Davies and Harrow’s director of legal governance Hugh Peart are understood to have been among those to have called for the meeting.

BCC applied for the licence in December, after announcing a collaboration with the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority (2 January 2014). The move mirrors that of London Boroughs’ Barnet and Harrow, which merged their legal teams in 2012 (5 April 2012) and together became the first local authority to apply for an ABS conversion (20 November 2013).

Other authorities considering the move include Kent County Council and the London Borough of Lambeth (18 March 2013), the latter of which is considering two ABSs – a ‘safe’ one that is tied to the borough – safe because the team can be awarded contracts without a procurement process –  and another which is entirely separate from the authority.

The rapid privatisation of public sector services has also contributed to the rise in ABS applications. 

“A local government lawyer should be able to advise staff working in the local library, but if those staff are employed by a private company they can’t,” explains one public sector legal chief. “The only way to advise [due to regulatory rules] is to set up an ABS licence or apply to the SRA for an exemption [for restricted legal activities].”

Read more in this week’s feature: Local authority law: Public enterprise