As councils look to implement changes and cut costs or raise new income, legal departments are going to have to be on top of our game to ensure that the council acts properly. This is the ideal time to show some leadership and enhance our reputations, writes Susan Tovey
I was originally going to write about leadership in times of change only. This was prompted by the very ambitious Coalition proposals and regular letters from the CLG during the government's early weeks about forthcoming changes. However it soon became apparent that the austere time in which we find ourselves is of equal relevance.
Local government is used to changes when there is a new government of a different political persuasion. However I do not think any of us can remember a government that had indicated so many changes in such a short space of time as the present one. The Coalition document in itself is ambitious but one look at the structural reform plans of the CLG and other departments is evidence, if any was needed, of the desire for major change to be carried out relatively quickly. Add to this the regular letters from the CLG about issues as wide ranging as the planning regime, liquor licensing review and streamlining temporary road closures for street parties and we can be left in no doubt that we are in for an interesting time.
There is also the abolition of bodies such as the Audit Commission and Standards for England along with, in the latter case, the present standards regime.
Coupled with all these proposals for change is what is being increasingly referred to as a period of austerity. We only have to look at our own budgetary circumstances. There cannot be any of us who has not had to look in detail at the functions we perform and what would happen if we ceased to do so or did so at a lower standard or reduced level.
Authorities will all find themselves in different positions. Some will be having to make swingeing cuts and will be considering large staff reductions and reaching agreement with neighbouring authorities for carrying out some of their functions; this includes the legal service in some cases. Some will be at the other end of the spectrum where savings can be made without large scale staff reductions but with reductions in services nevertheless. There will be a range of variations in between.
As well as making cuts or savings, authorities will be looking at how they can increase their income. This will go beyond the usual raising of fees and charges. Officers and members will be coming up with various ideas, some more wacky and outlandish than others.
Where does the lawyer fit into all of this? What can we do to enhance our role?
There has been a trend in recent times for the lawyers to be the last to know when things are happening. How often have we found ourselves in the position where towards the end of the project someone has thought "Oh well, I suppose we ought to get legal to check this through" only to find there is no power and what is being proposed cannot be done as planned.
No one wants to be told that had they consulted us first we could have advised them on how they could have achieved the same outcome within the same timescale but in a different way. As councils look to implement changes and cut costs or raise new income we are going to have to be on top of what is happening, and our game, to ensure that the Council acts properly. This is the ideal time to show some leadership and enhance our reputations.
Looking ahead the only certainty is that local government is going to change, and change radically, in the next few years. We are going to see more shared service arrangements and more working with other public service organisations, not only to make more efficient use of scarce resources but also to give more resilience. This is probably much more the case at district council level where we will often have only one lawyer in certain areas of work.
The one thing these have in common is the need to ensure that sharing services, raising income and all other initiatives are undertaken with the right structures in place and, most importantly, with the right legal powers. The Section 2 [of the Local Government Act 2000] well being powers may not be used as extensively as they could be but they are not the panacea many officers believe them to be. For one thing they cannot be used as the primary power to raise money. Whether the general power of competence that seems likely to be coming our way will enable this is not yet known but, somehow, I doubt it.
We need to be fully aware and understand the implications of the Localism Bill in order to brief our management teams on the provisions and what they will mean to our individual authorities and start the thought process going as to what our authorities need to be doing to get themselves into position to take advantage of new powers we may be given.
Not only this, but we need to be thinking about shared services and what our authorities may be needing to do. Do we want to outsource and therefore go through a tendering process or "go into partnership" with one or more authorities with the attendant issues of TUPE etc. Whatever route is chosen it is not quick and groundwork is needed to enable whatever process is chosen to proceed smoothly.
There are other dimensions to these issues. I see these as the political environment in which we work, those who use council services and, last but not least, our staff. We all work in a political environment and, in whatever direction we find ourselves and the council moving, we cannot lose sight of this. Councillors will be concerned at the difficulties facing them over balancing budgets over the next few years and the effect this will have on service users. There may also be concerns about what could be seen as 'loss of sovereignty' if the shared services agenda pushes on apace.
We are already seeing councils saying that they will have to cut services in order to make ends meet. Some of these are services delivered to the most vulnerable in our society. Are there other ways that the savings can be made or the services provided?
Senior lawyers all manage staff and we will be concerned about their futures in whatever brave new world we find ourselves. All have embraced the public service ethos and many have worked for years in this area and built up considerable expertise in their fields. We have to ensure that this ethos and experience is not lost.
These are undoubtedly challenging times. This is our chance to show that we are not the stick in the mud local government lawyer of popular imagination who is out to stop innovation happening, but the person who can ensure that the changes happen smoothly and lawfully and, where appropriate, take the lead.
Susan Tovey is the president of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) and the Head of Legal Services at Test Valley Borough Council.